|Cafeteria Lady Yeast Rolls|
I wrote this piece a few years ago as a post on my old blog. I wound up entering it into a writing contest and it won 1st Place, not only garnering me a lovely medal and certificate, but the chance to read an except in front of an audience.
It’s still one of my favorite pieces, because while some may think that Cafeteria Lady is an exaggeration, she really was taking up too much space in Mr. B’s heart. My successful roll making not only toppled her, but was the first step in building my bread confidence. Of course, like most yeast enterprises, that confidence rose and fell on a daily basis. Enjoy!
Here’s a secret: days before I married my husband, I found out he was still in love with the Cafeteria Lady. He loved her even more than the Danish babysitter whom his mother hired to look after him. She was pretty, but she couldn’t make rolls like the Cafeteria Lady who had such a place in his heart that he still has a letter that he wrote to his mother during a first grade penmanship lesson. To quote, the letter says: “Dear Mom. School is fine. Lunch is good.”
He wasn’t talking about spaghetti, or meatloaf, or even his favorite fried chicken. He was writing about those rolls. These rolls would take on such a significant memory for him, that they would become one of the many topics of conversation in our lives and on many occasions, although he never came right out and said so, he inferred that his life would be perfect, if only I could duplicate those rolls.
What followed over the course of the next decade was a parade of rolls that couldn’t even be classified as such, as I, a very competent and fine cook, could not seem to get the gist of bread making. Cooking requires imagination and is less scientific, but baking. specifically, working with yeast, comes down to an exact science and a thorough understanding of abstract terms. How does one judge the meaning of elastic or sticky? How does one really judge if something is double in size? And why stop there when it’s really quite sporting to see just how big a ball of dough can rise? Needless to say, due to an inability to figure out such abstract terms and a skewered sense of fun, my husband never ate a second roll during my experimental years.
I was at ware with a woman I had never met, but she loomed larger in my husband’s heart than anyone he had dated. I had to beat her; somehow, someway, I had to succeed in my roll making. Sad to say, but Cafeteria Lady, who by all accounts had probably been dead for years, had to die a real death in my husband’s mind, and the only way I could do that was to figure out the secret recipe for the rolls.
My quest spanned every sort of medium imaginable: newspapers, church cookbooks, cookbooks, word of mouth, magazines, and the internet. I searched for years until finally, I came across a recipe that enticed me, mostly for its simplicity, but also for its lack of abstract terminology.
So this past Sunday, while the rain came down in buckets, I cranked up the furnace, took out the flour, and decided to take another stab at Cafeteria Lady. I discovered two things as possibilities for past failures: measurement and temperature. Here was a recipe that called for an exact measurement of yeast–not a packet. Next, the recipe called for WARM water. Since I had just read about cooking thermometers and temperature variables, I decided to take the temperature of my water. Surprisingly, what I thought was warm was only 78° and my research had taught me that warm water in bread making meant 110°. After my achievement in getting the water temperature right, I poured it over the yeast.
Five minutes later, I peeked into the bowl to see a violent bubbling and foaming. I added the flour and turned on the mixer. Of course, my husband was all eyes. He followed my every move from the shadows. He had a vested interest in the success of this recipe. If I hit the jackpot, he would have to let the memory of the Cafeteria Lady die. No small feat after carrying a torch for 40 years. So, I said very little and kept my emotions to myself.
I needed somewhere warm to stash the dough. Somewhere to let it double–maybe even triple–in size. Somewhere where my husband wouldn’t look at it every few minutes. I put on my slippers and crept into the basement, pulled open the door to the laundry room and looked lovingly at the old mid-century furnace roaring away, the blue tips of flames steady on the grate. I set the bowl down right under the furnace, on the shelf where nothing lives except a rusty old screwdriver and a vacuum attachment, and possibly, but not worth noting, a family of spiders.
I peeked one last time into the bowl, said a silent prayer to the roll gods, and turned off the light and shut the door. I whiled away the next two hours reading a book, thoroughly convinced that Ken never noticed that I only turned the page twice. Instead of reading, I was deep in my own plotting. I imagined myself the hero of a never ending saga of bread making victories. If I could manage rolls, and not just any rolls, but THE ROLLS, then what could possibly stand between me and the unimaginable–BRIOCHE? I envisioned myself mastering the abstract world of bread making, a thermometer tucked recklessly into my apron pocket (I would have to buy one) and the easy choice for a seat partner at any gathering. Who wouldn’t want to latch onto my success and learn my secrets?
Admittedly, there were also the diabolic imaginings. Cafeteria Lady, in her worn hairnet and stained uniform leered at me, a spatula in her hand and a scowl on her face. Her lips were tightly drawn between two parentheses, her chin loose with age and sparsely covered with thick white whiskers. She had reigned for decades and like a greedy dictator, she wasn’t keen to move on. We battled, the two of us, until finally, without a choice, I pushed her, hairnet and all, into the oven and closed the door. It was unkind; I know. But my husband’s heart was at stake.
At last, the timer buzzed; all that stood between me and victory was the final lap from the basement to the kitchen and 20 minutes in the oven. My heart pounded furiously as I pulled open the door and walked into the laundry room. I could smell the weak odor of bleach and laundry detergent, but rising above that was the unmistakable aroma of yeastiness. Cautiously, I peered into the bowl and then, I simply lost all composure–my little clump of dough had turned into a massive, perfectly formed ball almost the size of a basketball. My screams were lottery screams, deep and throaty and punctuated with peals of laughter. I took the steps two at a time and when I turned into the kitchen, there was my husband, the residue of an afternoon nap on his brow and a look of concern on his face. “What’s wrong?” he demanded, and I realized he was concerned about me. He hadn’t even been thinking about Cafeteria Lady.
“I think I did it,” I said. “The rolls. I think I’ve figured out the secret recipe.” Then I shoved the bowl towards him and like a magician, I pulled away the dish towel to reveal the huge entity that had grown in our very own laundry room. “Look!” I squealed. He smiled and leaned agains the counter as I gently deflated the dough, cut it into squares and rolled it into balls. Carefully, I lined them up in the baking pan, brushed them with butter, and waited while the oven heated. Then, without a word between us, I slid the pan in and shut the door.
How would we make it without peeking? What would we talk about? I though about suggesting a mock funeral for Cafeteria Lady, but that seemed a sure way to curse myself, so I said nothing. Plus, I figured, Ken was going through the breakup in his mind already and I wanted him to have a little privacy for the last few minutes of their relationship. I turned to see the emotional content of his face, but he had already resumed his newspaper and was obscured behind its pages. I studied my slippers and tried to ignore the crazy good smell of the rolls baking away. I was no fool; all of the rolls I had baked smelled good, but in the end, it had been nothing more than a cruel olfactory trick. To know if I had truly won, I would have to wait until the timer sounded. And then, it did.
I bounded to the oven, said a final prayer, and slowly pulled open the door. Violà–the most beautiful rolls ever. I was lost in a moment of reverie when my husband leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Nice buns.” And you know what? They were. And they were even nicer with butter. My husband ate five and as he was licking the the glossy tips of his fingers for any remnants of butter, I asked him about Cafeteria Lady. He looked up at me, his eyes drowsy with love and said, “Who?”