Aunt Betty always roasted the turkey and made the gravy. Aunt Helen made cranberry sauce. Aunts Nadine and Marian made pumpkin and apple pies.
For decades my mother’s specialty for big potluck dinners–on both sides of the family–were her cloverleaf rolls with pecans gooed to the bottoms with brown sugar and butter.
Every Thanksgiving morning, Mom’s daughters were awakened by the aroma of warm yeast. We’d find our aproned mother in the kitchen with her hair in rollers and standing over a huge Tupperware bowl of smooth blond dough, ready to form the blob into nice neat rolls.
She’d been up long before Gloria and I rubbed the sleep from our eyes.
With oiled hands, she’d pluck off a chunk and work it into a smooth ball. She’d deftly pinch off a perfect quarter-sized ball, working her left thumb and forefinger down, pushing from below with her other hand. She’d nestle it into the cup of a muffin tin onto a bed of whole pecans, melted butter, and brown sugar–leaving room for two more little balls.
Her swift and effortless plucking, squeezing, pinching soon had filled all the sections in four tins. While the four dozen rolls rose under cotton tea towels for half an hour or so, Mom had time to clean up the kitchen–and herself.
When it was time to bake them, Mom timed it so that when the rollers were out, her hairdo fixed, and she’d finished getting dressed, the rolls were done. She’d quickly brush their light brown tops with melted butter and invert the pans onto waxed paper, the melted-in pecan bottoms facing up. She carefully arranged the hot rolls in the large oval roaster with a domed lid, which she cocooned in a blanket for insulation and secured it with a big safety pin.
We’d drive four miles of gravel to our church in town–Dexter, Iowa–where the Neal clan held their dinners in those days, promptly at noon. Dad would carry in the treasured roaster, which looked like an overstuffed infant, and was met by enthusiastic relatives. “Oh, here are Aunt Doris’s rolls. Now we can eat.”
Actually there were two in the clan who preferred their rolls plain–Grandpa Neal himself and my sister Gloria. So Mom also made one pan of plain cloverleaf rolls.
One year, when she was getting up there in years, Mom got it into her head that everyone was probably getting tired of her same old rolls, so she made them all without the goo and pecans. Word soon got around that she was in trouble for it.
“I’m gotta have to have a little talk with Aunt Doris.” Cousin Bill, a tall sturdy college-educated cattleman, found out there were no pecan-bottom rolls.
But spending every Thanksgiving morning standing in the kitchen was getting to be a job for a snowy-haired woman in her eighties, so Bill’s sister Jacque said she’d be glad to bring the rolls. I even tried making them, but they were certainly an anemic version of my mother’s.
One year, when her only grandchild was coming from out of state for Thanksgiving, Mom came up with a brilliant idea. Frozen bread dough. The rolls turned out just great. Now anyone can turn out Mom’s caramel-pecan cloverleaf rolls with this shortcut.