I never had the opportunity to meet my Grandmother Irene. She died before I was born, fighting a cancer that eventually took her life. She was a strong woman, raising my mother and her two sons on a farm in small town America. There are a few anecdotes my mother likes to share with my sister and me, both humorous and sad, so we can hope to know her too, if only in a small way.
Though I never had the chance to meet my grandmother, I feel as if I have gotten to know her most through her cooking. Over the years, my mother has shared her recipes with me, whether it was a meal she served on our dining room table, stories about the food she created, or a recipe card handwritten by her mother. Each recipe, big and small, allows me a small window to see into the person she was.
Her everyday food was simple, but no less delicious because of it. For breakfast, she would serve pancakes with a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar, using a swirl of cream instead of maple syrup to bring in a little decadence. During the long days of summer, she'd serve up peaches and cream, taking advantage of seasonal fruits.
It was the holidays, however, where she showed the true love for her family to the extent she was willing to go with her food. During Christmas, she'd be up to her elbows in holiday treats. My grandfather fell head over heels for her signature honey cookies. For as long as she lived, she made sure he never went a winter without them. On Easter Sunday, she served up these bright orange rolls for a sweet breakfast. My mother tells me they grew to be quite famous around town. After tasting them for myself, it doesn't take much imagination to understand why.
My grandmother's photograph is proudly displayed in the kitchen; a felicitous reminder of where my relationship with the grandmother I never knew began. The picture is slightly faded, in sepia tones, but she's sitting tall, with a humble smile dancing across her lips. My mother looks just like her, from her eyes and her cheeks to her nose; sometimes I wonder if I do too, in a more subtle way.
I never imagined food would become the connection between myself and my heritage. I've learned the past and present can be connected by food and a simple recipe can reveal the heart and soul of its creator. As food was an expression of love for my grandmother, so it has become for me.
Irene's Orange Rolls have a bright, sweet citrus flavor. The dough is reminiscent of a brioche, made with sour cream and butter, and is an absolute dream to work with. The dough is rolled out and filled with a sweet mixture of orange zest and coconut before being rolled back up like little croissants. After coming out of the oven, golden and warm, an orange glaze is poured over top, which soaks deep into the rolls. These little gems keep for several days at room temperature and make for a wonderful breakfast for holidays and weekdays alike.
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Irene's Orange Rolls
Yields 24 rolls
2 teaspoons dry active yeast
1/4 cup barely warm water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
2 3/4 to 3 cups bread flour (all purpose will work)
Dissolve the yeast in the barely warm water and allow to sit about 5 minutes until activated (looks frothy). Stir in sugar, butter, eggs, and sour cream. Gradually add 2 3/4 cups flour, mixing well. If dough appears too sticky, add the remaining 1/4 cup flour. Cover dough with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in a warm place, about 2 hours. Punch down dough and allow to rise a second time until doubled, about 1 hour.
Divide dough in half and, on a lightly floured surface, roll out each half into a 12-inch circle.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 2 oranges (about 2 tablespoons)
3/4 cup sweetened shredded coconut
In a small bowl, rub together the sugar and orange zest with your hands until fragrant. Stir in the sweetened coconut.
Sprinkle 1/2 of the filling on each rolled out dough circle. Using a pizza cutter, cut the circle into 12 equal slices. Starting on the wide end, roll up each slice like a croissant. In a greased 9x13-inch baking pan, lay the rolls pointed end down (3 width-wise, 8 length-wise). Cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.
Alternatively, cover with foil and allow to rise in the refrigerator overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter
In a small saucepan, heat all ingredients on medium-high heat until boiling. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour over rolls as soon as they are out from the oven.
Allow rolls to soak in the glaze and cool before serving.