Cim-ple Memories

My weekday breakfasts are routine.  Besides a cup of coffee I’ll have yogurt and fruit one day, eggs the next.  That’s about it, alternating between one or the other.  Something about this relatively healthy repeat comforts me.  On the weekends, however, we fancy it up.  Maybe homemade waffles or pancakes.  An omelet with whatever leftovers we can find in the frig.  Or even breakfast out, where someone else does the cooking.  And very occasionally, especially on Sundays, I’ll step back to my childhood and bake the earliest breakfast I can remember – homemade cinnamon rolls.

Last week, my son texted to let me know he was making breakfast with his young daughters.  The three of them were putting together eggs, fruit, and rolls to start their Saturday right.  The rolls – the Pillsbury variety where you whack the tube on the counter and separate the rolls onto a cookie sheet – are topped with a distinctive orange icing my son remembers from many of his childhood breakfasts.  Now he’s carrying on the tradition in his own kitchen, which warms my heart.  But I also realized it’s time he joined the succession of family members who still bake our trademark cinnamon rolls.

If you’re hoping I’ll include a recipe at some point in this post – something with secret ingredients to make our cinnamon rolls the best ever – you’re about to be disappointed.  These rolls are as simple as it gets.  Begin with… Bisquick.  Maybe you’re not familiar with this breakfast-in-a-box product from General Mills but it’s still on the shelf.  You just add milk to the mix and voila, you’re making anything from pancakes to biscuits.

Our cinnamon rolls use the Bisquick biscuit recipe with the dough pressed out flat, adding sugar and spice, and then rolled up to be cut and baked in the oven.  The process is designed to crank out the rolls in hurry, as for a family of seven on the clock before Sunday church.

Now here’s where I pay homage to my father.  He steps into the story because he was the one who made the cinnamon rolls, almost every Sunday without fail.  I’d shuffle into the kitchen bleary-eyed from the night before and there’d be my bathrobed, unshaven father, preparing what we affectionately called the “cims”.  As soon as he rolled out the dough, a kid could help the rest of the way.  Sprinkle brown sugar from one end to the other.  Add raisins here and there.  Dust with cinnamon for a final flourish.  Roll up the dough from one side of the board to the other and cut into segments.

Some of my brothers didn’t like raisins so Dad upped his baking game a bit by leaving them out of some of the rolls.  Eventually he even made “jelly rolls”, substituting the sugar and spices with one of our favorite flavors from Smucker’s or Knott’s.

Speaking of ingredients, our cinnamon rolls were brand dependent.  Besides the essential Bisquick, the brown sugar came from C&H, the raisins from Sun-Maid, and the milk and butter from a local dairy called “Edgemar Farms“.  Funny how those come back to me like yesterday, yet I never thought much about the names until now.  “Bisquick” is literally “biscuit” + “quick”.  C&H is the “California and Hawaiian Sugar Company”, their product refined from sugar cane (instead of beets).  Their jingle still dances around in my head (“C&H… pure cane sugar… from Hawaii… growing in the sun…”)

The updated “Maid”

Sun-Maid put the spin on “Made”, of course, but I never “made” the connection between the name and the woman in the logo until now.  They’ve updated her image several times over the years the way KFC and Wendy’s updated theirs.

Here’s the real point of this post.  My dad and the family cinnamon roll recipe are forever inseparable.  Even though his sons (and their children, I hope) carry on the tradition, it’ll always be Dad and the rolls.  One is not a memory without the other.  I realize – all these years later – Dad made the rolls to give Mom a break from the countless meals she made the rest of the week.  Honestly, the only memories I have of Dad in the kitchen are mixing drinks, tending to the barbecue, or making the “cims”.

Soon after my son texted, I sent him the cinnamon roll recipe.  I hope he “cim-ply” abides as part of his Sunday morning routine.  I hope he refers to the leftover dough bits as “collywobbles” the way my dad did and his dad did before him.  I hope his daughters mispronounce “cinnamon” as “cimmanin” the way I used to (which maybe inspired the nickname “cims”).  But most importantly, I hope he remembers his Grandpa every time he rolls out the dough, preparing breakfast for the family just to give Grandma a break.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

’tis the Seasonings

When I baked a batch of molasses cookies for Halloween last month, I pulled ground ginger, cinnamon, and cloves off the spice shelf without so much as a glance at the labels. I recognized the spices by their colors and textures. Had I taken two seconds more to peruse the other spices nearby, I would’ve noticed the thin layer of dust on their bottle tops. Yep, my life needs a change of season-ings.

Here’s the count, at least in my kitchen.  On the spice shelf, I have fifty-two bottled or bagged inhabitants.  In the spice drawer (essentially an overflow of the shelf) I have another twenty-six.  No-calculator math brings my total to seventy-eight unique flavorings, yet how many do I use regularly?  Maybe a dozen.  I ask the same of you. How many spices live in your rack/drawer/shelf?  Of those, how many do you use week-in and week-out?

We’re missing out on adventure, you and me.  My recipes are bland enough to demand little more than garlic salt or oregano (on the savory side), and cinnamon or ginger (on the sweet).  I could spice things up if I’d just explore more exotic recipes… or simply brighten the ones I already make.  My mantra should be “Spice is the variety of life” (not the other way around).

For inspiration, I could take a trip to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands.  Once upon a time, nutmeg, cloves and mace could be found only on the Malukus, earning their nickname “The Spice Islands”.  I have this vision of a pungent-smelling tropical oasis of colorful trees, plants, and bushes, everything edible and delicious.  I’m running around sampling this and that like a kid in a candy store.  Kind of like (you remember the scene) the Chocolate Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Spices have tons of trivial facts and here are some of my favorites:

  • Allspice tastes like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves all rolled into one.  Keep that in mind the next time you bake.
  • Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world.  Some varieties ring in at $400 for a few ounces.  Maybe because it takes a hundred hand-harvested flowers to produce a single gram of the spice?
  • If you find a blend called Chinese Five Spice, you can season your food to be sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and pungent all in one shake of the bottle.
  • “Masala” means “spice”… and nothing more.  In other words, be wary of that next dish of chicken masala; the seasoning could be a blend of anything.
  • Spice blends are often associated with countries, as with Harissa (North Africa) and Jerk (Jamaica).  The United States?  Pumpkin pie spice, of course.  We Americans obsess over anything pumpkin spice.
“If You Wannabe My ‘Clove-r’?”

Because the musically inclined want to know, I took this opportunity to read up on The Spice Girls, the British girl group from the 1990s.  I was disappointed to learn the name has nothing at all to do with spices.  Each of the five women took on a nickname to include the word “spice” but only Geri Halliwell’s (“Ginger Spice”) made any reference to a real spice… and that reference was only to her red hair.

[On that note, can anyone explain ANY connection between “ginger” and “red hair”?  My bottle of ground ginger is decidedly yellow…]

Diaspora Co. Spices gift box

Here’s the real crime with my spice shelf.  Almost all occupants are standard brands, like McCormick or Spice Islands, uniformly bottled in identical quantities.  Neither brand is organic (let alone an advertised proponent of fair trade).  Furthermore, their spices are processed and packaged in a factory, while I have zero excuses not to be shopping at a local store like Penzeys.  You only buy as much as you need at spice stores, and you can be assured of fewer steps in the journey from source to you.  Of course, you can also shop spices online at places like Diaspora and Burlap & Barrel.

Speaking of “as much as you need”, I can say with certainty most of my spices are past desired shelf life.  No, they’re not expired; more like “faded”.  They won’t pack as much punch as they did in their prime.  Here’s the rule of thumb with spices: if whole (i.e., cloves) best used for 2-3 years; if ground (i.e., cinnamon) best for 1-2.

If I took a poll of “favorite spice” I’d get a different answer every time (including a few men who’d choose a Spice Girl).  My favorite spice?  Red pepper flakes.  I use them liberally in a lot of dishes, including pasta and soups.  I describe them as a convenient after-thought, a final flourish as I’m about to sit down at the table.  Fire on top of my food.

Maybe if I invested in one of these spinning countertop racks, the mere visibility of so many options would spice up my life.  I’d be more in line with Simon & Garfunkel’s “… parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme”.  But if I’m limited to a shelf (and a drawer) my spices are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Just a shake of red pepper flakes and call it good.

Some content sourced from the Relish blog article, “15 Spice Facts You Never Knew”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.