Nut rolls are a German- or perhaps Austrian or Hungarian delicacy, usually made only at Christmas since the preparation is labor-intensive...dozens of walnuts ground for the filling which is mixed by hand...the five-step mixing of the pastry layer, followed by a first rising, rolling, filling, and a second rising. Only then are the lovely, fat rolls ready for baking. Oh, and did I mention brushing the tops with beaten egg mixed with a bit of sugar, to create a shiny glaze?
I have no idea where the recipe originated...I don't know that anyone does. But in the small, ethnic steel-town where I spent my childhood in Pennsylvania, all of the women baked them at the holidays: Germans, Austrians, Croatians, Serbians, Hungarians...but you get the picture. And I spent many a happy hour with my maternal grandmother, Mom-mom, in the church kitchen where a crew of wonderful German omas baked nut rolls to sell in the community to raise money for their German Lutheran church. How I remember the redolent odors of that kitchen...the women in their print house-dresses and aprons and sensible black shoes...the laughter and cameraderie among them and their kindness to the little blond girl who watched with wide eyes, knowing that she would soon be given a taste of the heavenly pastry.
Is it any wonder, then, that I decided that I needed to learn to make this delicacy? Though both my grandmother and my mother had always baked them, though I had assisted both of them with other baking throughout the years, I had never been part of the "nut roll experience", perhaps because they thought I wouldn't be careful enough, precise enough- and both Mom and Mom-mom were nothing if not perfectionists about their nut rolls, making them precisely the same size, rolling them just so. And so I had come to the advanced age of sixty-nine without acquiring the skill- as skill it indeed is- of preparing nut rolls for Christmas. Hence, the EXTREME Baking enterprise.
On the day after Thanksgiving, I headed north to stay with my Aunt Jean, the nut roll maven in our family. She had done much of the preparation ahead of time: grinding the walnuts, measuring the flour into plastic bags (we were going to bake four triple batches, you see!), acquiring the pounds of butter (did I mention that nut rolls are not lo-cal?), and in general, having all in readiness for the baking. And so, on Friday evening, following Jean's instructions, I mixed up the filling-by hand-in two batches in her huge stainless steel bowl: walnuts, evaporated milk, beaten egg whites, sugar, and honey (yes, both...the honey helps keep the filling moist as well as adding flavor...you see what I mean about the confection not being no-cal). We ended up with pounds and pounds of filling, and after setting out the butter and eggs for the pastry to come to room temperature for the morning, it was off to bed. (Might I add that all of this mixing,etc. followed an eight-hour drive for me and tired was a gross understatement.)
Saturday morning we both slept in a bit and I was downstairs, ready to work, wearing my EXTREME Baking red apron, by 8a.m. A phone call from my cousin informed us that she would be a bit late but that she would surely arrive by nine or so, and in anticipation of that, Jean resumed her instructions, this time talking me step-by-step through the dough-making process. Using her commercial-grade electric mixer, I proceeded to mix four batches of yeast dough, the pungent yeasty odor making the kitchen fragrant and filling my mind with memories of Christmases long-past. The mixing of each batch was followed by hand-kneading to be sure all the flour was well-mixed into the dough, forming that batch into 8 balls and placing them in Jean's large baking pans, covering them with kitchen towel and placing them near the warm over to rise.
By that time, Cheryl had arrived and we set up two pastry board for the rolling, one on the counter and the other on the kitche table. Yes, indeed...this WAS baking in the extreme. Jean showed me how to take one ball of dough and shape it a bit by hand, heavily flour the board, and roll the ball into a rectangle; then spread the filling over the entire surface and carefully, with the flat surface of my fingers, roll the entire thing into a long roll and, wriggling my fingers under it, place it in another of Jean's special pans. Six rolls later, the pan was covered with a cloth and again permitted to rise. Only then were the prepared pans placed in the oven for baking.
Now, I realize I have probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about making nut rolls...but I wanted you to understand the labor-intensity of this endeavor, as well as the deeply special experience it was for me to be doing something the women in my family had done for generations. And after the baking and the cooling, Aunt Jean, placing each roll on a specially-cut cardboard base, wrapped it in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil, and sealed it with a sticker (printed out earlier that week) which indicated "Nut Roll" and the date. (These confections freeze beautifully and last for a long, long time in the freezer, if wrapped correctly.)
Deep breath...sigh, sigh...can I sit down now? Late in the afternoon, my other cousin, Sandy, came over and we all sat down to cups of tea and slices of nut roll...after all, we had to make sure they tasted okay, didn't we? I had been on my feet for nearly seven hours by this time and wasn't sure if I would be able to get up from the chair again...but there they were, on the table in all their golden-brown glory: sixty- yes, you heard me right- SIXTY beautiful, fragrant nut rolls, to be shared with family and friends as gifts this holiday season. EXTREMELY satisfying, I can assure you, and a lovely way to merge holidays past and present in my mind and heart. Thank you, Jean. Thank you, Cheryl. Shall we do it again next year?
|Aunt Jean and her apprentice|