Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
Cinnamon rolls are a Bercher family tradition. It all started with my great grandmother, Frances Bercher. Born Frances Schuster in Germany, she immigrated to America with her family in 1908 when she was 13 years old. Eventually, she married my great-grandfather and settled down with other German immigrants in Arkansas, where most of our family still lives today. I never knew Grandma Bercher, but she was a legend in our family and in the town. She was famous for her cinnamon rolls, but even more famous for her welcoming, generous spirit.
A devoted Catholic, she baked trays and trays of cinnamon rolls for parish functions. Sugar was rationed during the Depression before Word War II, but that didn’t stop her. She and Papa Bercher tended a vegetable garden in their yard and people would bring their sugar to trade for home grown produce so she could continue baking for the community.
My mother has memories of going to Grandma Bercher’s house for kaffeeklatsch, where the women of the family would bring their children and gather for kaffee (coffee) and klatsch (a bit of gossip). The large dining table was completely covered with trays of cinnamon rolls, baked in every pan she owned.
Grandma Bercher was a pinch and dash cook who never measured her ingredients, so no one in the family could ever seem to recreate the magic of her baking. Everyone always said it was Grandma Bercher’s loving spirit that made the cinnamon rolls taste so good.
I was born 10 years after she passed away, but my mom carried on the cinnamon roll tradition. My mom didn’t bake cinnamon rolls at home, though. Instead, we picked them up from the local German bakery. We always had cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, a ritual I continue with my family today.
I’ve taken Grandma Bercher’s cinnamon rolls recipe and made it my own. The technique is the same; mostly it’s just a couple of ingredients that have changed. I use real butter while she would have used shortening, plus I’ve added vanilla and nutmeg, which probably would have been a luxury during her time. Whenever I bake these cinnamon rolls I’m reminded of her legacy. I think of her kind, generous spirit and find comfort in the thought that her best qualities are in me too.
Makes 12 rolls
For the dough
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon whole milk
1/2 cup water
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
2 teaspoons (or 1/4 ounce pack) active dry yeast
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (soft)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil for greasing