My father, Clarence Thomas, was not a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, nor was he a cook. That job was my mother's, and although my dad could sometimes pull together a pot of chili or toss hamburgers and hot dogs on the charcoal grill, he didn't spend much time in the kitchen - unless he was making his signature nut roll.
My father grew up in a coal-mining town in southern Pennsylvania called Bobtown. He left high school in the 11th grade to join the Navy, and although he was too young for the war, in 1945 he sailed to Japan, where he helped with cleanup after the atomic bomb ended activities in the Pacific Theater.
When he returned from military service, he followed his father's footsteps and went to work in the coal mine, married my mother and proceeded to start a family.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Kathleen Evanoff
This recipe makes six very large nut rolls that can be given as gifts to friends and relatives. Rolls also can be frozen and thawed out later in the event of surprise visitors several days after the holidays.
But, like many young men of that era, he heard news of a better life in northeast Ohio where factory work was available and escape from the dangerous coal mines was possible. After moving here, he worked in the factory every day, came home every evening, and on holidays, the families and extended families all came together to celebrate. At Christmas, everyone knew my dad would bring his signature nut roll. It always got raves from everyone.
My parents died within 10 months of each other, first my father in 1994 and then my mother in 1995. From my mother's belongings, I claimed the old, dented tin that contained her recipes. Some were cut out of magazines, but many were in her own heavily scripted handwriting, the paper now turning brown and crisp. Among the stack was one single sheet of letter-sized paper with a recipe scrawled in pencil in what was obviously a man's rough and irregular handwriting. It was the nut roll recipe.
I never knew where he got the recipe, if someone dictated it to him or if he copied the basic instructions, knowing full well how the thing should go together. Sometimes when I was cleaning a closet, I would come across the tin and look through it before closing the lid and placing it back on the shelf. The recipes moved around from shelf to shelf, and once in a while I would pull one out to bake a cake or look up a pickle brine. But most of the recipes were unused for nearly 15 years. And then a few weeks ago, my brother sent me an e-mail asking if I had Dad's nut roll recipe. I knew I did, and I knew it was in the tin. I told him I would find it and e-mail it back to him.
Flaky Nut Rolls
1 1/2 cups warm milk
1 1/2 block yeast, family size
1/3 cups sugar
Melt yeast in warm milk, add sugar and mix in a medium-sized bowl. Let rise.
7 cups flour
1 pound butter
1 teaspoon salt
12 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the filling)
1 cup sour cream
Mix flour, butter and salt in a large bowl. In the center of the flour mixture, make a well. In the well, add the egg yolks, sour cream and the yeast mixture. Gradually pull the sides of the flour into the wet mixture and work it into a soft dough. It will be sticky. More flour can be added if necessary. I added an additional half-cup.
Grease a large bowl. Put the dough in the bowl and cover with a towel. Put in a warm area of the kitchen to rise for about an hour. It should double in size.
After the first rise, gently push the dough with your hands to work it down and then let it rise again for another hour. While the dough is rising, make the filling.
2 pounds walnuts, finely ground
12 egg whites
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk (or apricot brandy)
Divide filling into six equal portions.
After the second rise, cut the dough into six pieces. Roll each piece into a 1/8 inch thick rectangle. Spread each rectangle with one portion of the filling leaving about a half-inch around the edges. Starting at a narrow end, roll it jelly-roll fashion. Place rolls close together on a greased baking sheet with the raw edge on the bottom and tuck the ends underneath. Three rolls will easily fit on a large baking sheet. Brush the tops of the rolls with beaten egg yolk and, if desired, sprinkle with granulated sugar.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.
Makes 6 large rolls.
At first glance, the recipe was difficult to decipher. Was it two cups brown sugar or two cups regular sugar and a half-cup brown? It looked as though it was written in haste. I could picture my dad writing it down while trying to capture the process from memory.
His method was coarse and to the point: "then mix, then put in bowl, make well in flower (sic) mix good, let rise, work down, let rise, cut in 6 pieces... put close together in pans... make them as long as pan... then spread"
At the end of the recipe, and with no other instruction, it simply says, "BAKE," a final instruction. There was nothing more to be said.
After all this time, I
realized I wanted to make my dad's nut roll. I've made nut roll many times in the past using a recipe from a Polish-American cookbook I've had more than 30 years. I knew I could fill in the blanks and what I couldn't remember I could easily look up on the Internet. I wanted to know what made this nut roll so good that it earned so much praise at our family holidays.
While I made it, I discovered that I wanted to know where the recipe originated. Was it my dad's own concoction after trying out several others? Was it passed to him by his mother or father? Did he get it from a co-worker or church member and pass it off as his own for so many years? I'll never know, and as the recipe unfolded, I wish I had asked him these questions when I had the chance.
As I followed the recipe, I thought how my dad might have done it.
He didn't warm the milk in a microwave, nor did he grind the walnuts in a food processor like I did. Instead, he likely measured the milk into a small saucepan on the stove. I would watch when he ground the walnuts with the hand-cranked, pot-metal contraption that clung to the table with a clamp and toggle screw. The eggs were he used were fresh from my grandparent's small farm. It wasn't difficult for him to find the yeast in block form, but I had to go to two stores. Most yeast sold now comes dried in small envelopes or by bulk in jars for bread machines. For him, the process of making nut rolls was an all-day event.
I had the modern conveniences, so it didn't take me all day, but it did take a good part of an afternoon. The pastry is exactly that, light and flaky as pastry should be. I took liberties with the filling and instead of using milk, I added a half-cup apricot brandy, a trick passed on to me from my husband's grandmother.
I can finally understand why everyone praised it so. It really is moist and good and certainly worth the time and effort. I will make it again. Maybe it will become my tradition now.