My mom always talks about all the 'new' foods that my dad's family introduced her to after she and my dad married. You know, really exotic things like granny smith apples and biscuits. I don't think my mom had ever had either one before the first time she had dinner with my dad's family, and when I was growing up, I never understood why. Now that I'm cooking Eleanor's recipes, though, I'm starting to get it. Eleanor was not a biscuit type of lady. She was a yankee, and as such, she made rolls, brioche (who knew?) and other light, yeasted, risen baked goods... or at least those are the kinds of recipes she saved.

Before starting this project, I was always nervous about making yeasted baked goods. Rolls, breads, even certain types of muffins made me nervous because mine never seemed to work correctly. Either they wouldn't rise at all (looking at you, every pizza crust I've ever made), or they wouldn't taste right if they did (et tu, challah?). But Eleanor seems to have been a specialist at yeasted breads-- since this brioche is maybe the third recipe that I've made from the box that requires a risen dough.

Why, you may be asking, does this matter? Well, here's why: when I set about doing this project, I was dying to know what kind of a cook Eleanor was. Whether she followed directions or did her own thing in the kitchen, whether she even used recipes or if she just made things up as she went along.

I always kind of thought she just did her own thing-- she was no shrinking violet, and she was highly opinionated, so I figured she would have been just as bossy when it came to cooking. But it's starting not to seem that way. She kept meticulous notes on tweaks she made to her recipes-- noting the dishes she used to make certain things, or the time her oven took to cook something. And when it comes to meticulousness, is there anything more fickle than yeast?

Judson helped with the kneading. Those are not my arms.

Judson helped with the kneading. Those are not my arms.

Making yeast dough requires two things I'm not great at: following directions (just kidding, I'm a total square and great at following directions as long as it's not in the kitchen) and patience (something I am terrible at in all arenas of my life). So maybe the real reason my pizza crusts have always been a bit dense is not due to the foibles of the recipe, but the foibles of the chef. Regardless, on starting this project, I became convinced I would succeed at the recipes, and succeed I (mostly) have.

It turns out, if you just measure out your ingredients in an exact fashion, keep your water as warm as possible without crossing over into 'hot' territory, and set aside enough time for the dough to rise even in your extremely drafty Scottish flat, you can make almost anything. (And when I try to wallow in my self-pity because I live in a drafty flat in Scotland without a 'warm spot' to let my dough rise, I remind myself that Eleanor, too, lived in a house with no air-conditioning, but hers was in central Florida, where the temperature regularly crested 37C/98F before 9am, and so finding a place to get any ingredient down to room temperature would have been just as much of a pain for her.)

So maybe this project is teaching me a couple of things: First of all, Eleanor might have had opinions about everything (remember, she once told my mom I was going to 'grow up spoiled' because my mom was rocking me and singing me a song when I was 6 weeks old), but she knew how to follow directions when the situation warranted it. Secondly, there's not a lot you can't succeed at in the kitchen if you just agree to put aside your smarts, be humble, and follow the directions in the recipe to the letter... or maybe I just got lucky because this is a Better Homes and Gardens recipe from 1978.

The verdict:

5 spoons out of five. Judson literally ate half of the batch of brioche muffins that we made on the night we made them, because he was so in love with the flavour. I cooked them in a muffin tin because the recipe didn't really advise how to cook them, and I wanted wee brioches like the kind I used to buy in Paris. They were rich and buttery, and didn't even need toppings to be good (though no one would judge if you smeared a wee bit of plum butter on there and took it to work for breakfast every morning for a week). Set aside the time to make these the right way and you definitely won't regret it.

The recipe:

Brioche Rolls


Preheat oven to 176C/350F.
Lightly grease a muffin tin.
Dissolve yeast in warm water.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine eggs, butter, and cooking oil.
Add yeast mixture to egg mixture and stir well.
In a large bowl, stir together sugar, salt, and 1 ½ c flour.
Add yeast mixture and beat well.
Stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft, silky dough that doesn't stick to hands.
On a lightly floured surface, knead dough 3-5 minutes or until smooth and elastic.
Grease the bowl with a spritz of cooking spray and put dough in it to rise, turning once to grease all over.
Cover tightly and let rise in warm place for one hour or until double.
Punch down, shape into a ball, and twist off palm-sized pieces.
Roll the pieces into balls gently, and place in muffin tin.

Yields approximately 15 muffins.

the ingredients:

4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
½ c warm water
3 eggs, beaten, at room temperature
1/3 c butter, melted
1/3 c vegetable oil
3 ½-4 ½ c flour, divided
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt