Family mythology constructs itself on half-remembered truths, oft repeated until solid, like a memory made backwards from an old photo.
Supposedly my granny read the whole works of Dickens every Christmas, while my mother used to cook for Roald Dahl. One cousin walked the breadth of Africa, barefoot and living on beans; a great-uncle battled through the Amazon in a canoe. Mine comes on a smaller scale: I used to rollerblade and read a book at the same time, once ate seven helpings of lemon pudding.
You get a little older, the more prosaic truth slips out. Although by then, the mythology has become dear, rubbed smooth and comforting. Maybe it was only Dahl’s secretary who once made my mum’s chicken pate for him. (He liked it.) So what? The truth is only sometimes less beautiful, sometimes more intriguing, but it belongs less.
We wrap ourselves up in stories: they insulate us from the wider world, give us a sense of place.
My favourite third-hand story involves a penguin being kidnapped from the zoo, later forgotten in a rucksack. Though the telling of it requires a staunch declaration of veracity, I don’t really want to know one way or the other. The bus and the boy and the soaking wet bag are firmly real to me.
Re-reading my mother’s cookbook and I find more of these backwards memories, food that conjures family supper at our long wooden table. I suspect that they are blurred amalgamations, edited to remove silence and sulks, but that’s okay. The goat’s cheese and pear tartlets that were my speciality; my brother’s “world tour” of tiramisu; our New York lasagna with spinach and sausage, all part of a past that is continually retold, continually changing.
Butterflake rolls were eaten often enough that they just conjure an image of a white tablecloth, set for adults at one end, kids at another. Tarnished silver forks, a big dining room window. The rolls would be hot, served in a wire basket. Each one could be peeled apart, the bread divided into buttery petals. The salad and lamb and pear terrine could easily be forfeited for more of this flavourful, tactile bread.
Later, I would hide under the tablecloth and listen to the grown-ups talk. Betrayed by a stray cat, I would get called Big Ears and kicked out to go play.
(makes 12, which is not very many – from Victoria O’Neill’s Seasonal Secrets)
175ml lukewarm water
250g strong white flour
1 1/4 tsp fast action dried yeast
3/4 tsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tbs powdered milk*
15g softened butter, cut in cubes
50g more butter, melted, for assembly
*If you don’thave powdered milk, you could substitute 50ml of water for fresh milk. It gives it a slight brioche taste, delicious.
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the water – just at body temperature – incorporate gradually with your finger tips. When you have a nice lump of dough, add in the butter.
Turn the dough ball onto a floured surface and knead it for 5 minutes or so. This will work in the butter and give a nice smooth, elastic ball. (To knead: stretch the dough a little, fold in half and press down. Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat.)
Leave the dough in the bowl, clingfilmed, for an hour in a warm place. (Try heating a bowl of water 20 seconds in the microwave, then quickly replace it with the dough bowl. Then you have a warm humid atmostsphere perfect for rising.)
When the dough has doubled in size, gently push it down, tip it out and roll into a rectangle approx 20x25cm. Brush with the 50g melted butter. Cut lengthwise into 5 or 6 long strips. Stack the strips on top of each other and then cut into 10-12 squares.
Put each of stack of squares, cut side up into a greased cupcake tray. Leave to rise again for 20-30 minutes until they have puffed up and fill the cupcake dents. Preheat oven to 200c.
Bake for 15-20 minutes to a crisp golden brown. Serve immediately: with delicious vegetable soup or just more butter and honey.