Do you have that one recipe that has been handed down for generations? The one on a little frayed and stained index card?
I hail from a line of fantastic cooks. A dash of improvisation and a hearty sprinkling of add-this-till-it-tastes right.
In our family, on my mom’s side, butterhorns are a legacy. Butterhorns are a yeast bread made with white flour and scalded milk and butter, plenty of butter. They are rolled into the classic crescent shape and baked until just touched with gold on the top.
My grandma and I took pictures of ourselves—1200 miles apart—making butterhorns together. I’m in Kentucky, she’s in Colorado, but we’re still sharing this moment.
Over the years, my grandma has made miles and miles of butterhorns for the large family gatherings we had in my grandparents’ Boulder, Colorado kitchen.
Bread is an effort of love and commitment. It isn’t a split-second decision. You dedicate a whole day to bread.
I grew up in Kentucky, but at Christmas sometimes we would drive the 1200 miles to my grandparents’ house. It was two full days in the 1980 Oldsmobile—my parents up front, my teenage brother, sister, and me packed like hormonal sardines in the back.
About the time we were on I-70 in Kansas watching snow blow through the flattened cornfields, Grandma would be softening the yeast in a fourth cup of warm water. When we reached the Colorado state line, the first rise on the dough domed to the top of the bowl. As that first glimpse of Pike’s Peak appeared in the barren flatness of eastern Colorado, she rolled the triangles up into crescents.
The first pan came out of the oven around the time my dad was navigating Denver rush hour. And as we rushed red-faced from the cold and delirious from the long drive into the warmth, she’d put down her pastry brush from brushing a final layer of butter on the rolls.
She would wipe her hands on a dishtowel and hug us all, smelling of Christmas and home so much it hurt.
My mom taught me how to make butterhorns.
Feel the water with your wrist. When it’s just like this, it’s ready to soften the yeast in. Add a pinch of sugar, maybe a little more.
Family recipes are love songs. I can trace my mom’s fine cursive hand noting the ingredients. And before that, Grandma wrote the same instructions for her. A melody passed down for decades, binding all our flour-dusted hands together in love and memory.
It’s my job now to make the butterhorns, for our family gatherings in Kentucky.
In the morning, I soften the yeast in a fourth cup of warm water. I help pour orange juice and cereal and get the kids settled with their cartoons. Then I mix the dough. While the kids are throwing snowballs, I punch down the first rise.
Later, I roll up the dough triangles and think about Pike’s Peak in Colorado rising on the horizon from my childhood trips. I take a break in between crescents to clean up the piles of soaking clothes from the kids’ morning romp in the snow.
Hours later, as I’m brushing on the final layer of butter, the kids come rushing in from outside again. They ask for a roll, piping hot.
Stomp the snow off your boots. Don’t burn your fingers. No, just eat one for now.
And just like that, we’ve linked four generations. From my grandma who is 90 to her great-grandchildren who are 11, tied together with the bond of bread. Bread is life-giving. The bread of life isn’t just a flippant saying.
And it continues.
My daughter stands next to me at the kitchen counter. She holds her delicate pre-teen wrist under the faucet with mine until we find the just-right temperature for the yeast. I teach her to roll the dough, brush it with melted butter.
And when I ask what’s next, she’ll grasp the tattered index card, adding her flour-fingerprints to it and call out, “Next we add a half cup sugar.”
I know already, of course I do. But it’s about teaching. She’s learning the melody, the feel of the dough under her palms when it’s ready.
And we’ll talk about my grandma, whom she calls Grandma Mountain. I’ll tell her stories of the long drive to Colorado and the deep smells of welcome when we got to their Colorado home, anticipating a time of deep family fun.
Someday, I wonder, will my daughter or son pull out the same index card, or maybe a photo of it on their phone, and lay it on a floured countertop? They’ll guide another little wrist to the faucet stream, and lead tiny fingers to the dough, continuing the tradition. Teaching the song of remembering. Passing down the legacy folded invisibly in the bread layers, remembering the stories, adding more. Binding a family together.