Tradition gets a timesaving tweak

For family Thanksgiving dinners, Aunt Betty always roasted the turkey and made the gravy. Aunt Helen made cranberry sauce. Aunts Nadine and Marian made pumpkin and apple pies.

For decades, my mother's specialty for big potluck dinners - on both sides of the family - was her cloverleaf rolls with pecans gooed to the bottoms with brown sugar and butter.

Every Thanksgiving morning, my sister and I were awakened by the smell of warm yeast. We'd find our aproned mother in the kitchen with her hair in rollers. She would be standing over a big Tupperware bowl of smooth dough, ready to form the blob into nice neat rolls.

With oiled hands, she'd pluck off a chunk and work it into a smooth ball. She'd deftly pinch off a perfect quarter-sized ball, working her left thumb and forefinger down, pushing from below with her other hand. She'd nestle it into a bed of pecans, butter, and brown sugar in the cup of a muffin tin, leaving room for two more little balls.

Her swift and effortless plucking, squeezing, pinching soon had filled all the sections of four tins. While the four dozen rolls rose for half an hour or so, Mom had time to fix up the kitchen ... and herself.

Mom timed the baking so that when the rollers had been removed and her hairdo fixed, the rolls were done. She'd quickly brush the tops of the warm rolls with melted butter and invert the pans onto waxed paper. The bottoms of the rolls faced up with their candied pecans melted in. Then she carefully arranged the hot rolls in the large oval roaster with the domed lid, and wrapped the roaster in a blanket for insulation, securing the blanket with a big safety pin.

We'd drive down four miles of gravel roads to our church in town, where the Neal clan held their dinners in those days. We always arrived promptly at noon.

Dad would carry in the treasured roaster, which resembled an overbundled infant, and was met by enthusiastic relatives: "Oh, here are Aunt Doris's rolls. Now we can eat."

There were two in the clan who preferred their rolls plain - Grandpa Neal and my sister, Gloria. So Mom also made one pan of plain cloverleaf rolls.

After many years of this routine, Mom got it into her head that everyone was probably getting tired of her same old rolls, so she made all plain ones. Certain members of the family were unhappy over this turn of events.

When Cousin Bill, a sturdy college- educated farmer and cattleman, found out there were no pecan-bottom rolls, someone overheard him say, "I'm gonna have to have a little talk with Aunt Doris."

But we realized that spending every Thanksgiving morning standing in the kitchen was a lot to ask of a snowy-haired octogenarian. So one year Bill's sister Jacque said she'd be glad to bring the rolls. I tried making them another Thanksgiving. But both were an anemic version of my mother's.

Last year, however, when her only grandson was coming from out of state for Thanksgiving, Mom wanted to make the rolls herself and came up with a brilliant timesaving idea: Use frozen bread dough instead of starting from scratch.

The rolls turned out just great, pleasing everyone. And even I can turn out caramel-pecan cloverleaf rolls that taste just like Mom's. Now she doesn't have to do all that work unless she wants to; we can have our traditional rolls, which are still greeted with enthusiasm.

Doris Neal's Caramel-Pecan Cloverleaf Rolls

1 pound frozen bread dough
36 pecan halves
1/4 to 1/2 cup light brown sugar, divided
1/4 to 1/3 cup butter, divided

Thaw frozen bread dough according to package directions. Lightly oil a large bowl and put thawed dough in it, turning so all sides are oiled. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. Let dough rise until double in size (1 to 3 hours).

Punch dough down. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with shortening or spray with cooking spray. For each roll, place 3 pecan halves - rounded sides down - in bottom of each muffin cup. Add a heaping kitchen teaspoon of brown sugar (not a measuring teaspoon) and a pat of butter. (The more sugar and butter you use, the more caramel will form.)

Cut or pinch the dough into 3 dozen equal pieces. With hands, form smooth-topped balls the size of quarters and tuck 3 into each muffin cup in a cloverleaf pattern. Let rise again, about 30 minutes.

Bake at 400 degrees F. for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the tops are golden.

Remove from oven and brush tops with melted butter, if desired. Invert muffin pan onto waxed paper. Wait 1 to 2 minutes before removing pan. (This allows all the caramel sauce to trickle down the sides.)

Makes 1 dozen rolls.

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