Edible Traditions: Lost & Found
Millie Goodspeed's Squash Rolls
If you are like me, recapturing a food memory is one of life’s little satisfactions—when you can actually find something from your past and it’s just as good as you remembered it. (Of course, this is not always the way it goes. To wit, I suggest that you do not, as I recently did, mix up a box of Stouffer’s Stove Top Stuffing with high nostalgic expectations. Bouillon-flavored library paste does not fit the bill.) But sometimes, a whiff, a crunch or even a mushy spoonful of just the right thing can unlock that shivery feeling, of a memory of time or place. And while we may not always know when or how the key will work, with the right childhood dish we are transported. It’s a favored subject for literature and film, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Proust to Ratatouille, and many have described the lost and found food effect.
Kicking off this new regular feature, I am pleased to present a recipe for Millie Goodspeed’s Squash Rolls, sold in some form or the other at Mayo’s Duck Farm in Orleans, then at Fancy’s Farm Stand and now, I recently learned, at Peterson’s Market in Yarmouth Port. When I had them as a child, they were endearingly brightly colored yellow balls of dough, sold in aluminum pie plates with a small white piece of paper that served to advertise Millie as the baker. Slightly sweet and tender, they are beloved by everyone who tries them. Their unique vessel reminds me now of Jiffy Pop popcorn, another great childhood treat, with its awesome expanding dome of aluminum. These rolls felt similarly disposable and special, partially because we never had them anywhere else but on the Cape. We always bought them at Fancy’s and so they were in some manner another part of our family’s Cape Cod story. Since they now run second in popularity only to holiday pies at Peterson’s Market, it’s clear others feel the same way.
Back then, the rolls’ bright color and squashy texture delighted and baffled me. Now having learned that “One-Pie Pumpkin” from Maine is the usual secret main ingredient, it feels even more appropriately part of the New England story.
I tried the recipe several times, using fresh and canned squash, and comparing the differing methods of all the bakers I spoke with. This subtle tinkering made a big difference in every batch. The recipe we are printing represents the best effort for now, and it’s delicious all right, but imperfect. Perhaps the hunt will be the true reward.
The noble quest began when my sister hired Meredith Fancy, now a florist, to help with a family event. “Get the roll recipe!” I implored and then took matters into my own hands. Meredith kindly shared the family recipe, passed down in her grandmother’s hand. She, being a close friend of Millie, was evidently a co-conspirator in baking for their families. The instructions, however, included no baking times or directions for rising or proofing the dough at all. (A note on this: It’s very typical for scratch bakers to leave only brief notes. Pastry techniques are formulas at heart and therefore committed to memory, repeated only with variations for flavors. The crumbling recipes of my own great aunt exist in much the same way, with old-fashioned cursive penmanship that is easy to decipher, but directions that are nearly impossible to follow. Usually they begin with something like: “Take the sugar and combine with butter.” Maddening!) Luckily, in this case the recipe is still being made all the time and is fairly straightforward to guess.
Meredith was able to share one satisfyingly personal touch; she believes that Millie hid a piece of butter in every roll. This is the type of thing only an oral history can provide, since real bakers almost never divulge their secrets, many of which are done unconsciously anyway. This touch added both a personal richness to the story and a little added deliciousness to the final product.
After chatting with Meredith, I began both baking and calling the people I found still connected to the rolls and their Cape history. From each of these bakers, a little more of the squash roll story came alive. In their heyday Ken Mayo tells me the bakers were producing 300-400 plates at a time. Shireen Piskura, who bakes for Peterson’s, tells me they bake 500-700 pans for Thanksgiving patrons. And Sherry Barr, whose grandmother worked at Mayo’s, bakes ten pans at a time, rising the dough in her corn pot, to keep up with family demand. Most of these bakers consider the recipe “their” family recipe. Yet, without Millie, the rolls might have remained a family treat, but not a true Cape tradition as they are today. The Mayos don’t share their recipes as a family rule, but Ken’s memories were the closest
I could find of a stalwart New England type of hard worker who had the gift and the work ethic to turn a recipe likely torn from a magazine into a local tradition. I salute Millie as I return to the kitchen once again.
- 1/2 cup pureed steamed butternut squash (or canned One-Pie Pumpkin)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 cup organic milk
- 1 package dried yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup lukewarm water
- 1/4 cup unsalted organic unsalted butter plus 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 10 little bits
- 3-1/2 to 4 cups flour
- 1 aluminum disposable pie plate
- Scald the milk and add the butter, salt and sugar. Stir until everything is melted and set aside to cool. (Hot milk will kill the yeast if added too soon.) Add the squash and stir to combine.
- Place this mixture in the bottom of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook and add the proofed yeast. Turn on the mixer and add the flour, one cup at a time, mixing to just combine, about 3 minutes total. You’ll have soft, slightly sticky dough. Turn out the dough into a buttered bowl, flip it over to coat with butter and cover with a clean cloth.
- Let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours. (The dough will rise quickly due to the high sugar content.)
- When the dough has risen, punch it down and shape into 10 balls, arranging them in the pie plate (1 in the middle, and 9 around). Push a little extra bit of butter into each roll as you shape them, hiding it within. You may have a little extra dough, which can be baked separately.
- Let the balls rise just above the edge of the pan, about 30 minutes. Do not over-rise.
- Preheat oven to 375°F and bake the rolls for 22-25 minutes, until they are browned on top and bottom (be sure to check the bottoms; you can easily flip out the whole shebang to check). You can also poke with a skewer to check that it comes out clean.
- The rolls freeze extremely well.
Do you have a favorite food memory that you need help tracking down? If so, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Food Traditions in the subject line. Please provide as much information as possible, such as where the item was sold, major ingredients as well as the item’s name.
Leslie A. Stone is a cooking teacher, writer and consultant. She is based in Brooklyn, New York, but her heart is on the beach in Brewster, where she has spent a lifetime of summer vacations with her family.