You know when a recipe includes the instruction “stir like the devil” that it’s going to be good.
My grandma (on my mom’s side, Edith’s daughter) baked and sent my family two tea rings every Christmas since I had memories of carols and presents under a tree. We all knew what treat was inside the box addressed with carefully printed letters that arrived on our doorstep every December.
We never dug into the homemade pastry until Christmas morning. We each ate a slice—or several—as we unpacked stockings. I carefully licked my fingers before pulling out a toothbrush, lotto cards and an orange so I wouldn’t smudge my stocking with sticky cinnamon filling.
For me, the soft bread made gooey by butter and baked brown sugar is the taste of the holidays. So when I learned that Grandma wasn’t planning on baking tea ring this year, I knew I had to step up. (Recipe below.)
I’ve made her recipe a few times before. It perfectly fits someone who grew up in the Depression: It requires time (about 36 hours), precise measurements, patience and a lot of elbow grease.
This year, I waited until my mom came up to watch Edie before tackling the tea ring. As I stirred the dough, I thought of my grandma—how she smells of Eucerin lotion, the way her eyes crinkle when she smiles, her love of yoga (she can still do the splits at 86!), the impossibly soft skin on her elbows that I loved to play with.
As the dough rose on the counter, I thought of another time I baked tea ring: We were living in Berkeley, and I left the ring to rise for its required two hours. When I came back, a quarter of it was missing. Eric hadn’t eaten the raw dough, so we surmised that Finn—barely older than a puppy—had stood on his hind legs, pulled the baking pan toward him and eaten a huge chunk. The poor dog paid for it later that night.
My tea rings turned out delicious. I ended up making a total of four this holiday because we kept eating the one I planned to send to my brother and sister-in-law in Brooklyn. They didn’t have quite the same magic as the ones Grandma sent, but I didn’t hear anyone complain.
Edie was too young to eat tea ring this year, but the doughy pastry will be as central to her future Christmases as tinsel and Bing Crosby. Each time I bake a batch, it will be infused with more family history. When Edie bites into a slice or smears the sugary filling over her chubby cheeks, she’ll be tasting the tradition of four generations.
Makes 2 tea rings
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 packages yeast
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sugar, plus a pinch
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
7 1/2 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar, divided
2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided
- Dissolve yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup water. Stir with a spoon to ensure all yeast is dissolved. Let rise 5-10 minutes.
- In an extra-large bowl, combine remaining 2 c. water, yeast mixture, sugar and salt. Stir.
- Sift together half of the flour, the baking soda, baking powder, and add gradually to the yeast mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon.
- Add the unbeaten egg to the flour-yeast mixture and stir like the devil.
- Add the oil, then gradually add the rest of the flour until the dough gains a good consistency. (It shouldn’t stick to your hands too much, but be careful not to overdo the flour or the dough will be tough.)
- Put a layer of wax paper over the bowl, then a damp kitchen towel, then another layer of wax paper. Secure the “lid” with a rubber band and refrigerate the dough overnight.
- Sprinkle a bit of flour on a large wooden cutting board or counter. Place the dough on the counter and cut it in half; reserve half for later. Let rest for 20 minutes.
- Roll out the dough to a large rectangle. Spread butter over the surface, then sprinkle on 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.
- Roll lengthwise, like a jelly roll. On a greased baking sheet or parchment paper, shape the roll into a ring and join the two ends. Cut slices of the ring almost to the center of the ring every 2 inches or so. Twist each segment slightly to one side so the swirled inside is showing.
- Let rise 2 hours.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, watching carefully so it doesn’t get too brown.
- Brush butter over the top while the ring is still warm. Serve warm or cold.