When I was growing up, a swirly nutty bread would show up on the table at family gatherings. Unfortunately, I generally ignored the bread in favor of colorful Christmas cookies and frosting-slathered brownies. It wasn’t until the final year or so of my grandmother making this labor-intensive bread, and I was an adult, that I gave it a second look (or taste). And, wow, I immediately loved it and regretted not gorging on it every year as a child. About the time I really grew to love Grandma’s Nut Bread, the annual making of the rolls became too difficult for her. Grandma is 88 now and doing OK, but baking can be a chore for her. The past couple Christmases came and went without nut bread to enjoy until this year when the ghosts of culinary Christmas past caught up with my Mom and she decided to resurrect the tradition. She went to my grandmother (her Mom) and got a copy of the original hand-written recipe.
A little background, my hometown of Middletown was once a patchwork of ethnic enclaves: Catholic Irish around the mid-town area, Italians on the south side, Eastern Europeans staked out some turf in between, and so on. The recent immigrants brought their own culinary traditions with them. In many cases the recipes have long outlasted the ethnic enclaves as the lines began to blur in Middletown and the the city morphed into one relatively homogeneous melting pot. This nut bread recipe came from an Italian woman who was a friend of my grandma, who is also of Italian descent. The recipe came into our family in 1966 and my great-grandmother and grandmother made it every Christmas for almost 40 years
Food traditions bind us like few others to past generations. Mom swears she could hear her grandmother talking to her as she kneaded the dough. And I found myself amazingly comforted to be able to once again enjoy this annual treat (although I found myself horrified that Rachel and I plowed through almost an entire loaf in one night)
Give this recipe a try if you are adventuresome and feel free to cut it in half unless you want 11-15 loaves of nut bread! Meanwhile, are there any culinary traditions in your family that it just wouldn’t be Christmas unless they were on your menu?
GRANDMA’S NUT BREAD
12 cups flour
1 quart milk
6 eggs (2 whole eggs and four yolks)
2 teaspoons salt
1 /2 pound butter
2 cups brown sugar
3 packets of fast-rising powdered yeast; or 3 cakes of yeast
1 teaspoon vanilla
Place flour in a large mixing bowl, add salt. Dissolve sugar in 1 cup warm milk, mix into flour and mix well. Melt butter into a little milk and mix with flour mixture and blend thoroughly. Add powdered yeast to mixture (OR dissolve cake yeast in a little warm milk and add to mixture -DO NOT DO BOTH!). Add yeast and slightly beaten eggs and remaining milk and vanilla. Knead well for about 15 minutes! Sprinkle flour around dough and place in a pan to raise until double in bulk. Divide into eight balls.
Filling for the nut rolls:
6 pounds of English walnuts
1 pound graham crackers
vegetable oil or melted shortening
About 3 cups milk
3 1 /2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg whites
Grind nuts and graham crackers, until about the consistency of sand. Add about 2 cups of warm milk, add sugar, beat egg-whites until stiff Add to nut mixture and stir well. Add vanilla extract. Add remaining milk and mix well. Roll out dough and brush oil lightly on rolled dough. Spread with nut mixture. Roll like a jelly roll. Bake on cookie sheets in a moderate oven (300-350 depending on the oven) until the outside of the loaves are golden brown.