Sometime around the first of the year, winter comes to stay in northern Minnesota. It stops prancing around the pillow and finally fluffs its duff down on top of us, like a dog taking its sweet time to settle in for the night. The cold casts the world outside in glitter and freezes the spears of wild rice stiff out on the creek behind my house. It immobilizes everything but the compost heap, which becomes a lifeline between my kitchen and the outside world. (The heap’s shrill guardians, the red squirrels, patrol from above as the animal kingdom feasts on my prime leftovers.)
This stillness is winter’s gift to the cook, and one of the reasons I moved back home from New York City: In our house out in the Two Inlets State Forest, the snowdrifts may shape-shift a bit, but few big changes register outside. The kitchen, and the people in it, marks the center of the world, and I find myself with time to plumb the depths of comfort cooking. Every day brings the question: What do I want to make?
At this moment, the bus has left, taking our son, Hank, to school; and my husband, Aaron, has walked across the yard to work in his sculpture studio. The first fire of the morning is dying down in the wood stove in the center of the room, the logs ticking and sinking into their bed of coals. The pop of an exploding ember is the signal I seem to be waiting for. I flip the oven dial to start the oven, not so much caring at which temperature it lands. That roulette swing of the oven knob is a habit left over from many years cooking professionally in Minneapolis and New York; get the thing hot, worry about exact temperature later.
My childhood memories of eating warm baked goods on arctic mornings have stuck with me for years, so I’m baking something to insulate us from the wind, when we do venture out. For this, any brown crust will do. The important thing is to bake it to a strong, deep amber color, the shade of brown that tells me that the butter and flour have mated and that the sweetest parts of both have found each other and caramelized.
For today’s baking project, I settle on morning buns. They’re a new crush for me, a recipe I picked up on a visit to Madison, Wisconsin. I knead the yellow dough until the bonds of gluten begin to engage and hold onto each other, padding the dough with a few extra gobs of butter to ensure a flaky, moist heart. When the soft dough no longer sticks to my hands, I cover it with a towel and set it to rise in the warmest place in the house—the foot of the wood stove.
Morning buns are as rich as a good French brioche, with crusty edges from baking in a muffin cup and a crunchy coating of cinnamon-sugar. Sort of a mash-up of a caramel roll and a sugar-coated doughnut, the morning bun has ruined my previous love for regular old glossy caramel rolls, which I now feel compelled to roll in sparkly sugar, too. When the buns come out, Aaron comes in, hanging his coat for a coffee break.
I decide to take advantage of the already-humming oven and slide in a hotdish for dinner later. We Minnesotans may say a few things wrong (soda instead of pop, OK, fine), but hotdish we get right. Call it a stodgy “casserole” somewhere else. In the upper Midwest, we embrace the heat. A good hotdish is lava-like, more molten than solid, with a brazen, bubbling core that warms you through and through.
No matter which hotdish you make (as with pop music, familiarity means a lot), everyone knows that the love is textural. In my favorite chicken and wild rice hotdish, the meat is juicy, its sauce bound up with taupe pearls of wood-parched wild rice—the real kind, smoky and light, harvested from local lakes. As for the topping, after some misguided fancy pants experimentation, I landed right back in the place my mother stood 30 years ago: the cracker aisle in the grocery store in Park Rapids. Fight any all-natural urges you might have; Ritz, in their familiar red box, make a peerless crust that rides like a crest on every bite and never fails to bring me home, no matter how far I’ve ranged.