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The Middle Seat

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been a road-trippin’ family. My first plane ride was when I was 18, but thanks to the family car, I had already been to at least 10 states by then. If you’re a fan of the show, you know that my dad was a preacher. But before he found a home church (and sometimes, even after that), he was an Evangelist. That’s someone that travels to different churches to hold what is called a revival.

A revival is where a host church brings in a guest preacher to hold a week’s worth of night services in order to rejuvenate the congregation's excitement for God. It gave regular churchgoers a little something different in their services. My Daddy would also do state conventions, where all the preachers and congregations in the church would meet and have church together. And THEN there was the National convention! That was always held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it was the same idea as state conventions, but held on the national level. Then there was Church Camp for 1 week a year (per kid), Ladies Retreats twice a year, Men's Retreats twice a year, visiting family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and spending at least 1 week a year in Oklahoma with my cousins and my Grandma Reba. So when I say we were a road trippin family, I mean it!

Whenever the call came, we’d all pile into the big yellow Buick and hit the road. Daddy would drive, Mom sat in the passenger seat, which is also known as the “navigator” in my family. The navigator is always in charge of giving directions and putting peanuts inside the driver’s Pepsi. Meanwhile, my brothers insisted on having the window seats in the back. And more often than not, that left poor me in the middle back seat with a hump in the floorboard where I rested my feet. When you are the shortest in your family, that’s your lot in life. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have a job to do too! In fact, I had the most important job of all. No matter the weather, or where we were headed, my Daddy trusted me to watch for ice on bridges. That included our hundred-degree trips in the middle of summer to balmy Oklahoma. In retrospect, I suspect it may have been a distraction tactic, since I was (and still am) terrified of going over bridges. But my Daddy was counting on me, so I still took my job VERY seriously.

Despite the long hours that we spent traveling, we always managed to have a good time on the road. We would wile away the hours singing, or playing “I Spy” or “The Minister’s Cat” (go watch Albert Finney’s Scrooge if you don’t know that one). We even went through a phase where we sang “The Cat Came Back” and we took turns trying to come up with increasingly absurd verses about how the cat was sent away, only to inevitably come back the subsequent morning. Daddy would yell out funny names of places we were passing. My particular favorite of those was ‘Toad Suck Park” in Arkansas, which is still around if you can believe it! No matter how long the trip was, it never felt as long as it could have because we were good at making our own entertainment. But then, that’s kind of a necessity when you’re country and poor.

You know what the best part of any road trip was? Anytime the gas got down to a quarter tank, and we had been EXTRA good or Daddy had a little bit of pocket money, we were allowed to each pick out a snack and a drink at the gas station. Everyone else would get chips and a soda, but I’m a notoriously weird eater. Always have been and probably always will be. I like to dissect my food, and am known to fixate on one specific food for months, or even years. In my youth my go-to favorite was Little Debbie Pecan Swirls. They were this bready hybrid of sticky buns and cinnamon rolls with tiny little pecan pieces littered throughout. The outside was always a little dry so I would start there and unravel them, thus satisfying my weird eating preferences while saving the best parts for last. Once I got to the center, I set it aside in the packaging while I did the same to the second one. Then I was rewarded with a perfect pair of ooey-gooey nutty little center swirls. It was the best part of the snack in a little bite-sized piece that I always made into two bites (remember, weird eater). 

For me, there were only two appropriate drinks to wash down this trash-tastic treat. First, there was Snapple Creme D’Vanilla, which used the apostrophe so that they could avoid using real vanilla. The other drink was Mistic Peach Vanilla, which was also a vanilla bomb, but laced with peach and carbonated. The vanilla was the central component here, and regular cream soda just couldn’t cut it. 

One particular road trip, we were heading up to Northern Illinois to see our Grandma Elenor. She wasn’t our biological grandma, but she may as well have been. We lived in Kentucky, where it wasn’t always warm (as anyone who survived the snowstorm of ‘93 can tell you), but it was a great deal warmer than Northern Illinois. On the way there, we stopped for gas and I got the chance to pick up my little obsessions. But I guess I wasn’t very thirsty that trip, because when we arrived, I forgot my drink in the car. The next morning, when we came back to the car and my drink had mostly frozen solid except a little float of fake vanilla syrup on the top. But did that stop me? No way! I took a sip of the syrup and thought it was delicious. Then I dared my little brother Evan to do the same. He was NEVER one to back down from a dare, so he took a big sip, and immediately felt sick from the syrupy vanilla-ness of it all. To this day, if he even smells super strong artificial vanilla he wants to vomit. He even made me swear never to get a vanilla drink again if we were traveling together. So I begrudgingly switched to Dr. Pepper. Everyone’s a critic, I guess.

Regardless of whether you’re hitting the road or staying close to home, give these Pecan Twirls a try. They are perfect for a delicious breakfast or dessert. And of course, they have an ooey-gooey center which you can choose to save for last if you’re weird like me. As for the vanilla soda goodness, I’m afraid that both of my preferred drinks were discontinued years ago. But I spent a lot of time in the kitchen testing this recipe, and I think it comes pretty close to the original. Just make sure to keep it away from any extra-picky siblings that are allergic to fun.

No offense, Evan…

Pecan Twirls

Makes 12 twirls

The Dough: 

3 Tablespoons of butter, melted

3 ½ cups bread flour

⅓ cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

4 ½ teaspoons (or 2 packets) of instant yeast

1 egg

4 Tablespoons of butter, room temperature

1 cup of buttermilk

12 teaspoons of dark brown sugar for the pan

The Filling:

½ cup dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon cinnamon

1- 1 ½ cups of pecan pieces

The Glaze:

2 cups of powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

3-4 Tablespoons of orange juice

  • In a small saucepan, heat buttermilk to between 120-130° F.

  • While the buttermilk heats, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the BRead flour, sugar, salt, egg, and room temperature butter. Add the yeast on the opposite side of the bowl from the salt. Once the buttermilk has heated, add to the bowl. On low speed mix until combined, approximately 1 minute. Then turn the mixer to medium speed and mix for approximately 4 minutes until smooth and pulled away from the sides. 

  • Put the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until pliable and completely smooth. Put in a bowl greased with the melted butter, covered with plastic wrap, and place somewhere warm for 1 hour to 75 minutes until doubled in size. You should be able to use your finger to make an indentation that slowly rises. 

  • Using the melted butter, grease the cups in a muffin tin. Add 1 teaspoon of dark brown sugar to each cup.

  • Make filling by combining dark brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a small bowl

  • Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to approximately 10 inches by 12 inches. Turn the dough so that the 12 inch side faces you. Brush dough with melted butter. Sprinkle on the filling mixture covering the dough entirely.  Sprinkle with pecans leaving 1 inch space on each side. Starting on the side closest to you, roll the dough into a log. 

  • Cut the dough log into 12 equal pieces, approximately 1 inch each. Put each piece into the cup of the muffin tin. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm spot for 30 minutes. 

  • In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350°F

  • Bake the twirls for 20 minutes until golden brown. Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes while you make the glaze. 

  • To make the glaze, put the powdered sugar in a small bowl. Add vanilla and 2 Tablespoons of orange juice. Whisk to combine. Add more orange juice as needed until the glaze is the consistency you prefer. Dip each twirl into the glaze and put on a plate. Serve immediately or keep air tight for up to 3 days.

Extra Vanilla-y Vanilla  Soda

Makes approximately 5 servings

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup water

2 vanilla beans, split

2 Tbsp vanilla extract

plain seltzer water, for mixing

  • Heat the sugar, water, and vanilla beans in a saucepan until the sugar is completely dissolved.

  • Remove the syrup from the heat, and stir in the vanilla extract. Let the syrup cool and then store in the refrigerator.

  • Mix 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of the syrup into 8 ounces of seltzer water. 

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