Fear Conquered: Dinner Rolls
“You know what I really want to learn to make?” I ask. And without stopping for breath or waiting for an answer, “Dinner rolls.” It’s Christmas Eve, a year ago. We’re standing in my friend Mandy’s mother’s kitchen, fixing tomato soup and grilled cheese for lunch. I love grilled cheese. So, so much. I could eat it every day. Maybe every meal.
I seem to have digressed. We’re on rolls, right?
“Dinner rolls?” Mandy asks. “You’ve never made dinner rolls?”
“No, I’ve made them,” I say. Once. I’ve made them once. With mashed potatoes. Somehow they turned out dry. And dense. “I’ve just never found a really good recipe for them. Where they’re perfect.”
“Now I don’t know if these rolls are perfect,” Mandy warns, smiling a little to let me know she’s teasing me. “But we make these rolls every year for Thanksgiving. And they’re so good.”
“Really?” I ask. I’m already itching to get a glimpse of the recipe. Do they use potatoes?
“They’re the kind with the three little pieces all in one roll,” she goes on. “They look like a little hat. Do you know what kind I’m talking about?”
I know. My blood pressure is rising. Oh, my heart. Flip-flop. Flip-flop. Oh yes, I know exactly what she means. “I love those kind,” I say, still trying to play it cool. Not too eager. “Are they dry? Because, you know, sometimes when I’ve had dinner rolls they’re just too dry.” Like mine. Despite potatoes.
“I don’t think they’re dry,” Mandy says, thoughtfully. “I don’t think so. They’re dipped in butter. That’s the secret.”
“They’re dipped in butter?” I repeat. Where is this recipe? I must have it. It’s providence. It’s destiny. It’s my one freaking chance at good dinner rolls!
Mandy leans in close. “You don’t HAVE to dip them in butter,” she murmurs, and I get the sense she’s not supposed to be telling me this. “But I think they turn out so much better when you do.”
“I bet,” I say. “So do you dunk them before or after you bake them?” And can l get a copy of the recipe? Just a quick look?
“I think you dunk them before,” Mandy says. “Right, Mom?”
Mandy’s mom glances up. “What?” she asks.
“Those rolls we make every year at Thanksgiving,” Mandy says. “We dip them in butter before we bake them, right?”
“You mean the Southern Hotel Rolls?” Mandy’s mom says. “You don’t have to.”
“But we do, right?” Mandy says. She smiles at me and leans in again. “We do.”
“It’s a really easy recipe,” Mandy’s mom says. “You’ve just got to remember to make it the night before. It’s gotta be in the refrigerator overnight.”
What is this new voodoo? Simple. Butter-dipped. Refrigeration. Rolls that aren’t dry. Rolls with three little parts. Must. Get. Recipe. Sweet Lord, please. The recipe. “So,” I say, glancing from Mandy to her mom and back to Mandy. “You refrigerate the rolls and dunk them in butter, huh?”
“You refrigerate the dough before you shape them.” This time it’s Mandy’s aunt, coming into the kitchen from the living room. “And you HAVE to dip them in butter. That’s what makes them so good.” She settles into a chair next to Mandy’s mom. “I’ve made them without dipping in butter and they’re still good. But the butter makes them better.”
“That makes sense,” I say. Wheels are turning. Refrigerate the dough, form the rolls, dunk in butter. But how does one dunk rolls with three parts? “So you dunk the rolls before they rise?” I ask.
“Let me see if I can find the recipe,” Mandy says, smiling. Oh, sweet mercy, yes!
“You’ve got to dip each piece of dough before you put them in the muffin tin,” Mandy’s aunt says. Mandy’s mom is nodding in confirmation. “Each piece gets dipped in butter.”
“You make little balls,” Mandy’s mom adds, helpfully.
“Then you dip each one in butter and put three in each muffin cup,” Mandy’s aunt adds. “It takes a little bit of work.”
“But it’s really worth it,” Mandy adds. She’s back with the little index card in hand. It’s hand-written. In cursive. I can’t read cursive. I also can’t write cursive. But mainly the not being able to read cursive is the problem. She hands me the card and I squint at the ingredients, ignoring the hopeless scrawl of cursive instructions.
It’s such a short list of ingredients.
“Wow,” I say. No potatoes. Nothing fancy. “This looks so easy.” Except for the cursive instructions. There could be a guide to hidden treasure buried in all those words and I wouldn’t be able to find it. I clear my throat and pull out my phone. Maybe I can at least get the ingredients. “Is it ok if I jot down the ingredients?”
“Sure,” Mandy says. Mandy’s mom and aunt are nodding their heads. I feel a little less like a thief. Although a little pathetic. Potatoes, Mark, really? Potatoes?!
“Thanks,” I say, my fingers already keying in the list of ingredients. “So do you just mix everything together and refrigerate the dough?” Curse my cursiveless self! Who learns italics? Italics - really? Seriously, who learns italics?
“You mix everything together but the butter and flour,” Mandy says, reading through the recipe. “Then you alternate adding the butter and flour. Then you refrigerate it overnight.” I’m typing as fast as my fingers will allow. Mostly cryptic instructions.
“Then you shape the dough into the balls,” Mandy’s aunt says. “They have to rise for about 2 hours.”
“And you dip the balls in butter before you put them in the pan,” Mandy’s mom reminds.
“Ok,” I say. Somehow I forget to type the part about dipping in butter. “So they take about 2 hours to rise. And how long do they bake for?”
Mandy checks the recipe card and points to more cursive. “15-20 minutes,” she says. “At 450.” I jot it down.
“But you’ve got to dip them in butter,” Mandy’s aunt reminds me insistently. And Mandy’s mom nods. And Mandy smiles and nods.
“It really does make them better,” she whispers.
“And what did you call these again?” I ask. Because I want to remember the name of the rolls about to redeem me. Silly potato boy.
“Southern Hotel Rolls,” Mandy’s aunt says. “It’s what they serve at all the hotels.” Well, at hotels that serve rolls. If there are any hotels that still serve rolls. And presumably, southern hotels.
“Well, I can’t wait to try these,” I say. Mandy beams.
Five months later.
“These are amazing!” I gasp. To no one in particular. It’s early on a Saturday, the start of summer. Boyfriend Javelin is still sleeping. I peel off another section of the roll. “So freaking good,” I murmur around the hot, delicate piece of roll. A little sweet, super soft, moist, lots of flavor and not the least bit dense. And a wee bit addictive. “And so easy,” I gush to the silent walls.
I eat three rolls in 5 minutes. For testing purposes. Maybe the first roll is a fluke. Maybe the second tin turns out different. Maybe they taste wretched with butter. Or Nutella. Maybe. Just one more to be sure.
I wake Boyfriend Javelin to tell him about fresh rolls. “They’re still hot!” I bubble over. Because I want him to try them before they get cold. Rolls are best hot.
He grunts and rolls over. An hour later: “These are pretty good,” Boyfriend Javelin says. He’s eating a section from a cold roll, without butter or Nutella. “Is this the recipe Mandy gave you?”
“Mostly,” I say. I didn’t add potatoes, but I did make some changes. And assumptions. “I added some milk and I used active dry yeast instead of instant. And I kneaded them and changed the bake time.”
Boyfriend Javelin isn’t really listening. “Uh-huh,” he says, picking up a second roll. “I like the crispier outsides. And then how soft they are inside.”
I grin. Victory! And potato disasters best forgotten. “And they’re easy, too,” I gush. “Except for all the dunking in butter. But it’s worth it!”
“Uh-huh.” Boyfriend Javelin is reaching for a third roll. “So what are these called again?”
|The recipe starts with 1 1/2 cups water|
|Add 1/2 cup skim milk to the water and heat to approximately 110F|
|Add warmed milk/water to stand mixer bowl|
|Sprinkle yeast over water|
|Mix together with your fingers and set aside while you prepare butter|
|You will need 3/4 cup of unsalted butter (12 Tablespoons)|
|Slice the butter and add to a melting dish|
|Melt butter (I use the microwave)|
|Add 1/2 cup sugar and 1 egg to the dissolved yeast|
|Add 2 cups of flour and mix until combined|
|Add 2 teaspoons kosher salt loose dough mixture|
|Mix remaining 4 cups of flour and melted butter alternately, starting and ended with flour|
|Knead dough (10 minutes by hand or 5 minutes with a stand mixer dough hook)|
|Grease a large bowl with olive oil|
|Form dough into a ball and add to oiled bowl|
|Cover bowl with oiled plastic wrap|
|Cover plastic wrap with dry towel and let dough raise for an hour until doubled|
|Dough is doubled|
|Punch down dough and fold in thirds|
|Turn dough over and gather into a ball.|
|Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, punching down and re-wrapping after 2 hours|
|Make sure to keep dough tightly wrapped in refrigerator to prevent drying out|
|When you're ready to bake off the rolls, you will need 2x 12-cup muffin tins (for clover-leaf rolls)|
|You will also need 1/2 cup melted butter for dipping dough pieces|
|Form dough into a log and mark the dough for cutting into thirds|
|Slice dough into thirds|
|Work with 1/3 of the dough at a time|
|Slice the 1/3 of dough into thirds again|
|Divide each 1/3 in half|
|Cut each 1/2 in half again|
|Divide each remaining 1/2 in half one last time. Repeat for 24 pieces of dough for each 1/3 of total dough|
|Form each piece of dough into a rough ball|
|Dip each dough ball into melted butter|
|Add three pieces of butter-dipped dough to each muffin cup|
|Allow rolls to rise until doubled, about 30 minutes|
|Bake rolls for 8-10 minutes at 450F until golden brown|
|Turn out rolls from muffin tin|
|Serve rolls immediately|
Southern Hotel Dinner Rolls
Prep Time: 14 hrs
Cook Time: 10 min
Ingredients (24 dinner rolls)
- 2 cups milk, warmed (105℉ - 115℉)
- 4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup (12 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
- 6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
- 1/2 cup (8 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and reserved for dipping
- In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm milk with your fingers; allow the mixture to rest 5 minutes until the yeast begins to bloom
- Add the egg, sugar, 2 cups flour and salt to the yeast mixture; mix until well combined and mostly smooth
- Alternately mix melted butter and flour into the dough, starting and ending with the flour. Once all flour and butter is incorporated, knead the dough for 5 minutes on a generously floured surface
- Return the dough to the bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap and let proof in a warm location until doubled (about 1 hour); punch down the dough, fold the dough in thirds, then form the dough into a ball and tightly cover the bowl with oiled plastic wrap; chill in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours (up to 36 hours), punching down dough occasionally
- Preheat the oven to 450℉ and line two baking sheets with parchment paper; for the egg wash, thoroughly beat together the egg and milk with a fork and set aside
- For clover-leaf rolls: working on a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into thirds and work with 1/3 of the dough at a time, keeping the remaining dough covered and chilled; divide each third of the dough into thirds again, then divide each of those thirds into eighths (total of 24 pieces per each 1/3 of the dough)
- For easy rolls: working on a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in half and work with one half of the dough at a time, keeping the remaining dough covered and chilled; divide each half of the dough into thirds, then divide each of those thirds into quarters (total of 12 pieces per each half of the dough)
- Roll each piece of dough into a ball, dip in the reserved melted butter and place in an ungreased muffin tin cup (3 pieces of dough per muffin cup) OR in a greased 12x10x2 inch (or 13x9x2 inch) baking dish (4 columns of 6 rows); let the rolls rise until doubled (about 30 minutes for clover-leaf rolls or about 45 minutes for easy rolls)
- Bake the clover-leaf rolls at 450℉ for 8-10 minutes until golden brown; bake the easy rolls at 350℉ for 40-45 minutes until golden brown; turn-out of the muffin tins or baking dish and serve immediately
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Hungry for Tips?
- I favor the clover-leaf shaped version of these rolls, but you can really make them is about any shape and so I have included an easy version for those who don't want to spend the time dividing the dough into 72 little balls and dunking each ball in butter. However, I really do think the invested effort is worth it if you can spare the time.
- If you don't own a stand mixer, you can still easily make these rolls. In fact, the first 5 times I made these rolls, I made them by hand without a stand mixer. Just dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and water in a big bowl, then add the other ingredients as directed by the recipe, using a big wooden spoon or a spatula to combine and work in the flour and butter. Once the dough get's too heavy to work with a spoon, use your fingers to work it together before turning out onto a well-floured surface. Knead the dough vigorously for 10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking badly to the board. At first the dough will be quite sticky (a mess, really), but once the gluten begins to activate, it will become easier to work. Once kneaded, follow the remaining instructions as written.
- There's real science behind chilling the dough overnight: 1) the dough develops a much more complex flavor, 2) the dough becomes easier to work with, and 3) the flour softens considerably, resulting in a better textured roll. So while you could skip the overnight chill, I don't recommend it. Just don't forget to punch down the dough after a couple hours into the chill otherwise the yeast will exhaust itself. And then be sure to also keep the punched-down dough tightly wrapped so it doesn't dry out.
- If you make the clover-leaf shaped rolls, you will be making two 12-cup muffin tins of rolls. And you will likely find that by the time you have finished both tins of rolls, the first tin has already doubled in size and is ready to be baked. And by the time the first tin is done baking, the second tin will be ready to be baked.
- Every oven is different, so check the rolls after 8 minutes. I like mind a little darker because I enjoy the textual contrast between the outside of the roll and the soft inside. If the rolls aren't quite dark enough for your taste at 8 minutes, then bake for another couple of minutes. But 450F is quite hot, so don't forget these or they'll burn quick.
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