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Thanksgiving Rolls, Just Because

[Bay leaves, Point Reyes National Seashore, November 2010.]

Last night I dreamed about soup — butternut squash soup, perhaps because I ate a bowl of it for lunch on Saturday at a restaurant in North Beach. We sat outside and sipped glasses of white wine under the heating lamps and watched all the passersby — many of whom were dressed in Santa outfits — and it didn’t rain, though I thought I might. The soup was good: rich with cream, smooth on my tongue, scattered with a few small toasted garlic croutons. But I think I can do better. I would like to cut down on the dairy, add a splash of cayenne pepper, maybe some curry powder, half an apple or so.

So this weekend I must make a few batches of candy, to photograph for an upcoming article, and now also I must make soup. Along with the soup I’ll probably bake a batch of the rolls I made for Thanksgiving because all my trepidations aside (and I’ll tell you why I was in fact trepidatious) I was mightily pleased with them. They weren’t even too difficult to produce.

I’m not a big bread baker — cakes, yes; cookies, of course. But bread … I’ve had my moments with it and it’s not like I mind baking it (though the darn issue with temperature and yeast rising appropriately has sometimes foiled me in the past) but I guess it’s also that I don’t eat a lot of bread and thus don’t necessarily need a fresh loaf on hand at all times. I do make a delicious challah (adapted, long ago, from a recipe in Deborah Madison’s wonderful “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”) that I should make again, and once I somehow wrangled an amazing chocolate babka from scratch; I’ve also made lots of flatbreads, pizza crusts, biscuits, and even yeasted (and delicious) waffles. Still, suffice to say I don’t regularly bake a lot of bread.

So then, Thanksgiving. The amount of time I chewed over a potential menu in my mind is sort of embarrassing (though I did do a lot of that thinking while running — multitasking!) and for awhile I was going back-and-forth between making sweet potato biscuits … or not. It seems, at least in my family, traditional to have some sort of bread or roll (or biscuit) to go along with the carbo-load that is the holiday dinner, and I was looking for an excuse to make those biscuits so at first I was set on that. But instead of a cauliflower-leek soup to start the meal (certain parties involved having made it very clear there was to be absolutely no pumpkin or butternut squash soup — another part of my mission with this upcoming soup experimentation is to change that opinion) I decided on my simple and perfect lemon-slice-topped Potage Jacqueline — which of course meant the sweet potato biscuits were impossible (i.e. too many sweet potatoes at one go). And anyway, did we need more heavy, bready things?

But my mom likes a nice roll with Thanksgiving dinner, and quite frankly so do I. And you need some for the leftovers — oh, if I ate meat, I’d do what I used to: take a roll, cut it in half, spread it with a bit of butter and cranberry sauce, and pile it with roasted turkey and cheddar cheese. (Once) Heaven. I remember so clearly eating those little sandwiches after a basketball game just after Thanksgiving — ravenous, as I always was after the final basket was sunk and we were either euphoric with victory or slightly hang-dog with loss. Funny that I don’t remember exactly if we won that day — I think so, and I think I scored a fair amount of points — but I do remember eating those sandwiches in the chilly gym, licking cranberry sauce from my fingers as I watched the varsity team.

What I most remember about the rolls we ate with Thanksgiving when I was growing up was that my mom always called them ‘potato rolls’ and I don’t know if they were made with actual potatoes or potato flour or what, but they were pillowy soft and addictive, brushed with just a light dusting of flour. Where did she get them? The bakery in town? I haven’t had one in years but they were always a staple. And so in the back of my mind when I started scouring my cookbooks (nothing quite right) and the internet (so many recipes called for shortening! Which … no.) were those rolls, and the memory of little sandwiches to eat the day after. We might have looked forward to those even more than the Thanksgiving dinner.

Luckily, Gourmet came through as it so often has and still does (still I miss its monthly appearance in my mailbox and will no doubt do so for the rest of my life). The recipe that grabbed me straight off was one that comes by way of Edna Lewis, the wonderful Southern cook and author; the headnotes include this statement: “These rolls have outstanding flavor and are so light and fluffy they almost levitate.” But also this sentence, too: “Mashed potato is a traditional addition to a yeast dough like this one; it helps the rising and also contributes to its tenderness.” (Also, no shortening on the ingredient list.) They sounded exactly right.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I worked from home and I cooked for a good part of the day. I started with salting and rosemary-ing the turkey and then I cooked: sweet potato-tahini dip; sweet potato soup; apple pie; upside down cranberry cake; pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. I somehow ran 8 miles through the cold, and then a friend came over unexpectedly for tea and a brief chat, and then I went for dinner — and I was beat. I’ll just do the rolls tomorrow, I told myself, for they were the last item on my list. But in the back of my mind I knew realistically I might not, and I really, really wanted to, especially as a surprise for my mom who I knew was on the same page with me regarding those leftovers. And then I looked at the recipe and realized they were not so very hard to throw together and so I did, just barely cramming the dough into a tupperware for its journey out of the city.

The recipe calls for the dough to be left in the fridge up to 12 hours — or overnight. A cold room would do just as well, which is what I had since the fridge was pretty well-filled, or even outside if you don’t have to worry about animal intrusion. My dough, which had already survived an hour-plus trip over the bridge (and, yes, through the woods), was further shocked by being thrown into a metal bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and then left for probably 16 hours in a chilly back room. And yet, it performed splendidly! I brought it into the kitchen about an hour before I planned to bake the rolls — having already happily exclaimed over the reality that it rose! It really did! — to let it warm to room temperature, and from there simply followed the recipe as written. While I don’t know if I’d call them ‘featherlight’ exactly (and possibly they would have been had it not been for the extenuating circumstances), they were nonetheless perfect.

We ate a lot of them spread with good butter along with our sweet potato soup, and I sent my mom home with a few leftover; I hear they were eaten as intended with cranberry sauce and turkey the next day. I wished I had thought to bring a few little sandwiches on my walk (with sharp cheese and lettuce and mayonnaise) but I think I was still too stuffed from the previous night’s meal to even contemplate lunch. No matter — there is this weekend and soup-making to attend to, not to mention Christmas dinner in just over two weeks. Perhaps I will make them again — and squirrel away a few especially for myself to savor, after. Or perhaps I’ll just make a double batch.

Featherlight Yeast Rolls, via Gourmet

1 russet (baking) potato (1/2 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 stick unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 (1/4-ounce) package Active dry yeast
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

Generously cover potato with cold water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, until very tender, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1 cup cooking liquid, then drain potato well.

Meanwhile, melt 2 1/2 tablespoons butter.

Mash hot potato in a large bowl with a fork. Stir in milk, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 2 tablespoons melted butter (mixture will be lumpy).

Cool 1/2 cup cooking liquid to warm (105 to 115°F). Stir in yeast and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn’t foam, Start over with new yeast and remaining cooking liquid.)

Stir yeast mixture into potato mixture, then stir in flour with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms.

Turn out dough onto a floured surface and knead, dusting surface and hands with just enough flour to keep dough from sticking, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes (dough will be slightly sticky).

Brush a large bowl with some of remaining melted butter, then turn dough in bowl to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise, chilled, 8 to 12 hours.

Punch down dough (do not knead), then halve. Roll each half into a 12-inch-long log on a very lightly floured surface with lightly floured hands. Cut each log into 12 equal pieces and roll each into a ball. Arrange evenly spaced in 6 rows of 4 (less than 1/2 inch apart) in a buttered 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan. Cover pan with a kitchen towel (not terry cloth).

Let rolls rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled (they will fill pan), 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in middle.

Melt remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter.

Brush top of rolls with melted butter and bake until golden-brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Loosen edges with a sharp knife, then transfer rolls to a rack and cool slightly.


  1. Is it kismet? A day after I read this post, I happened upon the very issue of this magazine at a used bookstore and snapped it up, read it cover-to-cover this morning and was struck by that gem of an essay, by Edna Lewis, “What is Southern?” That essay reminded me of many of your posts. Among what stood out: The smell of coffee “greeting you on the way from the barn… served piping hot… so that if someone talked too much, they were told, ‘Save your breath to cool your coffee.'” What a great line.
    Anyway, now I have a hard copy of this biscuit recipe.

  2. These rolls were perfect accompaniments to soup and sandwiches. Once again, Nicole went the extra mile to please everyone and gave us the comfort of love woven into her food for the holiday. Thanks sweetie !

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