Welcome Oprah!

Okay, as a muscle bear in training I don’t eat a lot of simple carbs, but once in a while I have an Oprah moment and dive ass over tea kettle into a pile of dinner rolls.

It’s hard to find good bread at home these days. Here in Indy, Breadsmith bakes the best commercially, but homemade table bread worth the insulin spike? Let’s just say it’s hardly a daily indulgence at our house. Some families are lucky enough to have a roll baker in their family tree. John’s mom makes excellent crescent rolls from scratch, but if we’re honest, on most home tables Sister Schubert should get the credit for most of the yeast bread found there.

In my family it was my Great Grandmother Cora who made the rolls, and they were impressive enough that even as a kid I found them remarkable. When she died none of our family bakers had the heart (or the guts?) to take on the task of making rolls. Who could blame them? Those warm, fragrant, light (plus any other adjective you also could apply to heaven) clouds were how family memories were made. The standard was set a bit too high, perhaps.

After all of these years of dinners sans homemade rolls (at least the meals I’ve made it to haven’t had them. Maybe my Arkansas relatives make them when I’m not around), I’m starting to believe that even efforts that miss the mark might be better than Sister’s go to freezer options.

Just as I was longing for something more, Aunt Judy and my mom presented me with an instantly treasured Christmas present–a family cookbook. OUR family’s cookbook. And right there up front, humble but proud just like her, is my Grandmother Cora’s roll recipe. My aunt had the presence of mind to watch Grandmother make them one day before she died back in the 1980’s.

I’ve tried making rolls before. They were tough, didn’t rise and tasted nothing like Grandmother’s. I wondered what it would be like to give it another shot with the magic spell right in front of me.

As with many amazing foods that have only a few ingredients, I discovered that technique matters as much as ingredients. For example, I saw the word mix, but no mention of a mixer. I asked my mom about it, and she said Grandmother never owned a mixer. She would have used a wooden spoon. That simple fact explained a lot about my past failures. I’ve tried mixing and kneading old roll recipes in my stand mixer, but have always had my doubts about using the times recommended. So, I decided I would use a wooden spoon, a big chunky one good for bossing around a stiff dough.

I used my favorite Oxo rubber footed mixing bowl to keep the bowl from sliding on the counter as I stirred. After a few tasty, but otherwise unimpressive runs at the recipe, I realized I could use a lot less flour if I kneaded the dough on my silicone baking sheet. Nothing sticks to it, so there’s no need to cover the surface with a ton of flour. Just a little here and there to keep your hands from getting too sticky. Less flour used means more tender rolls.

Since our kitchen is cool, I have to place the dough on top of a warm stove to get it to rise. I use a thick, ceramic bowl on top of an aluminum cookie sheet turned upside down to keep the heat evenly distributed. The dough gums up around the bottom in a thinner bowl and takes too long to rise if I just set it on the counter. Such is the rigging you have to figure out for your own kitchen. My advice is to buy yeast in bulk (it’s cheap), and don’t be afraid to fail. Consider it part of developing your own personal style, which all good home cooks have to do anyway.

So here is how the best batch I’ve made so far looked.

Grandmother Cora's Yeast Rolls

Honestly, I was pretty happy with them, happier than with any other batch I’ve baked. They tasted good, too. Not as good as my Grandmother’s, but as my Aunt Judy says, that kind of taste comes only with baking bread every week until you are in your 80s, which Grandmother did. But at least now, on that fateful day when Oprah pops down to Indy from Chicago I can offer her something I’m not ashamed to serve.

Here’s the annotated recipe, from our family to yours. Happy New Year!

    Grandmother Cora’s Yeast Rolls

In a 1/2 c of warm (not hot) tap water, stir together:
1 tbs sugar
1 package (2 1/2 tsp) yeast.

Let bubble until doubled in volume. Stir down and let rise until doubled again.

While yeast mixture is rising, warm until melted:

2/3 c milk
1/4 c sugar
1/3 c shortening
1 tsp scant salt

Stir mixture and set aside.

In large bowl, put:

3 c all-purpose flour
1 egg, room temperature

Add yeast mixture and milk mixture.

Beat well with a large spoon, adding just enough extra flour to make dough stiff and prone to pull away from the sides of the bowl, but still pretty glossy.

Pour dough out onto a silicone baking sheet to knead for eight minutes (I set a timer). Here’s a quick video to show you how to knead (not hard). Note how the dough looks when she pours it onto the counter. That’ll give you an idea of what yours should look like after you’re finished beating it.

Place kneaded dough in a large greased bowl. I like to use a bowl that is tall enough to give the dough some head room as it rises. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then with a clean towel and place in a cozy warm spot to rise until its volume is double. I heat my oven to 375, place an overturned aluminum cookie sheet on the top vent and then place the bowl on that. The dough seems to really like it.

When dough is doubled in volume punch it down a few times with a fork and let it rise until doubled again. About rising times: don’t be in a big hurry to make your dough. Regular rises typically take a couple of hours, maybe more or less. If you need to slow things down (say you’re going out to eat), just put the dough in the refrigerator and take it back out when you get home. You can even leave it in over night. The dough will taste better, in fact, but leave yourself plenty of time for it to warm back up to room temperature. By the way, dough smells awesome while it’s rising, not just while it’s baking. We bears know how powerful scent is in creating positive experiences.

After the second rise, melt about a half stick of butter and pour it into a 9×13 cake pan.

Pinch off 24 golf ball sized pieces of dough and shape your rolls. I’m gonna come clean right here and tell you that I’m still learning how to shape rolls. I like simple and round rolls. Grandmother’s rolls are very soft, so handling them lightly is key. My friend Naomi is practically an Amish baker when it comes to shaping rolls, and when I get her technique down, I’ll try to put it on here (or have her do it). I used it when shaping the ones above, and they turned out fine.

Here’s a video of another way that I haven’t tried but that looks promising Let me know how it works if you give it a go.

Dip the tops of the rolls in the melted butter and then space them evenly in the pan (four rows of six rolls). Let the rolls rise one last time with the pan covered loosely by a piece of wax paper.

Then bake on a middle rack at 375 for about 15 minutes or until golden brown on top. Aunt Judy starts hers out on the lower rack to get a browner bottom crust. If you do that, don’t open the oven until the rolls have baked for at least seven minutes (a good rule of thumb for most baked breads), and plan on adding a few extra minutes to your baking time to account for heat that leaves the oven when you move the pan.

I’m not gonna say roll baking is easy the first time out, but if I can get the hang of it, I know you can, too. And believe me, the other bears in our den LOVE having fresh yeast rolls to eat. So give it a try and let me know what you learn.

6 Responses to “Welcome Oprah!”

  1. January 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I can’t wait to give this recipe a whirl!

  2. January 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Hey Zack, so good to see you on here. I hope you do try these. We could start a Feed the Bears club 🙂

  3. 3 kara
    January 5, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I’m proud you made Grandmom Moore’s rolls!! Don’t you love the cookbook?

  4. July 3, 2013 at 9:27 pm

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    think this website needs a lot more attention.
    I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the information!

  5. April 7, 2014 at 6:53 pm

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