Soft squishy rolls are my kryptonite. I love them. Yeasty, pillowy and a little sweet, they are heaven. Smeared with butter and a little honey, I don’t even want to admit how many I can inhale in record time. I never know where I’m going to find the good ones, and it’s important to note that not all of them are good. In fact, few are. It’s also important to note that while some store bought rolls can be good (hello Kings Hawaiian), the good ones are nearly always homemade. They tend to show up unexpectedly – family picnics, old school bakeries and casual restaurants where the food is cooked from scratch. But the funny thing is, the good bakers tend to be tight with these recipes for some reason; more so than others. Bread loyalty runs deep I guess.
When I first moved to Chicago many, many moons ago, a family friend took me to a picnic hosted by some friends of hers. It was over 20 years ago and I don’t remember a single thing about that party except for one thing: the rolls. Oh god those rolls! A woman had brought a few pans of soft, white squishy rolls and I couldn’t stop eating them. In fact I ate an embarrassing number, so much so that I thought about hiding a few in my purse when no one was looking. Insanity had taken hold of me.
When I praised the baker for her skills and asked for the recipe, I got the cold shoulder. They were a family secret, I was told. Great. This always drives me nuts. Share the damn recipes people. Maybe not now, but eventually, share the damn recipe before it is lost forever, even if it’s only to a trusted few. Just do it. At the very least, write it down and keep it somewhere safe where your kids will find it. Lost family recipes make me sad beyond belief. Though I never saw that woman again, I have a very strong feeling hers is a recipe that is lost to time. This is a crying shame. I remembered some whispering that night about mashed potatoes in the dough and filed that thought away. Fine. If you’re not going to share, I’ll make them better.
The only thing is, I didn’t. I tried numerous times with countless recipes and none were quite right. I have a theory about this and it’s more than just not knowing her recipe. Those party rolls have reached near mythical proportions in my mind so I wasn’t even sure that it was possible to come up with a recipe that measured up. Those party rolls were my white whale. But I kept trying, good or bad I kept trying.
For years, I’ve been on the lookout for recipes and ideas that sounded promising, and many were good but they weren’t those rolls. Then one day, I hit upon something. The results were closer than anything else to what I remember. Very close. I baked off a batch this morning and ate four in rapid succession while still warm, gobbling them up like some deranged hungry hungry hippo game. Are they those rolls? I’m not 100% sure anymore but I do know that they are damn close. I gave some to my friend Lindsay who later sent a flurry of text messages praising their deliciousness. She said they reminded her of the soft, buttery interior of a good croissant. So there’s that!
The dough is relatively simple, especially if you have a standing mixer, and uses a key moisture-keeping ingredient: mashed potatoes. I was right to file that whispered comment away for later. Some sugar adds a hint of sweetness; you could use honey I suppose but that adds a slight complexity I’m not interested in. I’d rather have my honey on the baked roll. Mix it all together with a good bit of soft butter and then the dough gets a long slow, cold overnight rise to develop flavor. The next day they’re rolled into balls and packed tightly in a buttered pan for another long, slow rise.
As they emerge from the oven, a quick slick of butter ensures the crust stays tender and you find yourself swooning from the heady, yeasty scent and over thirty beautifully soft smooshy rolls glistening in front of you. If you’re smart, you’ll brown that butter first. Trust me on this. Eat them straight, drizzled with honey or as the star of a really good sandwich. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: GOLD STAR. If you’re a fan, like I am, of soft, squishy white rolls then hallelujah, this is for you. Yeast breads can be very rewarding baking projects. Some people are intimidated by yeast and I understand that, but it’s really very easy and there is nothing more relaxing than the feeling of dough between your fingers. Throw a few simple ingredients into a bowl and with a little time, these beautiful golden things emerge from the oven, which is delightful. It’s magic I tell you. Soft, tender, a little yeasty, a little sweet and a little buttery, I think they are wonderful. Perhaps you will too.
Seven years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian bread)
Six years ago: Hot Cross Buns
Five years ago: Guinness Stout Floats
Four years ago: Greek Sunday Lunch
Three years ago: Sunday Lunch, Polish Easter, Lemon Tart
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
SOFT POTATO ROLLS
Makes 32 rolls
To make these even better, brown the butter that is brushed over the top. Brown butter is easy, over low heat melt the butter then continue to cook until it turns brown and smells nutty.
1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
¾ cup warm water
1 cup plain mashed potatoes (6 ounces)
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature (2 ½ ounces)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
for glazing: 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted (and browned if you like)
- For the dough: Combine the yeast and water in the bowl of a standing mixer and let sit 5 minutes or until foamy. If the yeast doesn’t foam after 5 minutes, toss it and start again with fresh yeast.
- To the bowl, add the mashed potatoes, sugar, butter, eggs, salt and 1 cup of the flour and mix on low with the dough hook until combined.
- Add the remaining 2 ½ cups flour and mix on medium to medium-high until a smooth, silky and slightly sticky dough forms.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead a few times to bring together.
- Spray the bowl with cooking spray and place the dough inside. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours.
- To shape: lightly butter a 9”x13” pan and set aside until needed.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide into 32 small balls, about 1 – 1 1/8 ounces each.
- Roll the dough into tight 1” balls, using a little flour if sticky, and place together tightly in the buttered pan, sides touching.
- Cover with lightly greased plastic wrap (spray with a little cooking spray) and let rise in a warm place until doubled – 1 ½ – 3 hours depending on how warm the room is. In my experience, two hours usually is perfect.
- 15 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 400°F with a rack in the lower third of the oven.
- Bake for 15 minutes until golden brown.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter and set aside until needed.
- Remove from rolls from the oven and immediately brush the tops with melted butter.
- Allow to cool completely on a wire rack. Rolls are wonderful when they’re warm and best the day they’re baked but will keep, tightly wrapped, for a few days