When I was a kid we always went to my oma’s townhouse in San Francisco, along with the few old aunts who were still creaking around, a distant cousin or two, and Mr. Lewis, the crotchety bachelor who used to work with my opa. Dinner was very formal…starched white linens and crystal goblets and all kinds of silverware that I never knew what to do with, and salt cellars and finger bowls and six courses.
The weather was unfailingly wet and cold, so it wasn’t like you could go out and play, and I loved spending all day Wednesday and Thursday with my mother and my oma in the big, warm kitchen. Ironing and folding the napkins was my first chore, then setting the table with the gold-rimmed plates. I loved the juggling of things from oven to stove to oven to refrigerator, the stirring and the tasting, listening to the family gossip.
The meal was always the same, starting with butternut squash bisque and the obligatory relish tray of olives, radishes, carrots, celery and green onions. Then the huge, burnished turkey, carved at the table by my father; stuffing with water chestnuts and mushrooms; mashed potatoes, golden with butter; my oma’s rich giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans with toasted almonds, three kinds of pie—pumpkin, apple and lemon meringue, not traditional, but my father’s favorite. Then—as if we needed it—a small dish of candied nuts and mints.
It was all quite wonderful, but for me it was all about the bread. Not brown-and-serve rolls from the grocery store—my oma would have sooner served packaged turkey—not even good bakery buns or sourdough bread from Boudin. She always insisted on making her own yeasted buttermilk dinner rolls.
Pick up one of these still-hot rolls, break it apart, and you nearly swoon from the aroma of the rising steam. This is my oma’s recipe, and my first bite of sweet, buttery tenderness embodies for me all the pleasures of holiday meals. She would time it so these came from the oven just before we were to sit down. Since I was usually in the kitchen, I always managed to score at least one before they made it to the table.”
–from The Baker’s Apprentice
(adapted from Lee Bailey)
Makes 32 rolls
2 C buttermilk
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
6 Tbsp salted butter
2 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
¼ C lukewarm water
Scant Tbsp active dry yeast (1 packet)
5 ½ -7 C all purpose flour (you can substitute white wheat flour for up to 2 C if you like rolls with a bit more attitude.)
½ tsp baking soda
In a small saucepan over low heat (or in the microwave) combine buttermilk, unsalted butter, 1 Tbsp sugar and salt. Stir several times until butter has melted, then set aside to cool slightly.
In a small bowl combine water with remaining Tbsp sugar and sprinkle yeast on top. Set aside till foamy. Meanwhile in the bowl of a standing mixer combine about 5 ½ C flour and baking soda and blend at low speed for a few seconds.
When the buttermilk mixture is warm, but no longer hot (it will kill the yeast) whisk the yeast mixture into it and pour over the flour. Mix with paddle attachment just until a shaggy dough forms, then switch to dough hook and knead for about 6 minutes or until dough is smooth and slightly sticky. Add more flour only if necessary…this dough should be pretty moist. Here in Santa Fe I didn’t need any more than 5 ½ C. (You can mix the dough with a wooden spoon and knead it by hand for about 10 minutes if you really want to.)
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel while you prepare the pans. You’ll need two 8” square metal pans. Melt the remaining 6 Tbsp salted butter and divide it equally between the two. If it starts to harden while you are forming the rolls, stick the pans in a low oven to keep the butter melted.
Turn dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and divide it in half. A kitchen scale is the best tool for this. Put one half back in the bowl and cover while you divide the other half into 16 pieces (you can pretty much eyeball it) with a large, sharp knife. If it gets too sticky, run the knife under warm water periodically. If, like me, you live in a dry climate, you’ll need to be fairly quick about this part so the dough doesn’t dry out. Form each piece into a ball by rolling loosely with the heel of your hand. They don’t have to be perfect.
When you have 16 small round rolls, dump them into one of the pans and roll them around so they’re completely coated with melted butter, then arrange in four rows of four and cover with plastic wrap while you repeat the process with the other half of the dough.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Set both pans in a warm, draft free spot and cover with plastic wrap and/or a damp dishtowel for about an hour. They won’t get very tall, but they should be nice and cozy, pressed against each other.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown, turning pans 180° and switching from side to side about halfway through.
Serve warm with plenty of butter.
There aren’t many occasions that require 32 dinner rolls (except holidays or parties) so fortunately these freeze nicely. Reheat in a warm oven after thawing at room temperature.