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Southern Dinner Rolls

November 23rd, 2008

There are many different varieties of rolls. When my wife and I lived in Germany, Brötchen were a part of our daily routine. Brötchen are crusty, yeast-leavened rolls, almost always served as the centerpiece of a proper German breakfast. The first rolls that I learned to bake were Parker House rolls, another yeast-leavened, crispy roll. I’ve spent years however, trying to figure out how to make the dinner rolls that were a staple of my youth.

Southern dinner rolls are also leavened with yeast, but rather than being crisp with a chewy crumb like the two varieties of rolls I just mentioned, the southern dinner roll has a soft, cake-like crumb and is ever-so-slightly sweet in flavor. The unfortunate thing about southern dinner rolls is that their recipes seem to only live in the heads of little old women who have been making them by feel for 50 years. I’ve been trying to get a usable recipe from a variety of these sweet old ladies for a really long time now. Through a process of trial and error, I’ve finally arrived at a recipe that yields dinner rolls that match my childhood recollections.

Southern Dinner Rolls

  • 3 cups of cake flour
  • 3-4 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups of whole milk
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup of honey
  • 3 generous tsp of kosher salt
  • 1 pkg of active dry yeast

Combine milk and 6 tbsp of butter in a microwave-proof dish and microwave for 3 minutes until butter is melted. In the bowl of a mixer combine honey, egg, salt and whisk together. As soon as you can dip your finger in the milk without burning (about 115F) add to mixer bowl and whisk until incorporated. Whisk yeast into mixture.

Switch to dough hook on your mixer, and add cake flour. Beat with dough hook until fully incorporated. Add all-purpose flour 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating fully after each addition. Once the dough is partially pulling away from the side of the bowl, stop adding flour. Six and a half cups of flour total is usually enough for me, although you may need more or less. The dough should be slightly sticky when you stop. If it isn’t, you have over-kneaded the dough and your crumb will be too chewy.

Pull dough out of bowl and onto a cool surface. If the dough is too sticky to handle, you can sprinkle with flour and knead a bit more by slapping the ball onto your surface and folding in half a few times. Don’t do this too much, however, or you’ll overwork the dough leading to the aforementioned chewy crumb. Divide the dough into halves repeatedly until you have 32 balls, each approximately the size of a golf ball. Roll each ball in your hand until it is approximately spherical.

Place 16 of the rolls each in two 9″ round cake pounds. Cover each pan with a damp cloth and place in a warm place to rise, approximately 2-3 hours. The rolls should more than double in volume. Melt remaining 2 tbsp of butter and brush tops of rolls, using about half of the butter. Place pans in a pre-heated 400F oven until the tops of the rolls are golden brown, approximately 15-20 minutes. Brush rolls with remaining butter when they come out of the oven.

There are a bunch of things that you can change about this recipe without substantially changing the results. You can use granulated sugar instead of honey, although if you do you’ll need a bit less flour. If you don’t have whole milk laying around, you can use a bit of half-and-half or cream to enrich reduced-fat milk. You certainly don’t need to heat your milk or melt your butter in the microwave; a sauce pan over a burner works nicely as well. You can proof your yeast as directed by most recipes in a few table spoons of 105-115F water, although this is mostly so that you can tell whether your yeast is still alive. If you’re feeling bold (and I usually am) then you can skip this step. You can even use a so-called “bread flour” if you don’t have all-purpose flour, although you should probably up the proportion of cake flour if you do this. I would recommend 3 1/2 cups of cake flour to 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups of bread flour if you go this route.

The single most important thing about these rolls is their texture, and the things that effect texture are the flour, how much of it you add to the liquid ingredients, and how long you knead the dough.

Do not skip the cake flour unless you are living in the south and have access to all-purpose flours milled from winter wheat like White Lily. Normal all-purpose flours contain more gluten than winter wheat. When kneaded the glutens in these flours will inter-connect and stretch forming a crumb that’s unsuitably elastic for southern rolls. Cake flours are made from soft wheats and milled to 6-8% protein content as opposed to the 10-12% of “normal” all-purpose flour. Mixing cake flour into all-purpose flour will lower the effective protein content and allow the formation of a soft, tender crumb in these rolls.

Do not add too much flour to the liquid ingredients. The dough should definitely be sticky to the touch when you pull it out of the mixing bowl, but still manageable. Adding too much flour will result in dry rolls. Unfortunately, flours take on different levels of moisture depending on your environment. Different types of flours also vary in density based on the milling process used and their protein content.

These two things mean that a cup of flour is a rather loose measurement. Weighing the flour is the second best way to overcome this problem. I say second best because most recipes are written in terms of volume measures which would mean that some trial and error would be involved in translating to weight measures leaving you where you were when you started. The best way to deal with the variable density of a cup of flour is to know what you’re looking for in the finished, kneaded dough. In this recipe it is dough that will stick to your fingers but that still allows you to pull your fingers away with only a bit of dough clinging to your skin.

Finally, please don’t over-knead the dough. Kneading is the process that promotes linkage of glutens in the dough and that stretches them out to form longer proteins. The longer you knead a dough, the longer and more elastic your glutens will become. These long, elastic glutens are highly desirable for breads like baguettes which use multiple-risings to develop flavor and that have large, springy crumb as their raison d’ĂȘtre. Large, springy crumb is exactly the opposite of what we’re going for, so only work the dough enough to fully incorporate the flour, and perhaps a bit more if the dough is unmanageably sticky once you starting working it with your hands.

Hopefully this is enough information for you to reproduce a good southern dinner roll, and to experiment a bit if you don’t get the results you’re looking for with your first batch.

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