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Every year, I roll with James Beard

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I've been making sweet potato rolls at Thanksgiving long enough to count them as a family tradition, but my decade or so with them is nothing, really. By the time James Beard featured them in his pioneering 1973 book "Beard on Bread," published eight years after I was born, they were already a classic. To make the cut of 100 recipes in his bread-baking overview, they'd have to be, really.

I didn't pick up Beard's book until the mid-1990s, in a vintage store in New Hampshire, and the rolls were one of the first things I tried. The appeal is obvious: They're a fluffy, buttery yeasted dinner roll with a soft texture and subtle flavor. Their color is perfectly suited to the autumn feast.

The first time I baked them, I stayed pretty faithful to Beard's recipe, which calls for the balls of dough to be placed two inches apart on a buttered baking sheet. But after I noticed his suggestion that they could be baked closer together if you wanted them "joined," I started grouping them in a glass pie plate or round cake pan, serving them out of the dish and covered with a towel so they could be pulled apart at the table, still warm.

I also tried them with one of those ingredients that Thanksgiving cooks always seem to have around: canned pumpkin puree, which made them even more visually striking and worked perfectly, with another cup or so of flour to make up for the pumpkin's extra moisture.

Then I set out to make them a little friendlier to the stressed-out cook. Because they're so much better warm, I looked for ways to make them do-ahead-able, turning to frequent Post contributor Nancy Baggett, author of "Kneadlessly Simple," among other baking books, for advice. Her idea: to parbake them, leaving them just slightly underdone, then cooling and freezing for up to three weeks before the Big Day. A couple hours of thawing and an additional five or 10 minutes in the oven at the last minute, and they'd be the closest thing possible to freshly baked. It worked beautifully.

Ever the pragmatist, Beard would have appreciated my efforts, I think. As his longtime Knopf editor, Judith Jones, told me: "Jim was a very easygoing, instinctive cook, and very American. 'Mix and match as you please,' he would say."

Interestingly, Jones, who commissioned "Beard on Bread," didn't exactly have Beard in mind when she decided that the counterculture types who had fostered an interest in home bread baking needed a published guide to it. "I thought we'd find the Anna Thomas of bread," she said, referring to the breakout author of Knopf's "The Vegetarian Epicure" (1972), "and Jim knew everybody." She asked Beard, who already had a dozen books to his name, to have lunch. They met, they ate, they talked about bread, and a month later he called and said, "Let's go to lunch again." That happened three more times before Beard finally told her, "You know, I think I'd like to do that book."

The book, with unique on-the-spot illustrations by Karl Stuecklen that showed Beard folding, kneading and punching dough, was reprinted seven times in its first year alone, according to the James Beard Foundation. Even though Knopf and Jones worked with Beard on many future titles, including "James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking" (1977), the bestselling book of his life (more than 500,000 copies to date) was "Beard on Bread," as rich and golden as a sweet potato roll.

Recipe

Sweet Potato Rolls

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