‘You made Grandma’s rolls?” my sister asked me, part question, part exclamation.
The occasion was our dad’s 60th birthday, and I was cooking for about 70 people. If my grandmother had been alive, there would have been rolls. Because if there was any sort of gathering where food was involved — holiday, birthday, funeral, wedding, family picnic — “Mary’s buns” were assumed. They would be there. They were always going to be there.
Until, of course, she wasn’t.
If we took the rolls for granted while she was alive, they became a nearly instant legend upon her passing, when there was some consternation about who could make them for her wake. As soon as we couldn’t have them anymore, it was all anyone wanted.
As I planned the menu for my dad’s party, I wasn’t looking for the roll recipe, assuming it was lost. But when I flipped through a cookbook assembled by my other grandmother, now in her 90s, I found something simply titled “Dinner Rolls,” credited to Mary Webster.
It isn’t a complicated recipe. The best recipes never are. In fact, as it was originally written, three of the nine ingredients are water at various temperatures. So I took a shot and made a batch according to the directions, to serve as sandwich buns at the party.
“They’re good, but they aren’t quite right,” my sister said.
I already knew that.
This isn’t a weepy saga about chasing the ghost of a flavor from childhood that you can never have again. And it isn’t about unlocking some closely held secret recipe to attain some weird sense of immortality. This is mostly about aesthetics.
When Grandma would pump out tray after tray after tray of these rolls — the opening bid on dinner rolls in our family was six dozen — there was a machinelike uniformity to them. Same size, same shape, same color, same dome.
Mine tasted right, but they looked like a topographical map of the Appalachians. The texture wasn’t quite as soft as I remembered, but I didn’t think it was terrible. Because it was my first time making them, I cut myself some slack. I convinced myself that both imperfections would improve with practice.
“It’s not that,” my sister said.
She turned one over and noted the flat bottom. With her finger, she started drawing a little circle in the middle.
“Grandma’s used to have a little indent right here.”
She was right. I never would have remembered that, but when she said it, I knew it was true. And better yet, I knew how it got there.
When I was a kid in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, I had more than once watched Grandma make the rolls. This was not a sign of my nascent culinaria. Instead, I knew that, while forming the rolls, she would rip off small chunks of the raw dough, roll them in sugar and give them to me and my brother. Sure, I loved the sweet, gummy texture and the waft of raw, blooming yeast coming up through my nasal cavity, but mainly we knew that eating raw dough would result in some epic belching battles. (We were 10-year-old boys. Don’t act so shocked.)
I did, however, manage to pay some attention to what was going on when we weren’t catching sugar-coated yeast balls like trained seals.
First, there was a giant yellow Tupperware tub — definitely Tupperware — that she would use to mix the dough and let it rise. When it was time to form the rolls, she would systematically plop one hand into the mass and pull out a bit of dough. How much? As much as her hand knew to pinch. She would stretch the dough a little, then start turning edges back up into the middle to form a sphere. She would keep pulling at the edges and pushing back toward the core, all the while spinning it somehow, before forming the thumb and index finger of one hand into a circle and rotating the dough through that circle from beneath. The action resulted in a little cyclonic depression in the middle of the base. It came out on the other side as a perfect orb that she would put in the 9-by-13-inch pan. Some evidence of the divot always survived the final rise and the baking.
In the recipe’s instructions — all I had to go on that first time I made them — the information in the 166-word paragraph above is conveyed as: “Make into buns.”
I don’t think that was an attempt at subterfuge or passive misdirection. I just think that in another era, “make into buns” meant you stretched and tucked and twisted and poked and did the thing with your fingers, and then did it again and again and again.
It has been more than a decade since my dad’s party, and while I haven’t obsessed over making the rolls with their proper divots, I never stopped thinking about it, and I have attempted it a few times.
To make my rolls uniform in size, I have resorted to scales and measuring cups, neither of which worked. Which I should have known, because Grandma never used either.
And while I can stretch dough and tuck it back within itself, I have never mastered the ability to twist it up through my fingers to accomplish whatever magic happens there. I have convinced myself that her hands were softer and smoother, that mine have too many craggy ridges and imperfections to allow the smooth passage of the dough.
But before I accepted defeat, I had one more plan. My Aunt Barbara has assumed the mantle as the family’s maker of the buns. I asked her if I could come over and make them with her. I didn’t tell her there was a specific thing I would watch for, because I didn’t want her to get self-conscious.
As we got started, I learned things almost immediately. The recipe starts with an entire 5-pound bag of flour. I’ve always thought that was a lot, and I might have halved the recipe once (sacrilege!), but there was a reason.
“Mum hated to measure,” Aunt Barb said. “Flour comes in a 5-pound bag.”
That makes so much sense that it would have been impossible to ever guess.
After the dough’s first rise, she told me that she could always tell whether Grandma was mad at someone by the ferocity with which she punched down the dough. Apparently, sometimes she punched it more than others. And sometimes she punched it harder than others. But she never let on whom she was imagining when she did it.
“It was probably Dad,” Aunt Barb said.
I decided to not think about what that could possibly mean.
After the second rise, we arrived at the moment of truth. This was where I always get it wrong, and I could feel it in the air — in the very kitchen where Grandma made probably hundreds of thousands of these buns — that I was about to get the revelation I’d come for.
Aunt Barb reached into her huge vat of dough. She plopped one hand into the mass and pulled out a bit. How much? As much as her hand knew to pinch.
That innate portioning was a hard thing to learn, she said. She once asked Grandma about it and was told she “just knew how much.” Aunt Barb said the first few times she made the buns, hers were inconsistent, like mine, but after a while, she just knew, too.
She tugged and tucked the dough until a sphere emerged. Just as I thought she was about to form the awaited “okay” sign with her finger and thumb, revealing the Secret of the Divot, she instead dropped the ball into the pan and reached into the vat to start the next.
Maybe I missed it? I watched closer for a couple more. Nothing.
I came clean and told her that I remember a final step, and she immediately knew what I was talking about.
“I’ve never been able to figure out how to do that.”
Well, that settles that!
So I plopped my hand into the vat to help form our new-age divotless buns. We took what proved to be a little too much care in assuring we would get six dozen out of the batch. As a result, we ended up with seven dozen.
We took the first batch out of the oven, and we each buttered one, noted the flat bottoms, then devoured them anyway.
We can still have the best parts of the buns. The flavor and the memories. The divot was a detail, Grandma’s signature on her art, the extra part that you can’t truly replicate. And maybe you shouldn’t even try.
Webster is the co-author, with chef Mario Batali, of “America: Farm to Table” (Grand Central Life & Style, 2014).
MAKE AHEAD: The dough rises three times, for a total of 4 hours. The rolls are best warm, straight from the oven. They can be wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days or in the freezer for a month. Defrost in the refrigerator; reheat before serving.
From Mary Webster of Finleyville, Pa.
1 cup warm water
21/4 teaspoons (1 packet) quick-rise dried yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup ice-cold water
2/3 cup cold whole or low-fat milk
1 pound, 11 ounces flour (a generous 5
Melted butter, for brushing (salted or unsalted; optional)
Pour 2/3 cup of the warm water in a mixing bowl, then stir in the yeast. Let sit for about 10 minutes or until the surface becomes frothy. (If the mixture doesn’t foam, dump it out and try again.)
Combine the sugar, shortening, salt and the remaining 1/3 cup of warm water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook just until the shortening melts, then remove from the heat. Add 1/3 cup ice water and the milk.
Put the flour in a large mixing bowl and add the shortening mixture and the yeast mixture. Use your hands to mix it all thoroughly. It will be sticky at first, but as you work the dough, it will begin to come together. Knead for 5 to 10 minutes. (Alternately, the mixing and kneading could be done in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.)
Grease a piece of plastic wrap with cooking oil spray; drape it loosely over the bowl. Transfer the bowl to a warm area and let the dough rise for 2 hours. It should double in size. Remove the plastic wrap, punch down the dough, re-cover and let it rise for 1 hour.
Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking oil spray.
Punch down the dough again and pull off a piece about the size of a golf ball. Stretch the dough and turn the edges back toward the center. You should see small air bubbles breaking the surface. Continue to stretch the dough, turning the edges back toward the center, until no more bubbles appear and you are left with a smooth, golf ball-size piece of dough. Place the ball in the pan and repeat to use all the dough. You should get 24 rolls, filling the pan with 4 rolls by 6 rolls. (If you don’t get 24, space your rolls out evenly in the pan.) Loosely cover the pan with a clean towel and let the dough rise in a warm spot for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the towel and place the pan in the center of the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the rolls are golden brown. Transfer the rolls from the pan to a wire rack. Brush with butter, if desired. Serve warm, or cool completely before storing.
VARIATION: The dough can also be used for sandwich rolls: Form 12 large rolls instead of 24 small ones.
Nutrition | Per roll (using low-fat milk): 130 calories, 3 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
Recipe tested by Jim Webster; e-mail questions to email@example.com