Making Nana’s Dinner Rolls

Mother always made the rolls, in a great big batch. We called them Nana Rolls, and everyone had some in their freezer for a rainy day.

Be it a Christmas dinner, a community potluck, or just a little dinner party, out came the big bread bowl. Out came the massive ingredients, the buckets of flour, the yeast, the butter, and the sugar. I’d often call her up and ask her what she was doing and she would say, “Oh, just made 70 rolls and a French bread for the potluck supper.”

Cooking big!

 If it was any type of gathering, she would immediately offer to make these soft, pillowy rolls, and everyone loved them. She liked to cook big; she loved to feed a crowd, even if it was people she didn’t know. After she baked, anyone stopping by would leave with a large sack of rolls, a built-in extra to disperse, a torture to get them home without opening up the bag in the car! I always had a package of rolls or two in my freezer, so did my siblings, and more than once they saved the day when I had unexpected company, or ran out of bread. Yes, they freeze really well, and you can take out just what you need, one Nana roll at a time.


Now, I make them, although not as often as her since time and diets change and I’m more apt to make whole grain or sourdough breads. But, I have the recipe, I have the bowl, and I make them for those same gatherings now and then. 

The following is the introduction to the bread chapter in a cookbook my sister and I put together with many of her recipes the year she died. It was our form of grief therapy I guess, remembering all the good times helped soothe the memories of the last months of her life. It really helped.

Making Mother’s Bread

I am kneading a large, floppy balloon of bread dough, and it requires some strength. I think of the last Christmas my mother made this same recipe, her recipe, the bread she made for every occasion, the one she created after years of working the dough. 

Nana rolls. That’s what everyone in the family calls them.

I am kneading flour and water, butter and yeast, salt and sugar. Simple ingredients. Women have done this for thousands of years. I don’t think she thought of that, but I do as I put this mixture together. I think of the reality of women’s hands to bread to mouths; it was never just survival, it was care and comfort and love. The daily feast.

It’s good. The recipe is a good one. I can tell that by the feel of the dough– soft, elastic, buttery, smooth, moving with a life of its own, almost a sway to a slow dance. Mother showed me how to make this dough, starting off by saying there was no real recipe. But as I watched her put “about” two quarts of liquid in the pan to boil, it was pretty close. Then, of course, what could be more accurate than a stick of butter, a quarter cup of sugar, the salt, three yeast cakes. Sometimes two, she said, if that is all you had, you just had to let it rise a little longer. You could do it with one, but you have to make a sourdough starter first, and we had a lot of laughs over starter one summer, for no particular reason other than it made us get silly together. We made starter, we put it in the refrigerator, kept it forever like a pet, and we thought it was wonderful and weird at the same time.

The flour, that was a different matter, this is where you really do have to go by “the feel of it,” and she was right there. She always said she used a better part of a 10-pound bag of flour with the recipe, and I thought that was a lot of flour, didn’t really believe her. It turns out, she was right. So, when I started adding my flour and got to 16 cups, 18 cups, 20 cups, oh my! And since I usually like my dough a little on the soft side, I stopped there, but you could add a little more, I suppose. Remember, it is the feel of the dough, and you just have to do it again and again to really know. The dough moves in your hand, you move with the dough. It speaks to you and lets you know when it is time to stop.

I am kneading the most beautiful dough there could be. Soft, gentle, the yeast smell rising to fill my head, as the muscles in my arms contract. I think again of the women who made bread this way in my own family through the decades, and there I connect: mother, grandmother, her mother and grandmother. I do not want to use a bread machine, I do not want to use the dough hook on my mixer. That’s too easy, that’s feeding people, not nourishing them, not nourishing myself to stop for a few moments, put my hands in the mixture and be in this wonderful moment. This is making bread, this is the real thing. Hands moving in a rhythm, stretching the gluten, working it, feeling it tighten and come alive. 

My mind usually wanders, but on this day it dances around a thousand times I cooked with my mother, baked with her, learned from her. Today, this dough is perfect in “the feel,” soft, gentle, elastic, and sticky just a little on the fingers, when it gets a little too sticky, I add a tiny sprinkle of flour to my fingers. That is all. Then I am back to my work. Not too much, it is all a balance, and patience, and trust that you know when you’ve got it right. That part can’t be taught; we all must learn it ourselves. For everyone it is different, and their bread is different, even if only slightly.

I place the dough in the giant Bennington Pottery bowl that I bought for my mother decades ago. It was a factory second, five bucks, a funny looking massive bowl that is terribly lopsided, but she and I were both delighted with its size and named it Wonky Bowl. Besides, it was the only bowl she had big enough to accommodate the dough in this recipe. She gave it to me after the last Christmas before she died. She said she didn’t have room for it, and I found a place for it in the storage area beside my sink. I didn’t use it until today because I discover as I look at the mound of dough on my kitchen table, it is the only bowl I have big enough for this recipe as well. She said the batch made about 70 dinner rolls! It turns out, she was right; actually 72 rolls, but I’m tempted to make them bigger next time. 

An hour or so goes by and the bread jumps to the top of this giant bowl and I am overwhelmed at the amount of dough that I have in front of me! I plop it out onto my table, and stare at it before moving into action.

I am rolling out the rolls and setting them aside for their second rise. I want them to look just like hers. I know I must crowd them on the cookie sheet, so they will come out sort of square, not round. I know I must dust them with flour, but I forgot if she said before or after the second proof. I decide on before, because it probably won’t make any difference. I let them rise again.

I take the giant bowl to the sink to wash. I wrap my arms around the bowl and bury head inside and smell the yeast. I do not move. I am in her kitchen, I am a teenager, I am a mother, I am her daughter. My tears slip to the bottom of the bowl, and I am with her. I want to make her proud of my bread, of me. Isn’t that what we all want from our parents, before we find we’ve turned into them?

I place the rolls in the oven and shut the door. I wait impatiently. I resist the urge to peek; my oven has no window. My sister is waiting for a sample. I tell her I was making them, I tell my husband I’m making them. I tell them how much flour it took! They are not surprised.

The phone rings and it is my brother, Floyd. I tell him what I am doing and as we speak I take the first of the rolls out of the oven. I wait only a few minutes then nearly burn my hands cutting off a chunk, slathering it with butter, breaking all the rules about letting my bread rest.

They are almost perfect. Well, I need to crowd them a little bit more, but otherwise….

Yes, they are most definitely Nana rolls. I decide to make them for Thanksgiving, sending the extra away in little sacks. Just the way she did.

Nana Rolls

36 to 70 rolls depending on how big you make them!

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup warm water (115 degrees F.)
  • 3 packets active dry yeast 
  • About 20 cups of flour, yes that’s right, 20 cups, or so
  • 4 tsp. sea salt

Bring water and milk to a simmer and add butter, and sugar. Pour into a large bowl and let cool to slightly warm, 115 degrees F. In the meantime, mix the yeast with a cup of flour and 1 cup of warm water and let it bloom.

In the cooled liquid, mix in a couple of cups of flour and the salt. Add the yeast mixture and gradually add remaining flour a little at a time. The exact amount will vary, but you want the dough to still be a little soft as you start to knead it. Knead for 8 to ten minutes then place back in the large bowl you have washed out and greased. Cover with a linen towel. 

Let rise until about double in bulk; if poked with a finger, the depression will slowly fill in. If it spring right back with no depression, it needs a little more proofing. Gently pour the dough onto a lightly floured bowl and shape into rolls. 

The way my mother did it was to pull off a piece of dough, tuck the edges under, then she rolled it on an unfloured surface with her hand cupped. It works like a charm and by the end of this batch, you should be able to get them pretty close in size. You can also use a large bench scraper and divide the dough evenly until you get the size you want, or, if you want them to be really uniform, pretend you are a contestant on the Great British Baking Show and weigh each piece of dough. Whatever method you use, place on a lightly greased baking sheet almost touching each other. Let rise, covered, until double in bulk. After the rise, they will all be touching. Sprinkle lightly with flour.

Preheat oven to 375, and reduce the heat to 350 when you pop in the rolls. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. Let them cool, and break apart.

This batch, I wanted them big, so I only made 40 rolls. You can easily make twice that amount.

These freeze beautifully, but you can also halve the recipe if you like! 

To make a sweeter dough for cinnamon rolls, etc., increase the sugar to 1 cup. Often, mother would braid the dough she didn’t want to use for rolls, and pretty it up with an egg glaze just before baking. Sometimes she saved enough dough to make a batch of cinnamon rolls, which we all loved. 

Mom on her 75th birthday.

And just because I have to fiddle with everything:

100% Whole Wheat Yeast Rolls

I made a roughly quarter recipe of mom’s original and swapped out all white whole wheat flour for the white in the original recipe, used oat milk rather than dairy, and vegan butter. The result was a tasty roll that has lovely texture and a nutty flavor. They did not rise quite as much as the white version, but they are delicious, heart healthy, and vegan. This made one dozen.

  • 1 cup water, divided
  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup oat milk
  • 2 tbsp. vegan butter
  • 1 tbsp. organic sugar
  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 4 ½ cups King Arthur organic white whole wheat flour, about
  • 1 tsp. sea salt

Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup of the water. Proceed with all other ingredients as we did in the original recipe. 

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85 Comments Add yours

  1. They look absolutely delicious! I love baking bread and rolls.

    1. The smell of the house when they are baking is out of this world!

  2. What a wonderful story and tribute to your mother! And what special memories you have! The rolls sound truly irresistible, I wish I had a sack to enjoy!

    1. Thank you Jenna! The breadmaking is a wonderful connection to a wonderful woman!

  3. nancyc says:

    These rolls look amazing—my mouth is watering! How nice it is to have a special recipe like this handed down from your mother!

    1. Thank you Nancy! They are special indeed!

  4. NativeNM says:

    Recipes handed down from our Mom’s are so special. Most of the time I learned to cook by watching my Mom. But the one thing she taught me was how to make dough by feel and how to shape them. Thanks for sharing your memories, they are precious!

    1. Thank you so much! I was lucky to have such a remarkable woman for a mother, and I treasure all she traught me.

  5. Suzassippi says:

    I enjoyed reading this story, Dorothy. It reminded me of my mother’s rolls. I have her recipe, and I have made them a few times over the years. Perhaps this year is going to be one of those times.

    1. I felt like I needed that connection this week. Sometimes, it just sets the stage for making everything a little better.

  6. I would love to make these rolls. They look yummy. Tradition in families is a wonderful thing.

    1. There are lots of mom’s recipes we make during the holidays especially, and I look forward to them all. That tradition is like a family glue.

  7. This is such a great recipe. and a beautiful tribute to its’ creators. 🙂

    1. Thank you! Mom would be pleased!

  8. Gail says:

    I thought I smelled bread baking. 🍞🥐🥖

    1. The aroma pulls folks in from all around the world!

  9. terrie gura says:

    I first started reading this beautiful post just moments after you posted it today, but I had to postpone finishing because tears got in the way! This is such a sweet story and tribute to your mom, who obviously taught you so much about nourishing those you love! I have similar memories about my grandmother, who passed away two summers ago. I can almost smell the warm yeast rolls as you describe your very hands-on process of making them. Just beautiful, and that Wonky Bowl! I’m glad to know the whole story. 🙂

    1. Thank you Terrie! A whiff of yeast is a powerful thing. I cannot smell bread baking, or even walk into a bakery, without some little nudges of memory floating in the air as well. The sense of smell is so strong, and when you combine it with nurturing those you love, everything is good. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the beautiful tears as well.

  10. Nancy says:

    I’m in tears! You have described My Mother making her loaves of bread… 3 loaves at a time …twice a week! It’s why I probably still have Thunder Thighs!
    You my dear have written a beautiful tribute to your sweet Momma! Exquisitely written! I enjoyed it so much as it reminded me of my Momma… yes, I still have tears in my eyes.
    I want to make these… but most likely will need to halve the recipe.
    Thank you Dorothy! I am sending you a great big hug!

    1. Oh, thank you Nancy! Every time I read it, I get a little weepy as well. If everyone in the world had mothers who baked them bread with such love as yours and mine, I believe we would all feel things differently.

      1. Nancy says:

        I whole heartedly agree!

  11. Julia says:

    Thank you for sharing your memories with us, as well has the recipe.

    1. You’re very welcome Julia! That’s what it’s all about!

  12. c.a. says:

    I’d bet my pumpkin pie that just like my Mother, she never used a recipe! 😉

    1. You are right! Everything was “about” this our that much!

  13. CarolCooks2 says:

    A beautiful tribute to your mother, Dorothy and you took back to my nana’s kitchen and her Aga as I helped make the bread…That is the only thing I have Covid to thank for in that I now bake bread and cakes far more…a delightful read 🙂 x

    1. Thank you Carol! I’m delighted to offer a little time travel to my friends. A lot of folks revisited their bread making during Covid, and that is indeed a little silver lining to all this.

      1. CarolCooks2 says:

        It certainly is a silver lining, Dorothy 😊

  14. Great story!

    1. Thanks Stefan! She was a great lady.

  15. Chef Mimi says:

    The rolls look wonderful, and your Nana does, too!

    1. Thanks Mimi! Sylvia was my mom, and all her 10 grandchildren called her Nana, along with all their friends and kids of friends, etc.

  16. sunisanthosh says:

    A great tribute to your mom, Dorothy. The rooms looks delicious.

    1. Thank you so much. I think of her every day, especially when I make, or remake, one of her recipes.

  17. Nancy Richy says:

    Wow! What a legacy, a real family tradition. I’m a pushover for all types of homemade rolls and breads. My mouth is watering just reading the recipe and looking at the photos. I want to break one open, let the butter get all melty and take that first bite. Mmmm … manna from heaven! Definitely making these for Thanksgiving! Thanks for this delectable post!

    1. Thank you for your appreciation of these delectable pieces of our family traditions. They are delightfully textured, and are indeed best served up with a lovely smear of melts butter. My grandson took some home and toasted them, then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Nana would have approved!

  18. This post required me to get a tissue. ❤️I love bread, and these rolls are amazing looking. I could almost smell them. The reason for the tissue though was the wonderful story and memories of your Mom woven into the bread recipe. My grandmother and mother-in-law made bread and cupped it so I smiled a lot reading this too. I’m positive Nana has a smile too. This is truly a lovely holiday post reminding us to be thankful for family.

    1. Thank you so much Judy for your heartfelt words! As the holidays approach I dig into that old recipe memory box and pull out all the treasures, and there are lots of them there. The tear add just the right touch of salt. 💕

  19. Paula says:

    This is beautiful Dorothy! A touching tribute to your mother and those food memories that keep us firmly attached to the past. I felt every word – it was truly beautiful reading. I will be bookmarking this recipe.

    1. Oh, Paula, thank you so much! These are the beautiful threads that connect us to all who came before.

  20. Nancy Richy says:

    Cinnamon and sugar! What a great idea! My grand kids would love that!

    1. I think all grandkids are charmed by cinnamon and sugar!

  21. Christy B says:

    Dorothy, this post is beautiful. It is a lovely nod to your mom’s love of baking for all. Her delcious rolls brought much happiness over the years, of that I have no doubt. Thank you for sharing these words about your mom. I’m sure she would love that you are sharing the recipe and the joy along with it xx

    1. Thank you so much Christy! I think mom would be delighted to share her recipes with all. She brought joy to all in her family and all friends.

  22. Joni says:

    That was a lovely tribute Dorothy!

    1. Thank you Joni! Lots of good memories.

  23. Now these are rolls, I am saving this one. Thank yo for the recipe and your memories of your mom.

    1. You are so welcome! When you cook big, it’s a handy recipe!

  24. Just like Mother used to make. Those women could bake up a storm and everything came out to perfection. My Mothers house looked like a bakery on the holidays. Bread and buns she made every week or two. On holidays there were pies, tarts, squares, and fruit cakes. Thank you for posting the recipe. With four older sisters, I did not get the cookbooks.

    1. So sorry you didn’t get the cookbooks! But I bet your mom didn’t need them most of the time!
      You’re right. Their kitchens did look like bakeries.

      1. She probably didn’t, but they were well worn and filled with as many memories as recipes.

      2. Ah! Many one of the sisters will share, at least for a while?

      3. I am sure. 💖

  25. Ally Bean says:

    The rolls look delicious, but so much work to make them. A lost art, I suppose

    1. It’s good time though, and except for the kneading, it is mostly hands off, waiting for those little bubbles to do their trick!

  26. Carolyn Page says:

    Beautiful memories, Dorothy, lovely to read. The secret is out – Mother knows best. ❤️

    On a lighter side – How do you manage without a oven window? I am constantly peeking!

    1. That’s a good question Carolyn! I use my timer, but always peek just before I think it is ready. My Aga is pretty predictable. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made a mistake or two…

  27. Americaoncoffee says:

    What bread could be better for the upcoming holiday dinners? 🌺❤️♥️🍮🍮

    1. In our family, nothing beats these rolls!

      1. Americaoncoffee says:

        Your Nana’s dinner rolls are undoubtedly a winner of hearts! And I think you’ve inherited the magic touch to keep them original! That is love! 💕

      2. Thank you so much! We feel so close to my mom when we make and enjoy these rolls. One of her many legacies!

  28. Leah says:

    So beautifully written, Dorothy! Thank you for sharing your memories with your nana. Eating and cooking are not just about nourishment but about creating lasting memories as you do with your cooking. I wish I have your freshly baked rolls right now with my coffee! 🙂

    1. Thank you Leah! This is what it is all about, isn’t it? Handing down these traditions and memory to each new generation, making a swap here and there, but keeping the feeling and the intention there. They are our treasurers for sure.

  29. Beautiful post. Got the tears going. Thank you.

    1. Oh, thank you! The memories are deep and beautiful, and bring tears every time.

  30. Drunken Chef says:

    I must make this. Did I miss what kind of flour? Is it just good old king Arther bread flour?

    1. It’s actually good old King Arthur All Purpose flour, organic if you can find it! The bread flour would be perfect too, but mom usually just had the all-purpose on hand and that is what she used.

      1. Drunken Chef says:

        Thank you!!

      2. You’re welcome! Happy baking!

  31. Wow! These Nana’s rolls for sure are a special bond! Beautiful words! And they look so fabulous and mouthwatering 😋 I almost can feel the fantastic smell of freshly baked bread

    1. Thank you Ribana! The aroma gets them excited, them the flavor makes them happy!

  32. sunisanthosh says:

    Thank you for sharing the recipe and memories about your mom, Dorothy. 💜

    1. It was my pleasure! Mom shared everything, especially when it came to food, so I’m just following in her footsteps.

  33. Angela says:

    Well, you know this made me cry. It is so much like the memories that bubble up when I’m doing something like that in the kitchen. Very, very personal, much treasured. Beautiful writing, Dorothy.

    1. Thank you Angela. I so love making those rolls because I feel close to my mom and all her kindnesses. I’ll make them for everyone at Thanksgiving, with plenty to give for take away!

  34. What a wonderful bread roll recipe, Dorothy, and a most marvelous memory/story too.

    1. Thank you so much Robbie! There are so many memories in that dough!

  35. jama says:

    LOVE this post, Dorothy. The rolls look heavenly and the backstory is so heartwarming and life affirming. 20 cups of flour! That’s a serious baker!! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much Jama! It was an amazing recipe from an amazing woman.

  36. This one is any time food!
    Love your cherished memories Dorothy.

    1. Oh thanks! The memories definitely enhance the flavor.

  37. I can’t tell you how much I loved this post! A beautiful tribute to family and our cherished traditions! My mouth is watering, heart is full, I’m heading to the store for flour! 💕C

    1. Ah! Thanks so much Cheryl, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this post; it is one of my personal favorites as well! It’s a good recipe, and the memories start from the first time you make them!

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