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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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