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November 20, 2008 at 8:51 AM

Get ’em while they’re hot! My recipe for buttermilk rolls, perfect for Thanksgiving

My very first waitressing job was at the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May, N.J. — a grand old Southern-style hotel with an “American plan” (meaning you’d get breakfast and dinner along with the price of a room). I lived on-premise and spent much time hanging out in the big country kitchen, drinking coffee and lending a hand in my off-hours by helping the cooks with their daily chores.

I was fascinated by the sense of place there, and of family. And I vividly recall helping the cook, Dot Burton, make buttermilk biscuits early in the morning (rolled out thick, then stamped into rounds with the rim of a juice glass), and sitting alongside her mother, the kitchen matriarch Miss Helen Dickerson, late in the afternoon, fashioning dinner rolls by hand. I think of Miss Helen — who wowed the Chalfonte guests with her kitchen prowess until she was in her eighties — every time I make these:

That said, I don’t use Miss Helen’s recipe, I use the one I adapted from this wondrous little Southern cookbook by Dori Sanders — which Dori calls “Heavenly Four-Bread Biscuits” and I renamed “Heavenly Flour-Bread Rolls”:

Dori’s version calls for hand-mixing and liquid buttermilk (see the recipe, way down below), but I employ a standing mixer and keep powdered buttermilk around so that I can always make them at a moment’s notice. I mix the powder in with the other dry ingredients and proof my yeast in two cups of very warm water — to make up for the liquid lost by not using liquid buttermilk. The amount of dried buttermilk powder you’ll need depends on the brand. I like Darigold, and use six tablespoons for this recipe. Liquid or dry, these buttermilk beauts come out like a heavenly hybrid of Dot’s biscuits and Miss Helen’s dinner rolls.

So, you ready? Here’s the step-by-step. And if you don’t think these get major raves at my house every Thanksgiving, you’ve obviously never eaten one. First I gather my ingredients:

Next I proof a packet of yeast (one scant tablespoon) in two cups of warm water:

If you’re using liquid buttermilk you should do as it says in the recipe and proof the yeast in two tablespoons of warm water, like this:

And if you’re one of those people who freak out at the idea of using yeast, you can use a thermometer to test the temperature of the water: yeast should proof in water that doesn’t exceed 110-degrees. I just turn on the spigot, wait until the water’s hot enough to feel “hot” — but not burn my hand — and call it good. Works every time.

Next, I combine my dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and dried buttermilk. Then, with the mixer running, I slice and add the shortening. And hey, trust me: It’s worth keeping those pre-measured Crisco blocks around, even if they’re more expensive than the big-honking tub. The ease of not having to measure-and-float shortening the old-fashioned way, and using my KitchenAid to mix the dough, means I can pull this recipe together in about 10 minutes. Swear!

Whether you’ve cut in the shortening by hand or machine, this is the point where the mixture is supposed to start looking like “cornmeal.” Every time I read this instruction in any recipe, I always wonder, “Which cornmeal? That finely milled stuff in the blue-and-orange box? Bob’s Red Mill coarse ground? What?” I usual just wait until it looks like this:

And that’s when I add the yeastified water (or, conversely, when you might add the proofed yeast mixture to the liquid buttermilk and pour that in, as described below):

It’s going to be a very ooshy dough, and you don’t have to mix it long — nor should you:

In fact, if you use a KitchenAid, it’ll be so ooshy that when you lift the arm, the whole ball ‘o dough will likely stick to your paddle. That’s good: it’s meant to be a soft dough. And I said soft, not overly sticky:

OK, so now I’m done with the “hard” part. And here’s where I take the wad of dough and let it rest. You can either let it sit in a bowl on the counter, covered, for a while (anywhere from a half-hour, minimum, to several hours — punching it down now and again), or refrigerate it overnight (see recipe for more on that). Here’s the rest, rise and punch, plus Mac’s “Tugboat cookies,” which he made, so don’t look at me in that, “Oh, excuse me Martha Stewart” tone of voice:

Now, here’s the really fun part, where you get to re-live your Play-Doh years. If you’ve got young kids, they’ll love this part, too. Tear off a quarter-sized nugget of dough and make three equal balls, rolling them between your clean hands and tucking them into the muffin tin, just like Miss Helen did! Though truth be told, what she did was oil her hands and squeeze the little lobes between her thumb and her index finger. I do that sometimes, too, just for kicks:

I’ve found that the older and browner your muffin tin (see the one on the left, which I’ve had forever), the browner your rolls. Let these rise for a half-hour or longer, preferably in a warm place, and bake them in a pre-heated 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes until they’re golden brown. I like to time the baking so that they go from oven to table when they’re hot. And I’ve been known to bring half-risen rolls to parties and bake them in my host’s oven — gives folks a thrill every time. And yes, you’re entitled to eat one — or two — immediately:

Heavenly Flour-Bread Rolls (makes about 2 1/2 dozen)

Adapted from “Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking”

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

2 tablespoons warm water

5 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup shortening

2 cups buttermilk

1) In a medium bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Set aside.

2) In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and

salt. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender until mixture

resembles very coarse cornmeal.

3) Add buttermilk to yeast mixture, stir briefly, and add to

flour mixture. Stir until mixture is just moistened. The dough,

will be very soft. (You may cover and refrigerate

it overnight at this point.) Let the dough rest and rise, covered, for at

least a half hour, or up to several hours, punching it down as

need be during the longer rise.

4) Lightly grease muffin tins. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

(If refrigerated, remove dough from refrigerator and let rise an hour. Then

punch down the dough and knead it briefly, about 2 minutes, on a lightly

floured surface.) Pinch off quarter-sized pieces, roll them into

rounds between the palms of your hands and put 3 small balls into

each muffin tin. Let rise for 30 minutes and bake about 15 to 20 minutes,

or until golden.

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