Tag Archives: baking

Betsy Cole’s Never-Fail Bread Rolls

A Thanksgiving Tradition

I’ve never shared Thanksgiving dinner with Betsy Cole, but I like to think we commune every year on that day. She’s always busy cooking for her extended family down in Richmond and I’m always (until this year) busy cooking for my extended family in the Shenandoah Valley. But through the transitive power of a shared recipe, we’re basically in the room together: me timidly acknowledging the changes I have made to her recipe, her smiling with the forbearance that (I sure hope) comes with age. More likely, she’s simply shrugging: she doesn’t take this recipe nearly as seriously as we do.

In fact, it’s possible Betsy doesn’t even bake Betsy Cole’s Never-Fail Bread Rolls anymore. I’ve heard that rumor but I refuse to look into it. There’s something about Thanksgiving in particular that makes me averse to change, and I’ve had enough change this year; I don’t care to contemplate the idea that Betsy’s gotten into sourdough or off gluten. I need her to be the same Virginia State Fair blue-ribbon-winning, speed-knitting, bridge-playing, choir-singing grandmother that I’ve always known her to be, as well as the source of everyone’s favorite roll recipe.

Betsy would tell you there’s nothing special about these. She’s right: they are an ode to the ordinary, composed of the absolute simplest ingredients, plying the basic pleasures of salt, sugar, and fat. Piled into a basket, they express abundance, in reassuring individual portions. You get your own little loaf of bread all to yourself and I think that makes everybody relax just a little bit more. Especially if you make dozens.

Make Ingredients

Directions

Stir the yeast into 1 cup warm water. While it dissolves, melt 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup shortening in the microwave, and pour them into the bowl of a stand mixer.

Add to the melted fat 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 cup of room-temperature water, and 2 eggs. Beat till combined.

Add water and yeast mixture. Beat till combined.

Add 6 cups of white flour. Knead with the dough hook for 5 minutes. If it’s not forming a ball and cleaning off the sides of the bowl, add a little more flour–up to 1/2 cup. Knead 3 more minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and dump onto a lightly floured counter and knead by hand for a minute before forming into a ball and returning to the bowl.

Cover and let rise on the counter till double. Then refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 24.

Now comes the fun part: form into rolls. I weigh mine out to about 50 grams per roll, push my thumb in the center and purse the edges into the center and pinch, creating a taut ball. Place on a greased pan seam-side down. They fill a half sheet pan: seven down and five across for a total of 35.

Let rise at least 2 hours–until puffed and touching each other. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes. They should be golden brown, and the interior temperature of the dough should be at least 190–but it’s forgiving if you overbake them a little, on account of all the fat.

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Sourdough Resolution

IMG_7189Lena, having a snack at the counter after school, asked me what my favorite possession was. I mentally sifted through my stuff. I don’t really think of myself as a “thing” person. I rely on my computer. My noise-cancelling headphones are like a parachute: although I hardly ever use them, they offer me the reassurance that I can escape in an emergency. But favorite thing?

“I love the fountain pen my sister gave me,” I said, then noticed Adam and added, “and my wedding ring.” Not true: I love my husband and my marriage. The ring is more a symbol of things beloved than a beloved thing itself.

Later, at the same counter, the kids were eating what we call a “French picnic”: in our house that means a sourdough baguette, a cheese or three, salami or ham, and some kind of fruit. They eat that when Adam and I go out to dinner without them, or, as on this occasion, when I’ve just baked baguettes in order to use up some starter.

“That’s it!” I said, and they all stopped chewing for a second. “Lena asked me what my favorite possession is and it’s my starter!” My starter is older than they are, and still works beautifully. It makes silky, bouncy dough and then flavorful bread out of nothing—flour, salt, and water. It’s goop in a plastic container in my fridge; it’s magic.IMG_0209

That’s the thing you would save if the house was on fire?” asked Noah, skeptical.

“No,” I said, “because I would forget. But that’s the thing that I would later regret not saving.” I made a mental note to ask Maud if she still had some, in case my house burned down. That’s the other great thing about starter: you can give it away and still have it. Magic.

“Are you going to put it in your will?” asked Jesse.

“Well, by then I hope you’ll all have some, and be using it. You can compete to see who can keep it going the longest.”

“By then,” I went on, as I sometimes do, “you’ll all know how to make these,” and I picked up one of the knobby, golden brown baguettes still lined up on the cooling rack. I tend to leave my baked goods out for a while to make me feel productive during a day when the only thing I’ve written is a to-do list. “You’ll all know how to make them before you leave the house,” I declared, and then realized Noah was in ninth grade already and would be in college essentially by tomorrow afternoon.

That’s when I decided that 2015 would be the year of the baguette. By 2016, I vowed, all of my kids would be able to make them.

I am not as good a mom as I would like. Better habits, annually resolved—to read to my daughter every night, to hug my teenager every day—annually dissolve, corroded by inertia, distraction, laziness.

Finishing the Narnia series seems farfetched. We’ll be lucky to get through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But this transfer of skill . . . I think I can do. The kids are motivated and the task is fairly simple.

There are six stages, only two of which require any sort of skill. You feed the starter, make a biga (or levain or sponge—all words for a kind of pre-dough), make the dough, form the loaves, stretch the loaves into their pans, and bake the loaves.

This weekend I taught them to feed the starter, and then called them in to watch or try each subsequent step, although Lena missed a few (sleepover) and they all missed the baking part (football game). They did show up for the eating, though.

It’s a start.

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