The Runner, the Baker, the Wedding Cake Maker: Sleuthing Grandma’s roll recipe

Nikki Overfelt's Grandma's Rolls.

My apartment turned into a game of Clue this week. A whodunit involving yeast.

I decided to try to make my grandma Frances’ homemade rolls. They are a favorite in our family. Even after my mom and aunts started making most of the food for family gatherings and holidays, she was always in charge of the rolls. My grandma was as talented in the kitchen as she was musically inclined. She could sing, play piano and guitar. You might wonder what that has to do with her cooking, but that meant she was never without a song in the kitchen. And her cooking was like her piano playing. No recipe or notes needed.

Like many of her dishes, no one has been able to make her rolls like she did. My mom has tried but has had trouble with getting them to rise.

Well, as if there was any doubt, I am my mother’s child. Mystery partially solved. I killed the yeast. In the kitchen. But with what? That was the hard part.

The challenge started with piecing together my grandma’s recipe like a puzzle. My aunt Donna has list of ingredients my grandma wrote down, but there are no instructions. My mom has another recipe she thinks is from my grandma that is slightly different but has instructions. So I decided to use my aunt’s list of ingredients and my mom’s instructions.

Factor in that I’d never used the dough hook on my stand mixer before, that the water I used in the dough might have been too hot and that I had a cheesecake baking in the oven while I had the dough sitting on a burner to rise. So the first batch didn’t really rise at all. I baked them, but they were not fluffy. They were more like biscuits.

Was my weapon the dough hook? Did I knead it too much or not enough? Or was it the hot water or the hot oven that killed the yeast?

I didn’t mourn over the loss of that dough too long before I moved onto the next batch. I figure yeast comes in packages of three for a reason. I’d give it three tries. (Here, I must confess that I didn’t start making the dough until a couple of days before this column was due. I’m a journalist. I work best on deadline. But this did limit my time to experiment).

Before the second batch, I did more research. I called my mom, who was relieved to know that I wasn’t able to get the dough to rise on the first try, my aunt Brenda, who has more bread baking experience and who encouraged me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, that it just takes practice. I consulted my stand mixer guide to using the dough hook. I read Betty Crocker’s tips to bread baking and compared one of her recipes to my grandma’s.

I was determined to not kill the yeast again. I was more careful. I measured the temperature of the water. I turned the oven on 400 for one minute and then put the dough in to rise. I tried to be more patient. This time the dough did rise. Some. My rolls still weren’t light and fluffy.

At this point, you might think I’m ridiculous because a) I can’t get the dough to rise or b) I’m even trying to make homemade bread or c) I’m writing in Clue metaphors.

But I didn’t give up. I had one more yeast packet. Grandma’s roll recipe, take three. I followed the same directions, but let it rise a little longer. And it worked. They were a little less like biscuits. Still not as fluffy as I wanted, but I think it’s a work in progress.

So all of you newbie bread bakers out there, take heart. Don’t give up. All of you expert bread bakers, feel free to send me any tips or recipes. Or ideas of what to do with the 50 biscuit-y rolls now in my kitchen.

Like my aunt Brenda said, it just takes practice. So maybe I will try them again for Easter dinner. Or maybe I’ll stick with a cake.

I halved this recipe, and it made about 20 rolls.

6 cups of flour

2 packages of yeast

2 cups of shortening

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons of salt

1 cup of warm water (120-130 degrees)

Here are the collaborative instructions that are adapted from my mom’s instructions, my Kitchenaid stand mixer guide and Betty Crocker.

Mix all the dry ingredients — leave out 1-2 cups of flour — together with the dough hook on low for about 15 seconds. With the mixer on low, add in the other ingredients slowly and mix for another 1-2 minutes. Add in the rest of the flour, a half-cup at a time. Knead for 2 minutes, until the dough clings to the hook and cleans off the side of the bowl. Then knead on low for another 2 minutes until dough is elastic and smooth. (These are Kitchenaid’s instructions).

Then place the dough in a greased bowl with a towel over it and let rise for 2 hours. I used Kitchenaid’s tip of turning the oven on 400 for one minute, and then placing the bowl in the oven. I learned that you can tell if it’s risen enough by poking the dough gently with two fingers. If the indentations remain, it’s ready. Punch the dough gently. Then shape the dough into balls and place in a pan. I used the cloverleaf method, by putting three little balls into each muffin cup. But you can place just one or two in each cup or place the rolls side by side in a normal pan. Let rise in a warm place for another hour.

Bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes.

Reminder: This is a work in progress.

For more pictures of the dough making process and a side-by-side picture of each batch of rolls/biscuits, visit Nikki’s blog.