Monday, November 21, 2011

Back in the Saddle, Again – with a Great Recipe for Yeast Rolls and Why I Won’t Be Making Them
What’s cooking? Yeast Rolls

The road back from a shoulder injury is long and torturous – mostly torture at the hands of a physical therapist. But in spite of the suffering, PT Bob (my man in NJ) was really a marvel at getting me to the point where my surgeon would release me to fly back to Texas. And now I’m in Austin with the equally capable PT Megan, who while assuring me that I’m making great progress, tells me the rotator cuff usually takes about a year to recover fully. So I will repeat the lesson of my previous posting: Don’t jump around with wet feet on your bathroom floor, even if it means you have to leave your earrings on while you wash your hair.

In my disabled state, I started several postings, including one titled “I Can Eat with My Right Hand If I Use an Iced Tea Spoon”:

Fortunately, I have a supply of them here in New Jersey. The shoulder is getting better, but I still can’t get my right hand very near to my mouth. So if I want to eat with it, I am reduced to utensils with an extended reach, like iced tea spoons and chopsticks.

But it was too hard to type for more than ten minutes at a time, and with my pain-killer-addled brain, by the time I rested and started again, the thread of the thought was lost.

Back now in Texas, I am reasonably recovered and fully – or at least almost so – operational in the kitchen. Just in time for Thanksgiving, that marathon cooking holiday. Fortunately, my friend Diane has gathered half the neighborhood with whatever adult children would consent to show up, and everyone will be contributing dishes, so no one has to really bear down.

One of the staples of the holiday table prepared by my mother, aunt, and grandmother was yeast rolls. OMG. Soft, warm, brushed on the top with butter, and emiting that barely perceptible flavor of yeast. A worthy competitor to Proust’s madeleine.

But I don’t do yeast. I was trained as a mathematician, and something about the guesswork involved in knowing when the dough has doubled in size just makes me shudder and turn the page of the recipe book. Maybe it’s a genetic thing; my cousin, Helen, once told me she only does yeast infections. She, on the other hand, is much braver than I, and although it has taken her some 22 years, she found herself last Thanksgiving with the guts to tackle her mom’s recipe.

As many of you know, the challenge when dealing with ancient family recipes is that they assume a level of familiarity with the ingredients and the processes that is not entirely warranted. So I’ll start with a photo of my aunt’s recipe.

The first hurdle was the packaging of the yeast, which for reasons of shelf life and handling ease, now only comes in flat envelopes of granular, dry yeast. To Helen, it seemed simple enough: just substitute one-for-one. But the resulting rolls were...flat. What an embarrassment in front of the Thanksgiving crowd.

Undaunted, Helen resolved to try again for Christmas. She checked with her friends, but they were all too young to know about cake yeast. So she headed to the internet, where she found an email address for Carol Stevens at Red Star Yeast. I’m thinking Carol Stevens is Red Star’s equivalent to the phantasmal Betty Crocker, as responses come from someone with another name, but are signed, “Carol.” Nevertheless, Helen got a voluble reply with a number of helpful Kitchen Goddess-style yeasty notes:

1. Dry yeast can be stored at room temp until the expiration date, but lasts longer in the refrigerator or freezer.
2. Always bring yeast to room temp before using.
3. Store yeast away from air and moisture, so use the smallest container you can, and seal it well.

With this handy information, and the additional instructions about actually using the yeast, Helen moved on to the rolls. As she said to me, “I hope I become the one everyone asks to bring rolls... if I can ever master the technique.”

By her third try, Helen was really rolling. In the meantime, she had learned that you cover the dough with a wet towel and Saran Wrap before they go into the frig, and that the dough ball is so enormous, it looks like something you would use in a gymnastics competition. So you need to divide it into quarters for the rolling and cutting part. Most important, her mom left out the part about brushing the rolls with melted butter before baking. What was she thinking?!

Here’s the revised recipe, which Helen assures me is reliable. Now she’s moved on to her next challenge, pictured at the end of this post.

Aunt Marcy’s Yeast Rolls (formerly known as Mickey Bell’s Icebox Rolls)

Recipe makes about 4 dozen rolls.

1 cup Crisco
1 cup sugar, plus 1 teaspoon for starting the yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
2 eggs
2 envelopes dry yeast
½ cup warm (110-115º, which is not quite hot) water, plus ½ cup cool water
6 cup all-purpose flour
½ stick butter (or more if needed)

Cream together Crisco, the cup of sugar, and the salt. Pour the boiling water over this mixture and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Set aside to cool. (The mixture should cool enough to touch comfortably before you add the yeast.)

In a separate small bowl, add the tsp sugar to the ½ c warm water, then stir in the yeast until it dissolves. Allow the yeast mixture to stand 5-10 minutes, during which time it will bubble and foam, and the foam will rise up. Once that happens, add the yeast mixture to the Crisco-sugar-salt, and stir in the ½ cup cool water. [Kitchen Goddess note: If the yeast mixture doesn’t foam, your yeast is dead and you must start this part over with fresher yeast.]

Yeast Rolls before Baking
Add the flour and mix well. Cover the dough with a damp towel, cover the bowl with Saran Wrap, then place the bowl in the refrigerator overnight.

The Finished Product
Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead with lightly floured hands for 5-10 minutes, until dough becomes smooth and elastic. Divide the dough into quarters, and working one quarter at a time, roll it out to a ½-inch thickness, and cut with a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Fold the rolls almost in half to make half-circles. Place rolls on a lightly oiled baking pan (or – Kitchen Goddess preference – a pan lined with baker’s parchment), cover loosely with a kitchen towel, and let them rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature for 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 425º. Melt the butter and brush lightly over the tops of the rolls. Bake 10-12 minutes.

And here’s Helen facing her next challenge with a smile...


  1. I too was challenged by the idea of baking with yeast. However, I am fortunate that I can phone my Mum and she tells me, in more detail than I need, just what to do. But the best thing for me was an investment in the bread machine. Mine has a setting for dough with one rise. I use this primarily to make cinnamon rolls and hot cross buns - two family favorites. I know a little about yeast now as well. I buy the Fleishman's yeast in a jar and store it in the frig. You do have to plan ahead to bring it to temperature or your dough won't rise. I am trying not to bake anything at the moment as I was told to go off wheat for a period of 6-8 weeks. Now that's a real challenge!!

  2. Wow -- good luck with staying off wheat. There's a real challenge. And thanks for the comment about the machine. I checked out a number of recipes on line that said how easy yeast rolls were, and all were using a bread machine.