By Celia Barbour
There isn’t a word for what I am not.
Baker comes close, though I bake plenty: cookies and cakes, muffins, scones, pies, tarts and more. What I don’t bake, however, is bread.
This is not a small crack in an otherwise unblemished shell of expertise. This is not like saying, “I’m not particularly good at clafoutis,” or “I’ve never had much success with mille feuille.” Bread is humankind’s fundamental foodstuff, synonymous with life itself. Bread matters.
Moreover, I revere bread bakers, the undisputed shamans of every kitchen I’ve ever worked in. Wise, graceful, efficient, they have an intuitive connection with their sourdough starters or pouliches; can assess their doughs’ feelings about a sudden downpour or a chilly morning the way a mother knows when her infant needs a nap. And they deliver. I’ve asked bakers at 8 a.m. if they might consider — maybe, please? — making some anadama or challah for supper, or — would you mind? — 200 pitas, 120 slices of focaccia? And then looked up from my cutting board a half-hour later to find them clapping the flour from their hands and announcing they’d be back around 2 to form the loaves.
I’ve longed to be them. Indeed, there was a time during my youth when following in such footsteps seemed not just appealing but essential. This was the era when Wonder Bread reigned supreme. The only way to escape it was via Pepperidge Farm, and the only way to escape Pepperidge Farm was to bake bread yourself. Bread, in other words, was squishy and bland and wrapped in plastic unless you took it upon yourself to make it otherwise.
That era lasted a decade, tops, and then suddenly amazing bread was everywhere — not just at farmer’s markets and hipster boulangeries but in grocery stores. Crusty, complex bread born of pouliches that had known great love; stunning loaves that had not just been baked in brick ovens, but actually, apparently, schooled by fire in the wisdom of the ancients.
What was $7 for a loaf like that — a split-top ash-floured beauty I could never replicate at home?
Still, I was not free from longing to transform myself into a bread-baking goddess. I actually adopted a sourdough starter on a few occasions, and showed it more love than I’d ever showered on any chia pet or sea monkey. From it, I created some marvelous, impressive loaves. But after a month or two, I always let my starter die. It didn’t make sense — the time and care required by that little bowl of bubbly goo. My family eats two or three loaves of bread a week, and, frankly, they don’t always want their PB&Js to be prepared on bread that is more complex, crusty and wise than they are.
And so —
And so, I came to realize that I probably don’t care all that much about becoming a bread baker. Excellent uber-bread was easy to find, and I made peace with paying for it.
Recently, however, it has occurred to me that, while complex bread might not be worth the effort and brick-oven-building skills to master, I do kind of miss simple bread: Parker House rolls, dinner rolls, hamburger buns. Soft, golden utterly unsophisticated carbohydrate puffs that would be insulted to be called artisanal. Moreover, that these are exactly the kinds of bread for which freshness and home-madeness is a huge surprise. For our post-Thanksgiving massive-family-gathering feast this year, I made Parker House rolls. I didn’t expect everyone to be awed, but that’s the point. I just wanted them to think, Oh, how nice. Warm rolls.
Parker House-style Dinner Rolls
Makes 16 to 20
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons butter, plus 3 tablespoons more for brushing on rolls
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup instant mashed potato flakes
1 package (2 ½ teaspoons) instant yeast
¼ cup sugar
1½ teaspoons salt
In a saucepan, gently heat the milk just to baby-bath temperature (about 105 degrees). Whisk in the egg and 3 tablespoons butter.
Transfer the milk mixture to a large bowl, add the remaining ingredients (except the butter for brushing) and stir until blended. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and pliable, about 12 minutes.
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a cloth, and place in a warm spot to rise, about 1 ½ to 2 hours (the exact time will depend on the warmth of your kitchen).
Because of its richness, this dough doesn’t rise like mad; don’t worry if it’s barely doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pull a lime-size piece of dough off the main bulk and roll it into a ball, folding any raggedy bits to the bottom and tucking them under to create a smooth top surface. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Continue rolling and smoothing dough balls, placing them roughly an inch apart. When finished, cover dough balls with a cloth and return to a warm spot to rise again, 45 minutes to an hour.
Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and brush on rolls’ surfaces. Place rolls in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.