First, a haiku:
My grandmother, “Mema”, was a wonderful cook, producing Southern food in classic grandmotherly style: something was always just coming out of the oven, just for you, whenever you wandered into her kitchen. There she was, in one of those shapeless cotton shift apron dresses she always wore at home, stooping slightly, smiling warmly and crinkling her green eyes as she pushed the butter dish toward you and heaped a few sweet potato biscuits or the yeast rolls we’ve always called “Mema Rolls” onto a plate. Mema’s kitchen seemed like heaven to us hungry grandchildren on cold winter mornings when our families gathered in at her home Sweetwater for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I’ve searched and searched and can’t find a single picture of Mema in her kitchen, but I think you can imagine it: small, all of the meager counter space being used at all times for important things like rolls rising, jars waiting for to be filled with vegetables for canning, a big pot of tea steeping, an old metal percolator burping coffee sounds. Delectable aromas at all times. A squeaky back door with a window looking out onto a small yard patrolled by a huge, old scarred-up black tomcat named Midnight. A sturdy formica and chrome table from the early 50s standing right in the middle of the activity, surrounded by six chairs that matched it – and several others that didn’t. Mema’s table was set up for maximum capacity.
A giant double-door refrigerator/freezer was always packed full of fresh and frozen food, because, although she lived alone, Mema was ready for a crowd at all times; by golly, no one would go hungry at her house! (We could have fed most of Sweetwater with the frozen food we cleaned out of her freezer when she moved in with my aunt toward the end of her life.)
Born in 1910, Mema came of age during the Great Depression and the resourcefulness she developed during that time was one of the hallmarks of her personality, in addition to her strong faith. In fact, she continued to work until she was in her late 80s, acting as a companion and helper for her next-door neighbor, who was actually younger than my grandmother. She called this job “sitting with Miz Butler”. Mema, whose name was Memery Frank Harvell (there’s a story there!) was a wonderful role model for her children – and many others – and probably one of the reasons I get so much joy out of cooking from old family recipes. Which brings me to today’s subject and recipe: “Mema Rolls”, AKA “Nana Rolls” by some of my cousins.
Mema’s rolls are legendary across the family and staples on all of our holiday dinner repertoires as my Dad and his siblings carried on the tradition, each in their own families. At Glover Gardens, Dad was always responsible for bringing the rolls to holiday dinners. Dad is in heaven making rolls with Mema now, and on his last Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with us in 2016, he was unable to eat because of esophagus problems and other health issues. It was time for me to figure it out.
But first, there was a collection of Mema Rolls recipes to sift through (pun intended). The treasured formula had been documented many times – and with some variation – over the years, and Dad and his siblings were pretty much making it from memory by now. But I needed to figure out which one to use, and how to fill in the blanks on the missing steps my elders had somehow absorbed by osmosis. Check out the resources I had at my fingertips below – 5 different variations of the marvelous pillows of yeasty goodness, with names ranging from “Rolls”, “Bread or Rolls”, “Refrigerator Rolls”, and one version that used condensed milk, “Eaglebrand Rolls”. Richness! One of the versions of the recipe was published in my parents’ cookbook, which I’ve written about before, also a source a richness. That’s probably the one that my Dad used.
These artifacts are gold in terms of family history and heritage, and in fact, on one of the recipe cards, there’s a notation: “Mema wrote this”. It looks like her handwriting and makes me wonder if she knew it would be a future treasure. Or was it one of my aunts, making sure that generations to come would know the recipe was from the hand of the master roll-maker? (Dear Aunts, if you’re reading this, let me know.)
I looked at all these recipes last Thanksgiving (2016), figured out what was in common and gave the Mema Rolls a try, calling Dad once or twice for consultation. I needed his help: the amounts of flour were different in some of the recipes, the oven temperature varied and they were written in family shorthand. There were just not enough words to explain exactly how to make these legendary rolls.
This endeavor was bittersweet; I wanted Dad to be proud and happy that I was carrying on the family tradition (he was), but it would have been so much better if he could have tasted them. As always, Dad brought his camera to Thanksgiving, which would be his last, and he took this picture of my first-ever Mema Rolls. I cherish it.
Don’t they look good? But I made a big mistake when making the rolls last year: I didn’t write down the steps and the resolution to all the tiny questions I had for Dad. And I just couldn’t publish the recipe in its family shorthand state, because that would leave it to the reader to ask all the same questions. So my new daughter-in-law and I tackled it together this year. The Girl Who is Always Hungry (her self-chosen name in the blog) did the work, and I wrote everything down as we figured it out. We were both pleased and proud, and I could feel the spirits of Dad and Mema smiling on us. As I’ve said before: “Family history: love on a plate.”
Mema Rolls (makes about 5 dozen)
- 1 cup plus 2 cups warm water (between 110°F – 115°F)
- 2 1/4 tsp dry yeast (1 package)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar, separated
- 2/3 cup shortening (not oil)
- 1 scant tbsp salt
- 7-8 cups flour, separated (start with 2 cups, then 5, then the optional last one)
In a small bowl, combine the yeast and 2 tbsp of sugar with 1 cup of warm water, stirring to dissolve. Set aside and let stand until foamy. (If the yeast mixture doesn’t produce bubble and foam within 5 minutes, discard the mixture and start over again with different yeast.)
In a large bowl or a mixer, stir together the remaining 2 cups of warm water, 1/2 cup of sugar, salt and shortening, then add two cups of flour and mix. Then add the yeast mixture and mix until smooth. Add 5 cups of the remaining flour in two batches and stir by hand, or, if you’re using the mixer, mix on low speed (using the dough hook) until you have a smooth, soft dough, adding in the last cup of flour if the dough is too sticky to form a ball. Knead until the dough feels elastic, about 3 minutes with the dough hook in the mixer or 5 minutes by hand.
Coat a medium bowl thoroughly with cooking spray and place the dough ball in it, turning to coat all surfaces. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for at least two hours or up to a week.
When you are ready to bake the rolls, flour your hands and then shape and finish as desired (see below). Put the rolls in pans or on cookie sheets, then cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Bake at 425° for 12-14 minutes.
Shaping the Rolls
Simple Squares (this is what The Girl Who is Always Hungry and I did and is the easiest and quickest of the options)
Divide the dough into four sections (after it has been refrigerated). Loosely roll or pat out a section on a lightly floured cutting board or pastry board in a large rectangle to a thickness of about 1 inch, then cut into 2″ x 2″ squares. Place on a greased cookie sheet, then cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Repeat for the remaining sections. Bake as directed.
Note: The Girl Who is Always Hungry did a neat trick when she was shaping the rolls. There are little bits of dough left from the edges after cutting the squares, and instead of combining and rolling them out again to make them into squares, she baked the little bits and called them cocktail-sized rolls. They were marvelous and had the added bonus of being just right for one-bite tasting.
Parkerhouse (this is how Mema usually made them)
In a small bowl, melt a stick of butter. Divide the dough into four sections (after it has been refrigerated). Loosely roll or pat out a section on a lightly floured cutting board or pastry board to a thickness of about 1 inch and use a round cookie cutter to cut the rolls. Dip each roll into the butter until it is covered on all sides, then fold it in half, pressing it together slightly, and put it on a cookie sheet or in a pan, then cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Repeat for the remaining sections. Bake as directed.
In a small bowl, melt a stick of butter. Pat out the dough on a lightly floured cutting board or pastry board to a thickness of about 2 inches, then pinch off small pieces and shape into balls (about 1 inch in diameter) and roll them in the butter, then put them in the muffin tin, three to a section. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Bake as directed.
More How-To Stuff
Note: you can either arrange the rolls with space between them on a cookie sheet, which will provide more territory to get browned, or have them almost touching in a pie pan, which will keep them soft on the sides. If you decide to have them touching, be sure to use one of the butter approaches listed above.
Another note: if you’d like a shiny crust, add an egg wash. Beat the white of an egg and about a teaspoon of water in a small bowl and brush it onto the rolls with a pastry brush just before baking.
And yet another note: you can bake the rolls in different batches at different times, which is probably why one of the names is Refrigerator Rolls. Imagine the dough in your fridge, just sitting in there waiting to be shaped and baked, so that you can have a few rolls with your dinner even on a weeknight when you’re in a time-crunch frenzy. This is how Mema accomplished her grandmotherly magic trick of always having something just coming out of the oven, just for you, whenever you wandered into her kitchen.
Another memory preserved, another recipe shared, another way to remember you, Dad, til I see you again.
Outtakes: I was so busy writing everything down and being the sous chef / prepping for The Girl Who is Always Hungry, that I did a lousy job taking pictures of the process. Here are a few, anyway.
Copyright 2017, Glover Gardens