Lots of the meals at Glover Gardens are graced with some kind of yummy bread, and this recipe from the Café Christina blog showcases the perfect approach to garlic bread. When someone has done such a good job documenting a fundamental recipe, I’m happy to share rather than try to create my own version. This is the stuff, y’all!
Photos from the Café Christina blog; recipe below.
If I’m making garlic bread, (which isn’t very often) I’m going all out. I’m not skimping on the salty butter or the chunks of garlic. I want this bread to be swimming in an …
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.
I don’t know where to start when I’m talking about Sweet Potato Biscuits. There are so many aspects to these warm, soft, little pillows of butter-oozing love:
I can’t remember the first time I had them, but it must have been at my grandmother Harvell’s formica table in her kitchen in Sweetwater, Texas. It was the place to be in the early morning when we would visit her for Thanksgiving. The Sweet Potato Biscuits would come out of the oven in batch after batch, and all of us grandchildren held out our plates, eager for more. What a taste memory.
Following Mema’s example, my immediate family has had these biscuits for breakfast on holidays forever. My dad was the one who made them at the home where I grew up at the beach on the Bolivar Peninsula. He learned from his mom (“Mema”), and he always used Bisquick for the biscuit dough. I don’t apologize for this. The recipe is perfect with Bisquick, and there is no reason to make it any other way.
Don’t, don’t, don’t be fooled into trying a fancy recipe or mix for these biscuits. You don’t need Southern Living, Paula Deen, Martha Stewart or the Food Network for Sweet Potato Biscuits. No, no, no! They all know food and know how to cook, but there is absolutely no reason to tart up Sweet Potato Biscuits or add extra ingredients like Crisco or brown sugar. Trust me. This is a home truth.
All of my cousins feel the same way about Sweet Potato Biscuits. Their parents, my dad’s siblings, also made them on special occasions while they were growing up, which spelled out FOOD IS LOVE every time they were served. We made these biscuits at a Harvell family reunion in 2012 and I think 18 people ate about 100 biscuits. Food was indeed love and we shared our memories of Mema’s kitchen and chrome table and the incredible feelings of safety and warmth and comfort when you were ensconced there.
People who come into our family, through marriage or friendship, become Sweet Potato Biscuit converts. Without fail. Even if they hate sweet potatoes.
People who loathe sweet potatoes like these biscuits. They are transcendant.
The biscuits are more about textures than flavor. They are moist and chewy, and absolutely MUST be heavily laden with butter when served. My mom used to say that it wasn’t right to eat Sweet Potato Biscuits without butter dripping down your chin.
They are durable. These biscuits can be reheated and served again with no impact to their quality.
You can’t eat just one. Or two. Sitting down with Sweet Potato Biscuits is a commitment to getting really, really full.
There was never a recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits that anyone in the family ever followed. I asked my dad for years how to make them and he could never tell me; he could only show me. There’s a cute little article at the end of this post written by my aunt that summarizes the conversation she had with her mom (my grandmother) about the biscuits…you’ll see how vague her instructions are. My dad channeled my grandmother by telling me to add the mashed sweet potatoes to the biscuit dough “’til it looks right”. What does that mean???
You can make these biscuits ahead of time and par-bake them, removing them from the oven when they are 80% done. Just set the oven to 400 when you are ready to serve them and bake until they are lightly browned.
I made the biscuits with my dad about ten times over the years, and have finally documented the amounts. Woohoo! Now I can post the recipe.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
This recipe makes about 30 biscuits. You’ll probably want to double it. They are relatively flat and even children can eat 5 or 6.
Two medium/large sweet potatoes
One recipe of Bisquick biscuit dough (or any other favorite biscuit mix), which is 2 1/4 cups of biscuit mix and 2/3 cup of milk
Flour for dusting
Preheat oven to 400. Pierce sweet potatoes several times with a knife and place on a baking dish lined with foil. Bake for about 45 minutes until they are soft when tested. Cool, then peel and mash by hand with a fork or a pastry blender. It should not be a super-smooth consistency; there should still be some chunks. This step can be done ahead of time by a day or two.
When you’re ready to bake the biscuits, preheat the over to 400 again. Prepare the biscuit dough, following the recipe on the package. Measure out 2 cups of the mashed sweet potatoes, and fold it gently into the biscuit dough.
Spread flour over a large cutting board and then place the dough on the board. Flour your hands and pat the dough out to about 3/8 inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter from 1 1/1 inch to 2 inches in diameter to cut the biscuits from the dough and place on a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the biscuits are lightly browned.
Serve hot with twice as much butter as you think your guests will need.
Note: It’s the cook’s prerogative to test as many biscuits as necessary to ensure that they are the highest quality. They must be tested immediately upon removal from the oven, with butter, of course.
The potatoes should be soft and bright orange
We made Sweet Potato Biscuits at a family reunion in Colorado
First, you make the biscuit dough
Then you mix in the mashed sweet potatoes, “’til it looks right”
Pat out the dough to about 3/8 inches thick
Cut into round biscuits
Below is my aunt’s high school project, an interview with her mom about Sweet Potato Biscuits.
Does this ever happen to you? You spend all afternoon in the kitchen on a crisp fall day creating a hearty soup or stew that will make your family proclaim you as kitchen royalty while they’re fighting over seconds – and then you realize you don’t have any bread to sop up the wonderful juices of your awesome autumn creation. Sigh.
The answer to the “Oh no, no bread!?” problem is one-hour beer bread.
The texture of this bread is dense and hearty, and it is best right out of the oven. Or toasted – it is GREAT when toasted, or made into garlic bread. This is just my basic recipe for those times when I didn’t quite plan ahead for bread; it is flexible and easy to vary. You can change up the herbs and spices to match your main dish, add cheese, jalapeños, and/or fresh onion and garlic, or experiment with different beers. I like to use a dark beer to accompany hearty dishes, but a light one will work, too. Be sure to choose a beer that you like, because its taste will come through. In other words, if you don’t like hoppy beer and someone left some at a party recently that you want to get rid of, don’t use that beer for this bread.
2 3/4 cups flour (sift it if you want a less dense crumb – I don’t)
1 tbsp. dried minced onion or 1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 12 oz. beer, preferably dark, at room temperature
Note: beer bread recipes often call for self-rising flour, but I usually don’t have it. If you do and prefer to use it, just eliminate the baking soda and salt.
Cooking Instructions (makes about 10 thick slices)
Preheat oven to 350. Prepare a loaf pan with cooking spray. Mix all dry ingredients in a medium bowl, then pour in the olive oil and beer and stir. Transfer the batter to the loaf pan and bake on the middle rack for 50 minutes.
Looking for a soup recipe to accompany your beer bread? Check out the lentil soup pictured above, made on-site at Glover Gardens by European colleagues at a pot-luck party: Pot Luck Perfect: In-the-Moment Lentil Soup . The beer bread can be used for the Norwegian Waiting Bread that is also described in the post.