The sight of dough takes my breath away. It always has. When I see, it I want to touch it. To smell it. To put my face on it. Many years ago, a vision of hundreds of puffy round loaves rising on speed racks touched my heart. I was just a tiny person watching scenes from a bakery on Sesame Street and I heard my calling. I can actually remember that moment. I saw that dough and I knew that we were meant to be together. Soon thereafter I declared my plan to become both a baker and a librarian. (I'd always loved reading.) Books and dough. I wanted to be surrounded by both. I still do.
It took me a while to realize that my love of dough could actually be turned into a viable career. So, after high school, I went to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest to focus on the “books” part of the equation. But I hadn’t forgotten dough altogether.
At one point in my college career, I lived and ate in one of the college-owned, student-run cooperatives. Harkness was the hippie outpost on campus ("hippie" for a bunch of college kids in the late nineties) and I was happy there. Living and eating in a co-op also meant weekly chores. One semester, my dear friend Amy and I took on the role as co-op bread bakers.
In retrospect, I’m shocked that we took the job. The previous semester, I had take an easy job as a lunch prep cook, slicing about a trillion green peppers for the Wednesday head cook’s famous stir-fry. (Infamous actually. He made stir-fry with green peppers and Bragg's liquid aminos week after week after godforsaken week.) Bread was a little trickier than peppers. And bread for 100 people was more than I had ever imagined. As much as I loved dough, I had almost zero experience with it. How we convinced the Harkness community to vote for us as the providers of their weekly gluten intake, I can’t imagine. But it did give Amy and me the opportunity for a weekly hang-out session that I always looked forward to
The kitchen at Harkness was an interesting place. Cool, grey steel everywhere you looked corrupted by multi-colored graffiti and impromptu art installations. The smell of both bleach and dirty socks mingled in the air and made the place feel both sterile and a little bit disgusting. Amy and I were out of our element. Quick breads (without yeast and rising time) felt like saviors with our busy class schedules, but we didn’t know how to effectively scale them up for the crowds. We made soggy zucchini breads and salty raisin loaves. The giant Hobart mixer spinning out of control could reduce us to giggling preschoolers and the ovens were always tricky business. We were definitely bad at the job but we had fun trying.
Occasionally, amid the failures, were a few triumphs. Actually, there was just one. Yeasted dough + rosemary + onions. Together those three elements made magic. Our rosemary onion bread was a miracle. Beautiful golden crusty edges. Chewy interior. Sweet and salty onions accenting by wonderful piney herb. I remember emerging from the kitchen that night to a round of applause. (Ok. Not exactly. But that’s how we felt.) Maybe the miracle was just the fact that we finally had something edible so serve to our hungry peers. Maybe their hunger had just grown exponentially after all those weeks of nasty bread.
Buoyed by our tremendous success with the rosemary and onions, Amy and I went on to run for house granola makers the next semester. During our campaign speech, we regaled our audience with tales of our bread heroics, defying them to search for candidates more worthy than us. Because a number of our very best friends ate in Harkness, we were fairly confident.
After the ballots were counted and our defeat announced, Amy and I retreated to the dank kitchen and collapsed in a heap of happy nervous laughter. Embarrassed? Yes. Deflated? Perhaps. Utterly relieved? No doubt.
We have both grown up to become much more confident in the kitchen. Thank goodness. But in honor of those salad days of bread baking, I offer you a recipe for yummy, fluffy rosemary onion dinner rolls. I hope they'll win your vote.
Rosemary Onion Dinner Rolls
Makes 18 rolls
For the onion mixture:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 medium red onion, diced small (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
For the dough:
1 cup milk, warmed to about 110°F
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus more for the dish
1 tablespoon sugar
11/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, divided
2 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
flaky sea salt for sprinkling
1. Make the onion mixture: In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-low. Add onions and rosemary and cook, stirring, until onions are very soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool completely.
2. Make the dough: Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine milk and yeast and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. With a fork, stir in butter, sugar, salt, and egg. With the mixer on low, add 3 cups flour and then onion mixture. If the dough is too wet, add up to 1/4 cup more flour. Increase speed to medium and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. It should come together in a wet, sticky ball. Transfer dough to a lightly buttered bowl. Cover and set in a warm place until doubled in size. (It could take 1-4 hours or more depending on the temperature of your house.)
3. Lightly butter a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking pan. Transfer dough to a work surface and cut into 18 equal pieces (each one should weigh between 1 1/2 and 1 3/4 ounces). Roll each piece into a tight ball. (And easy way to do this is to put one piece of dough on the work surface, cup your hand over it, and move it in a circular motion. When you get good at it, you can use two hands and do two balls at a time.) Transfer dough balls to the prepared pan. Cover and set in a warm place until doubled in size.
4. Preheat oven to 400°. Very gently brush rolls with some melted butter. Bake until golden, 20 to 24 minutes. Brush with more melted butter and sprinkle with sea salt. Serve warm.