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Recipes and Stories

19 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner II—Menu Planning and Mama's Buttermilk Bread

My mother's Buttermilk Yeast Rolls, here baked in a seasonal decorative muffin pan, which unfortunately made them too small and crusty. I'll make regular cluster rolls for Thanksgiving Dinner


If you've not already planned your Thanksgiving menu and started shopping for it, it's time you got cracking. You don't want to wait too late to plan and shop or you could be faced with rethinking your menu when the store sells out of some of the essential ingredients.


Planning that menu will be simple if you are wise and stick to your family's traditions.


Every single autumn social media is riddled with cooks asking for "something new and different" for this meal, claiming to be tired of and/or bored with cooking and eating the same old things every Thanksgiving. To answer that demand, cooking magazines are obligingly filled with advice from folks eager to show off how clever they are.


It's funny how people who will make the same meatloaf or chicken casserole fifty times a year can make a straight-faced claim to be bored with a dish they make only once a year.


There are legitimate reasons for varying your Thanksgiving menu: the new in-law who's at your table for the first time; the new spouse who's homesick for their Mama's dressing; the family member who developed a genuine food allergy since last year; the family member who died and took their secret recipe for the dish they always brought to their grave with them.


You will notice that boredom and a need to show off are not on that list.


This holiday is all about being grateful and making our loved ones happy. If you want to do that, ignore that temptation to show off or be novel and stick to your family's traditions.


For more than three decades, a fixture on my family's Thanksgiving table was my mother's buttermilk yeast rolls. It has been years since I made them or had them for this holiday. But now that she is no longer able to make them and I'll be more than three hundred miles away from her, adding them to our menu will bring her a little closer to us.


Since it had been at least a decade since I last made this bread, yesterday I got out the flour, buttermilk, and yeast and put together a half-recipe. It was nice to know that I'd not lost my touch with yeast dough, and the aroma that filled the kitchen was a boon to my homesick soul.


Mama's Buttermilk Bread


This is my mother's all-purpose yeast dough that she always used for both loaves and rolls. She also made whole wheat bread with it simply by substituting whole wheat for half the all-purpose flour. It was our bread at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but she made it at other times of the year, often giving it away to shut-in, ailing, or grieving friends and neighbors. Especially when she was giving it away, Mama baked this dough in small loaf pans. For rolls, she rolled and cut the dough just as she would biscuits.


When I made that trial run, I have a decorative muffin pan whose wells were molded into autumnal acorn, pumpkin, pine-cone, and walnut shapes. I'd bought it years ago on clearance and never used it, so a test run seemed like the time to break it in. Unfortunately, while the rolls were pretty and tasted like Mama's, they were too small and had too much crust. I'll make regular cluster rolls for Thanksgiving Day.


Makes 4 small (7-inch) loaves, 3 9-inch loaves, or about 3 dozen rolls


2 pounds (about 7 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups whole milk (not low-fat) buttermilk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil

½ teaspoon active dry yeast or 1-ounce cake compressed fresh yeast

½ cup lukewarm water (don't use hot tap water)


1. Set aside 1 cup of the flour and put the remainder in a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, soda, and salt and whisk to mix them together.


2. Heat the buttermilk and butter or oil until it's barely warm (about 110° F.), stirring until the butter (if using) is melted. Let it cool slightly. Meanwhile, dissolve the yeast in the water and let it proof for 10 minutes. It should evenly cloud the water and may start to bubble a bit as it sits.


3. Stir the water and yeast into the buttermilk, then make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the liquids. Work it into a soft, cohesive dough. Lightly sprinkle a work surface with some of the reserved flour and turn the dough out onto it. Knead about 8 minutes, adding the reserved flour as needed (you may not use all of it, especially if you've used the cup measure), until the dough is elastic and smooth. It should spring back when you press into it with a finger.


4. Clean the mixing bowl, rub it with oil, and return the dough to it, cover with a double-folded damp towel or plastic wrap, and set it to rise in a warm, draft free spot until doubled, about 4 hours, or set it in a cool spot (or the refrigerator) to rise overnight.


5. Punch the dough down and lightly knead for about 1 minute. To make rolls, skip to step 6. To make loaves, lightly grease four small (7½ -by-2¼ inch) or 3 9-inch loaf pans with butter or olive oil. Divide the dough into four (or three) equal parts, shape each into an oblong loaf, and put them in the prepared pans. Cover with a double-folded damp towel and set them in a warm spot until they're doubled and clearing the tops of the pans, about an hour. Skip to step 7.


6. To make rolls, you can cut or shape the dough just about any way you like. Mama always rolled it out and cut it with a round 2½-inch biscuit cutter, then baked them on a lightly greased rimmed baking sheet, sometimes touching, sometimes not. Occasionally, she would fold each round in half to make pocketbook rolls. Or you can grease your hands and pinch off lumps of the dough, rolls them into a ball, and lay them on the prepared pan or greased round cake pans, slightly touching. Cover with a damp towel and set them in a warm place until they've doubled, about an hour.


7. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375° F. for the loaves, 400° for rolls.


8. To bake the loaves, uncover the pans and put them in the center of the 375° oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then increase the oven temperature to 400° F. and continue baking until the loaves are well-browned and hollow-sounding when tapped, about 15-20 minutes longer. Turn the bread out of the pans and cool it on wire cooling racks.


9. To bake the rolls, uncover and put them in the center of the 400° oven and bake until they're risen and nicely browned, about 12-15 minutes. Flip them over bottom up and let them cool for a minute on the pan or a cooling rack, then transfer to a napkin-lined bread basket, lightly cover, and serve hot.

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