My grandmother Thelma, or Grandmommy, as I lovingly called her even into my adult years, was the perfect combination of dignified, poised, welcoming and warm. She passed away a few years ago and it's around the holidays that I think about her the most, not because I miss her any less during the rest of the year, but because I miss the traditions that she passed down to me. I learned so much from her in the 30 years we had together. She helped teach me how to swim and drive, as well as how to snap garden-grown green beans, make scrambled eggs and bake Parker House Rolls.
When I was about 13, my grandmother taught me how to make them, and that’s when I learned to appreciate the love that went into each batch. It was a herculean effort that took two full days of prep and the entire kitchen space. I learned to get the water temperature just right and to let the dough rise twice, then chill it in the fridge overnight. Too much flour and they'd fall apart. Too little and the gooey dough would stick to everything in sight. But to this day, for me, they are what Thanksgiving and Christmas taste and smell like. The aroma fills the entire house and you bite into that first warm roll...
Parker House rolls are named after the Boston Parker House Hotel, where they first originated during the 1870s, the same hotel that created the first Boston Cream Pie in 1855. It was here that the likes of Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and most of the Kennedy family fell in love with the pies and the Parker House rolls. Legend has it that a disgruntled hotel baker threw a batch of unfinished rolls into the oven after an altercation with a hotel guest. A buttery fold during the shaping process gave them a distinct pocketbook shape. The egg, milk and a fair amount of butter in the dough and brushed on when they're pulled from the oven give them a fine and tender texture.
When Grandmommy passed away in 2015, and for the next few holiday seasons, admittedly, it was her and my now-widowed grandfather that I thought about, not her rolls. I was sad, missing her voice and the things we would do together. But last Christmas an opportunity presented itself. I was married now, living in a new house and hosting Christmas for my parents, grandfather and in-laws in my home for the first time. There was a lot of pressure. My mother is also an extraordinary cook and baker.
As I was going through my old recipes, I came across Grandmommy's Parker House Rolls. I asked myself, do I want to undertake such a huge feat? Will it make my dad and grandfather happy? Will they be as good as my grandmother's?
But on Christmas Eve, as I was kneading and rolling out dough, heating water to the perfect temperature and watching the yeast rise (I had forgotten how much work it was), I was remembering how wonderful it was to make them alongside my grandmother. And watching my dad and grandfather eat them for the first time in years was a Christmas gift to me that I wasn't expecting.
In honor of my grandmother, I'd like to share some of her fresh-baked love with you. I can’t share her exact Parker House Roll recipe – it is a closely guarded family secret – but this original recipe, courtesy of New England Today, is just as delicious:
PARKER HOUSE ROLLS
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: about 2 dozen rolls
- 6 cups flour (approx.), divided, plus extra for work surfaces
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1 cup (1/2 pound, or 2 sticks) butter (or margarine), softened, divided, plus extra for bowl
- 2 cups hot tap water
- 1 large egg
In a large bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer with hook attachment), combine 2-1/4 cups flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. Add 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter (or margarine). With your mixer on low speed, gradually pour 2 cups hot tap water (120-130 degrees) into the dry ingredients. Add egg. Increase mixer speed to medium; beat 2 minutes, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat in 3/4 cup flour, or enough to make a thick batter. Continue beating 2 minutes, occasionally scraping the bowl. Then with a spoon, stir in enough additional flour (about 2-1/2 cups) to make a soft dough.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, working in more flour (about 1/2 cup) while kneading. Shape dough into a ball and place in a large greased bowl. Turn dough over so that the top is greased. Cover with a towel; let rise in a warm place until volume doubles, about 1-1/2 hours.
"Punch" dough down: Push down in the center, then push the edges into the center. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead lightly to make a smooth ball. Cover with a bowl for 15 minutes, and let dough rest.
Heat your oven to 400 degrees. In a 17-1/4x11-1/2-inch roasting pan, over low heat, melt remaining 1/2 cup butter and spread in an even layer on the bottom of the pan. On a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll dough out 1/2 inch thick. Using a 2-3/4-inch round biscuit cutter dipped in flour, cut dough into circles (don't twist). Holding each dough circle by the edge, dip both sides into melted butter; fold in half.
Arrange folded dough circles in rows, each nearly touching the next, in the roasting pan. Cover the pan with a towel; let dough rise in a warm place until volume doubles, about 40 minutes. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, until browned.