How something starts with a simple potato and ends up a hot, golden brown, buttery pillow of perfection has been a family secret for generations.
We all know if you mix potatoes, lard, yeast, flour and butter, add elbow grease and have the patience for the dough to rise twice, then you’ll either have a mushy mess of carbs or Hackney potato rolls. A bona fide taste of heaven, the rolls are best right out of the oven.
Snitch one, butter thickly, gobble up. Usually eaten in one bite. Maybe two. Rarely three, even for those with the most gracious manners.
In today’s world, even though some people limit bread from their diets, the appeal of artisan bread is on the rise. “Artisan” refers to a homemade food that is made without the use of technology while using the highest quality ingredients. Who knew this old family roll recipe would qualify as a hot property today?
I can’t exactly pin down my first memory of the delicious potato rolls, but it had to be sometime in the early 1960s at my grandmother’s holiday meals.
Although there had to be fun times with cousins and a splendid dining room table, all I can remember with any clarity is those rolls.
The smell of them baking as I walk into her house is forever etched into my memory. Even the living room, on the opposite side of the house from the kitchen, was filled with a wonderful smell — almost a bready perfume — drawing me in, leading me to where the wonderful aroma was originating.
And standing in the kitchen was Hunt, as we called her, fussing over rolls, waiting for one pan to finish rising while her old-timey stove timer was buzzing meaning another pan was ready. Nearby were the carved turkey and country ham perfectly arranged on silver trays. The cranberry sauce, stuffing and sweet potatoes were ready as well, but most of her attention was spent on the rolls — the star of the meal — and she treated them accordingly.
The next generation of roll-making was taken over by my mother, who didn’t enjoy cooking — she didn’t really like any of the domestic arts — but she could make a delicious potato roll. Always the rebel, she switched up the old family recipe with boxed potato flakes because she loved a shortcut as much as she hated cooking. Still, the same hot, steaming, pillow tops of feather-lightness emerged from her rarely-used ovens.
Family traditions start somewhere, and this one started with my great-grandmother, Bessie Acra Hackney. My father remembered her holiday meals for her family of 45 — 8 children and their spouses and 29 grandchildren — and her potato rolls were always on the menu. She bought flour and lard in bulk and kept the costly ingredients under lock and key. Although only 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Bessie was large in personality and determination, and the keys to that pantry were tied onto her apron so no one could plunder her supplies. My grandmother never dared to borrow her staples, but she did muster up the courage to ask if she could watch Bessie make the rolls so she could write down the recipe for posterity. The rest is family history, made — and eaten — one roll at a time.
If I attempt to start a batch of rolls, my wife stops me because it’s one culinary skill she has that I don’t, and she likes it that way. As I watch her, I better understand the trouble these rolls are to make: boiling and mashing the potatoes, carefully measuring hot potato water to melt the Crisco, adding the flour (only White Lily will do) along with the other ingredients, and then endlessly kneading.
Then there’s the art of gently touching the dough to ensure it “feels right” — not too sticky, not too dry, but just so. Waiting for it to rise, turning up the furnace temperature if needed, and after it’s risen, punching it down, rolling it out to a quarter-inch thickness and cutting the smooth dough into perfect rounds. Then, dipping each round into melted butter and folding in half into a semi-circular shape my grandmother called “a pocketbook,” but to my eyes, more closely resembling a clam shell.
Next, the freshly cut and buttered rolls are lined up in pans like obedient soldiers. And then more waiting — pans of rolls are scattered around the kitchen on any flat surface — for the second rise. The laborious process ends with baking and watching the rolls turn into the familiar golden brown hue. That is, unless you forget about the real grand finale: snitch, butter, gobble.
From when I was a child watching Hunt fuss over the rolls (moments later piled high on my plate to be voraciously eaten), to today, when Susan spends her scarce free time making them for our family meals (and I overindulge again), these rolls are made with love — a hackneyed expression for sure — but it’s true. And at this moment our house is perfumed with the aroma of rolls baking, just like my grandmother’s house all those years ago. Susan just pulled a pan of those diet-busting sirens out of the oven.
Delicious lust. Golden brown and feather light. Magical. Heavenly.
Who knew that today our 130-year-old family roll recipe could be considered an uber-current artisan bread? And what makes these rolls so special? Is it difficulty in preparation? The most delicious roll ever? A family tradition that connects one generation to the next?
The answer is yes to all of these questions, but maybe it’s something indefinable by mere words. Family traditions are a sacred way to pass practices and beliefs from one generation to the next, and perhaps that’s true for Bessie’s potato rolls. Although my hunch is they’re simply meant to be eaten and enjoyed.
Hackney Potato Rolls
2 Russet potatoes (small — approximately 4 to 6 inches long)
21⁄4 cups water
1 scant cup of Crisco
1 scant cup of sugar
2 teaspoons of salt
2 packages of active dry yeast plus 1 teaspoon of sugar
1⁄8 cup of lukewarm water
8-10 cups White Lily all-purpose flour, sifted
1 stick of butter
Add yeast into 1⁄8 cup of lukewarm water, add 1 teaspoon of sugar and gently stir. In a few minutes it will become bubbly and foamy. If it doesn’t bubble and foam, the yeast is bad and you need to start the process over with new yeast.
Peel and chop potatoes, small dice. Boil potatoes, covered, in 21⁄4 cups of water, about 10 minutes or until tender. Remove potatoes from water and save the hot potato water.
Measure enough of the potato water so you have 2 cups, adding or subtracting water as needed. Add Crisco to the hot potato water and stir until the Crisco is melted.
In a large bowl, cream the potatoes thoroughly, adding 1 scant cup of sugar. A potato ricer is ideal to use to cream the potatoes correctly.
Beat eggs well and add 2 teaspoons of salt. Next, add the eggs and the yeast to creamed potatoes.
Gradually add 8-10 cups of flour and potato water into creamed potatoes, alternating the wet and dry ingredients.
Add additional flour if needed to make dough proper consistency to knead well. The dough should not be sticky.
With your hands, knead the dough thoroughly. This step is important.
Cover dough and let rise 1 hour (or longer) until it is doubled in bulk. Punch it down.
Place dough on a floured surface and roll it out until it’s about 1⁄4-inch thick or a little less.
Melt a stick of butter.
Cut rolls with a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Dip each roll in melted butter, fold in half so it’s a semi-circle and place on baking sheet. Rolls should be touching a little but not a lot so there’s room for them to rise.
Let rolls rise on baking sheets for about 3 hours until doubled.
Bake in 350 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden.
Brush tops of hot rolls with butter as soon as they come out of the oven.
Makes 6 to 7 dozen rolls.
Rolls freeze very well.
The Hackney Family