Black wide-framed sunglasses and buttery leather elbow gloves. Maybe throw in a string of pearls. Not the images you had in mind for dinner roll consumption? These are not just any doughy dinner companion. These are Parker House rolls. And they just call for fancy.
The (now Omni) Parker House hotel here in Boston was first founded in 1855. It is the oldest continuously running hotel in the States. And it’s famous for its past regulars, including literary heavyweights like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow and presidential chums like Grant, FDR, and JFK. Jack proposed to Jackie there. Arguably, their rolls make the hotel just as noteworthy.
I am well aware that recipes for Parker House rolls are everywhere. I recently stumbled across a recipe in a family heirloom: The White House Cookbook, published in 1894. The cookbook has a stunning portrait of the “bride of the White House,” Frances Tolson Cleveland; glassware placement instructions for stately government dinner receptions; and a recipe for Parker House rolls.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the "one half cupful of fresh yeast," nor was I feeling adventurous enough to wing approximating a piece of butter “the size of an egg,” as the recipe suggested. Luckily, Harvard Common Press had graciously sent me the New England Home Cooking cookbook. And it has a lovely recipe for Parker House rolls. (Albeit, a recipe with a tad more butter.) Believe me, the extra is worth it. It's an easy way to add a little luxury to your day.
I also added parsley bits and little flecks of sea salt on top of the rolls, which I borrowed from the John Dory restaurant in New York. They serve a version of Parker House rolls that accompany a platter of raw shellfish. Some may scoff that this recipe is not “traditional.” I’m not certain that even the Parker House recipe published in The White House Cookbook in 1894 is traditional or that Harvey Parker himself would know the difference.
What I do know is that these rolls are exquisite. Buttery, luxurious, and absolutely worth making. They may be a bit old school. But they’re classic. And they’ll make any occasion a little more special. No playboy marriage proposals, presidential dinners, or soft leather gloves necessary.
Parker House Rolls
Adapted from New England Home Cooking by Brooke Dojny
1/4 ounce regular rise yeast ( 1 package)
1/4 cup hot tap water (about 110 degrees)
1.25 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
11 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (plus additional for brushing rolls)
3-5 cups flour (or more as necessary)
1 egg yolk
2 tsp kosher salt
oil for greasing
2-3 tbsp fresh parsley, minced
a few pinches of fleur de sel (optional)
Combine yeast and hot water in a small bowl; set aside until yeast bubbles (about 10 minutes). Combine milk, sugar, melted butter, 2 cups of flour, egg yolk, and salt in a large bowl (or the bowl of a kitchen aid with a dough hook attachment). Add yeast mixture into bowl and stir well. Add 1 cup more of flour and knead by hand or by dough hook (5 minutes by machine with the dough hook or about 10 minutes by hand). The dough should get smooth and elastic; continue to add more flour until the dough is soft and workable (not sticky). Transfer to a bowl greased with oil. Cover and let rise until it doubles in size (about 1.5 hours).
Lightly oil 1-2 casserole dishes (depending on the size of your dishes) Punch the dough down and divide into 2 pieces. Take 1 piece and roll the dough out until it is about 3/4 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Using a 2-3" biscuit or cookie cutter (or the inside of a small glass or coffee cup, if necessary) cut out rounds of dough. Take the sides of each round and pinch them together at the bottom, so that each round becomes slightly more circular and ball-like in shape (roll the dough a bit with your hands to smooth it out, as necessary).
Place the dough rounds on your greased casserole dishes no more than 1/2 inch apart. Repeat with the second half of the dough. Combine any remaining scraps and repeat again. Brush the tops of the rolls with additional melted butter and top with parsley and fleur de sel, if desired. Cover loosely and let rise for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake rolls until golden brown, about 20-30 minutes. Transfer rolls to a wire rack to cool.
Makes about 20 rolls
-These rolls freeze brilliantly after they have been cooked and cooled.
-They are also so good that they'll be making an appearance at my Thanksgiving. Move over mashed potatoes.
-Parker House rolls are often folded in half before baking. You can certainly do this if you wish. I like my rolls straight up.
-Side note: one of my favorite things about the hotel is that it is supposedly haunted.
-Random aside: check out my work on the November/December issue of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine.