Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Chili-Cheese Rolls: or, Had I known these were so good I wouldn't have given the peppers away

Sometimes I lay awake thinking about future bread. 

Chili-Cheese Rolls
1 cake or envelope yeast
¼ cup warm water
1 tbsp sugar
¼ cup milk
1 tbsp shortening
1½ cups flour
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese (extra-sharp cheese is particularly good in this recipe)
1½-3 tsp red pepper flakes
½ tsp salt

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water to make sure it foams to life. Set aside.
Scald the milk, remove from heat.* Then add the shortening and stir until melted. Pour into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool until it won't kill the yeast.
Mix the yeast and the milk. Then sift in the salt and half the flour. Beat until smooth. Add the cheese, pepper, and remaining flour (sift the flour over everything else). Beat everything well; do not knead.
Roll out to ¼- to ½- inch thickness. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Set on a greased baking pan.
Allow to rise one hour.
Heat oven to 375°. Bake the rolls 20 minutes, or until nicely browned.

*We recommend pouring the milk into a large mug, and then scalding it in the microwave. All you have to do is let the milk cook in the microwave until it bubbles around the edges.

Adapted by a recipe by Mrs. Bryant Nowlin, Woman's Club of Fort Worth Cook Book, 1928

When last we made the two-hour rolls, I couldn't help pondering them at length. They break every carefully taught rule of breadcraft. We didn't do the normal steps of letting the dough rise, kneading it, letting it rise again, or any of that business. And yet we got the kind of yeast rolls that tasted like someone had patiently babysat the dough for half a day. Also, the rolls were very firm in a way that would be perfect for sliders, even though the recipe was printed 80 years before the slider fad. 

In my late-night bread contemplations, the two-hour rolls seemed perfect for cheddar-jalapeño bread. And so, jalapeños were added to the grocery list (cheese is a standing item). I wasn't sure how many to get, so I asked the person who happened to be purchasing peppers at the same time what she thought..

She asked, "What are you making?"

I told her we were making cheese-jalapeño rolls. She asked, "How many?"

I said probably a dozen or so. She thought about it and assuredly said "Get two."

And so I did. But when I got back to the house and tasted one, it tasted like slightly spicy plastic. I could not delude myself into thinking we would get good bread out of these peppers. But what else can one expect when purchasing peppers in the early months of the year?

As much as I hate sending grocery money to the city dump, I threw the peppers out. They simply did not taste good, and I did not want to ruin bread with them. This brings us to the only plants that survived the garden last summer:

Last year, when the springtime weather was suspiciously perfect, we detoured through the plant nursery on our way out of the hardware store and purchased a lot of chili peppers and tomatoes.Our bountiful garden hopes died before the end of July. Despite my valiant attempts with a garden hose as the heat set in, the tomato plants got cooked to death. The few fruits we got off of them before they drooped and died were really delicious, but I respectfully suggested that next year, we should just go to a farmer's market instead.

But while the tomato plants died in the merciless sun, the peppers thrived in the heat. We had a bumper crop of peppers in the same way that some people in the Midwest have their gardens ruined by too-successful zucchinis.  But at least you can eat zucchinis. While some masochists can bite into peppers like baby carrots, we had no idea what to do with over a pound of the things. We made a few batches of salsa, but most of the peppers went uneaten. I gave away as many as possible, and dutifully hung the remainder up to dry even though I had no idea what we would do with them. 

This brings us to the pepper bread, which threatened to be impossible due to the aforementioned flavorless jalapeños that were worse than nothing. I decided that since the purchased peppers were a flavorless bust, we may as well try out some of the peppers that had been hanging off the cabinet knobs since last summer. 

And so, I took one of them down and put it into the spice grinder. Even though I kept the lid firmly closed, the act of grinding a yard-pepper brought tears to my eyes. For my own safety, I decided to let the grinder remain tightly shut for an hour or two before opening it, which would hopefully let the fiery dust settle. Nevertheless, the peppers still stung when I opened it later. Fortunately, the eye assault was so mild that I could simply dab my face with a moist cloth and feel fine after less than a minute. 

I don't have toughness of a 19th-century lady following Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery, a book that directs you to pound dried chili peppers in a mortar and pestle and advises that you "wear glasses to prevent your eyes being incommoded by them," a suggestion that seems far too optimistic to me. Though I love how Miss Leslie's instructions suggest that cooks in the early 1800s were willing to burn out their eyes pounding peppers in a mortar and pestle (and you thought onion tears were bad!) because in those days spicy food was worth it.

The next part of the recipe was pretty straightforward. We added the peppers in a haze of red dust (without our eyes being incommoded by them) and a glorious amount of cheese. I thought I would economize by purchasing the cheese in brick form and grating it myself. That did not work as hoped. The entire time I was grating the cheese, people kept coming in to eat some. One person even announced "I have come for my cheese tribute!" We may have failed to economize, but everyone was happy.

I rolled out the dough thicker than I normally would, so that each roll would have lots of a soft cheesy goodness in its interior. As the rolls rose, they seemed to separate into layers. Maybe the cheese encouraged them to be extra-flaky. After all, if you ask anyone from Wisconsin, they will tell you that cheese is magical. 

I am not exaggerating about how much Wisconsin people love cheese. Many people from Wisconsin even call themselves cheeseheads. Fried cheese curds are a routine item at nearly every restaurant. I was at a dinner party in Madison, and someone proudly announced "I brought special extra-aged cheddar!" while waving an orange shrink-wrapped brick of cheese. Immediately, everyone was like "Oooo, extra-aged cheddar!" and crowding around for a sliver of it. You'd have thought he brought a chocolate cake from "the good bakery." (While we're on the subject of the foods of Wisconsin, the fruit salad served at that dinner party contained multicolored mini marshmallows, Cool Whip, and canned oranges in syrup.)

Let's get back to the rolls, which contained a Wisconsin-approved amount of cheese. After they baked, the cheese on the surface had turned into enticing flecks of golden crispness. 

We only needed one thing to crown these to perfection: butter!

Everyone who ate these liked them so much that they already wanted to know when I would make them again. However, not everyone was willing to try them. One person saw me putting the yard peppers into the bread and was too frightened to taste one. I only note this so I can tell you the yard peppers were his idea.

But I cannot in good conscience run a recipe that starts with growing your own ingredients and then drying them over several months. So, to test whether we can make delicious chili-cheese rolls without a summer of diligently watering pepper plants, I obtained these:

We were going to order a pizza and ask for extra pepper packets, but even the cheapest pizza is damned expensive these days. So I decided to just go in and ask if they'd hand me some pepper if I asked nicely. Instead of politely requesting spice packets, I got the pepper in the most introvert-friendly transaction I have ever had. Thanks to the restaurant industry's habit of chronic understaffing, no one was working the front counter for me to ask permission to take pepper flakes. I pinched the pepper packets from the little basket on the counter with no human interaction at all. 

When we made the rolls with commercial red pepper flakes, the flavor was a little different. The pepper was ever-so-slightly smokier. The rolls also had more of a slow burn to them than the ones made with yard peppers. The heat didn't kick in until a few seconds after you started eating them. And so, while the taste isn't the same as growing the peppers yourself, you will be just as happy if you purchase a shaker of pepper flakes and get on with your merry baking.

On a closing note, I looked up Mrs. Bryant Nowlin online because I wanted to know who liked bread but didn't like waiting all day for it to rise. (I'm always curious to see if I can find anything about the people behind interesting recipes.) I found this picture on a university's archives. It's from 1941, which was 13 years after the Fort Worth Woman's Club had their cookbook printed. That's Mrs. Bryant Nowlin on the right, wearing the high society battle-furs.

Junior League children's entertainment bureau meeting attendees (left to right) Miss Kathryn Waller, Miss Jo Kelly and Mrs. Bryant Nowlin are pictured here. The three women are shown standing side by side in a row against a bare wall and smiling for the camera. Miss Waller, Classroom Teachers Association, is wearing a short-sleeved dark dress with a jeweled necklace and a hair scarf. Miss Jo Kelly, Association for Childhood Education, is wearing a dark, long-sleeved jacket with a blouse underneath and a wide-brimmed hat. She has a brooch pinned to her blouse. Mrs. Bryant Nowlin, American Association of University Women, is wearing a coat that has a large, fur lapel and holding a pair of gloves. Published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram morning edition, December 3, 1941.
 "Junior League children's entertainment bureau meeting representatives: Kathryn Waller, Jo Kelly and Mrs. Bryant Nowlin. Published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram morning edition, December 3, 1941. "

Granted, the picture was taken in December, and all three women in the photo look like they've dressed for the cold. But you just know that Mrs. Bryant Nowlin selected the furs to compete with the fist-sized pearl brooch and extra-large jeweled necklace that her fellow clubwomen brought forth. Well, maybe the bread recipe helped her ascend the women's club social ladder. After all, if you constantly make bread that requires a whole day instead of two hours, how could you find the time to place orders at the local furrier?


  1. These remind me of a cheesy biscuit recipe I have. I think I might should need to try them both, preferably at the same time, for comparison purposes...

    1. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a lot of cheesy bread.

  2. I like looking for the people in my old cookbooks too sometimes, but if I can find anything it's usually just an obituary. It's cool that you found a hoity-toity photo!

    1. Yeah, I've never found a photo of the person before! It's so neat.

  3. I like the phrase "yard pepper". It's an accurate description, too. Since things with cheese baked into them tend to burn people's mouths when they bite into them, the yard peppers can add to the burn.

    1. Thank you! I totally definitely absolutely did not go with "yard pepper" after forgetting what kind we planted.
      And... maybe that's why the one person was scared to try them, even after I said "The peppers were your idea!"