Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Rosemary Rolls: or, Presentation doesn't matter if people eat them in a few short minutes

Some recipes have more potential than their own writers would credit.

Rosemary Rolls
1 c milk
2 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
½ scant tsp salt
1½ tsp sugar
1½ tsp lard (or shortening)
1½ tsp butter
1 egg, well beaten
¼ cake compressed yeast*
½ c tepid water
About 3¼ cup flour, divided into 2½ cup and ¾ cup

2 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
¼ cup melted butter
Salt to taste

Before making the dough, mix the topping ingredients. Then, let the topping sit out all day to infuse.

Add rosemary to the milk, then scald it (this draws out the rosemary's flavor better than simply mixing it in). Then stir in the salt, sugar, lard, and butter. When all is melted and dissolved, pour into a large bowl and set aside and cool until lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in the tepid water, then beat it in along with the egg. Add enough flour to form a stiff batter (about 2½ cups), mix well. Then add enough flour to make a dough that is only just firm enough to knead, about ¾ cup.
Cover the top of the bowl with a wet cloth and let rise overnight, or until it is bubbly and has at least doubled in height.
In the morning, knead the dough well, lay it onto a well-floured surface, and sprinkle more flour on top so it can't stick to anything. Pat it out to somewhere between ½ and 1 inch thick (this dough is so soft that you really don't need a rolling pin). Then cut it into squares about 1½-2 inches on all sides- you don't need to be precise about this unless you want exactly uniform buns. Then roll each of these into a ball, pressing firmly with your hands as you roll them.
Let rise until doubled in size.
When ready to bake, heat oven to 350°.
Melt the topping if it has re-solidified and brush it over the rolls. Use all of the topping. If it seems to make puddles on the dough, they will become deliciously concentrated rosemary flavor after they're baked.
Bake for 35 minutes. These go stale quickly, so wrap any extras tightly. Or, cut them small and make croutons.

*or ¼ envelope dry yeast, or ½ tsp dry yeast.

Adapted from "Efficient Housekeeping" By Laura A. Kirkman, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram morning edition p. 10, November 24, 1921

We have made Laura Kirkman's cinnamon buns many times since we first encountered the recipe, and every time people have absolutely loved them. I remain more than a bit surprised that non-dessert cinnamon rolls would be so popular. But oftentimes, people are more broad-minded than we expect, especially when bread is involved.

When it came to Laura Kirkman's cinnamon buns, I couldn't help thinking how the bread itself was quite flavorful and delicious- even without the cinnamon on top and the raisins within. So, I wondered what else might be good with these buns. This brings us to our bounty of fresh rosemary.

We have no working printer, so if I want a recipe typed I have to do it myself.

I was going to write about how rosemary is such an easy plant to grow no matter how relentless is the summer. I was going to cheerfully say that if you put it outside, it practically cares for itself and thrives on getting sun-roasted. However, our rosemary struggled in the fiery summer heat, drooping despite our valiant efforts with a garden hose. Then winter came (or at least, the first round of winter) and finished off the plant. I looked up how to grow rosemary online, hoping the plant was more deciduous than I remembered. But Wikipedia dashed my hopes of plant dormancy by stating that rosemary "is an aromatic evergreen shrub." I then tried to convince myself that it would come back from the roots, but in the spring nothing came up but weeds.

However, my sister-in-law had much better luck with hers, and cut off some branches of it for me.

I first thought I would let the leaves remain whole, and that they would artistically intersperse the dough. However, it looked less like artisan craftsmanship and more like I threw a handful of grass clippings into the food. But that was an easy problem to solve. The blender made short work of long leaves.

This recipe is always easier than I think it's going to be. In nearly no time at all, our dough was ready to rise. Laura Kirkman tells us to leave the dough out all night (or in our case, all day). A lot of modern bakers use a similar technique of adding only the tiniest pinch of yeast to bread and letting it slowly rise all day. This gives the yeast more time to make all those delicious flavor compounds that make yeast bread so good. 

But almost every recipe I've seen directs you to let the lightly-yeasted dough sit for a few hours and then add a whole packet of yeast later on. In other words, you make a delicious-smelling spongy substance, and after it's bubbling you just pretend you're making bread the normal way. Laura Kirkman doesn't have time for that business, and she decided that her readers didn't have time for that either. The bread may be an all-day affair, but we readers of "Efficient Housekeeping" can just drop a wet rag over the bowl and spend the entire long breadmaking time doing literally anything else.

I decided to make the topping as soon as I had covered the dough for its day of leavening. That way, the butter could infuse with herbal oils the entire time the bread was sitting out. I resisted the temptation to complicate things with parmesan, garlic, or paprika. I wanted nothing to get in the way of the rosemary. There's no need to complicate beauty. Unfortunately, our rosemary butter looked like were about to make brownies with Satan's salad greens.

Every time people ask me if I can make special brownies (and that happens a lot), I tell them I will make the brownies if they supply the special. (So far, no one has.) But now I think I should recommend special rosemary rolls instead of special brownies. Not only are rosemary rolls less cliched, but they already look right for it. 

The butter with a damp heap of ground rosemary looked so much like the beginnings of special brownies that I considered putting the rosemary and the butter in a hot frying pan. I am informed that a short time on a hot stove really draws out the, um, herbal flavor. But even before the butter had cooled enough to re-solidify, the rosemary had already dyed it a refreshing jade green. I promise we're not cooking with the groovy greens. It just looks like it.

After sitting out all day while the dough rose, the butter was (depending on your perspective) either well-infused, or a suspicious shade of green. Every now and then, I picked up as I passed by so I could get a whiff of lovely rosemary. The butter had plenty of time to infuse since the dough was extremely slow to rise. I began to fear I had killed the yeast by putting it through a blender. But eventually, the dough got over whatever problem was bothering it and rose to life.

I meant to serve these with dinner. We were eating thrilling leftovers that night, and it's nice to have something fresh alongside the fruits of the microwave. However, since the bread dough took so long to rise, we ended up having middle-of-the-night bread instead. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Here you can see my big mistake: I quartered the recipe. This would prove regrettable as soon as the rolls were out of the oven and before they had a chance to cool off.

Our rosemary rolls came out of the oven looking just as infused with illicit herbs as they did before they went in. I might add paprika to the topping next time just to make these look less like the product of some dispensary, but this time I didn't want to impede the flavor of rosemary.

And gosh, did the rolls ever come out golden and beautiful on top! When you broke one open, it was so perfectly fluffy inside.

I never bother writing about the underside of bread, but I have to note the fantastically buttery crispness underneath these. All of that rosemary butter seeped between the rolls and infused them with pure deliciousness as they baked.

However, because I am picky about what I make (particularly when deciding whether to make it again), I carefully tasted some bread from the middle so I could see if it's good without the rosemary butter, or if the herbed topping was like cream cheese icing making up for an underwhelming cake beneath it. The bread itself, completely unadorned, is absolutely wonderful. The rosemary made it so delicious that I was glad I avoided any other spices.

But the biggest compliment came when I told everyone else that the bread was at last done. (I should not that due to my poor planning, the bread was ready six hours after the rest of supper had been cleared away.) I wandered away from the kitchen for a few minutes, and returned to find everyone else standing over a near-empty pan. The bread didn't even have time to get cold. "This is the best bread you ever made!" they said. "You should double it next time!" So great was the clamor over the bread that I had to promise to ask my sister-in-law for more rosemary branches for future culinary use.

I am surprised that Laura Kirkman didn't recommend using herbs instead of cinnamon glaze as a suggested variation under the cinnamon bun recipe because it is so good. And if you plan ahead and make the dough the night before you want it, it's not a whole lot of work when you want to serve it. While you do need to let it rise for 8-10 hours, you can simply cover the bowl and forget about it all day. You don't even need to check on it occasionally throughout the day.

I'm sure rosemary isn't the only herb that would be good here (and yes, the marijuana jokes keep setting themselves up). So feel free to use whatever herbs appeal to you when you're getting groceries- or whatever you have growing outside. You will be very glad you made these.


  1. I'm glad someone else is capable of killing the unkillable. I've heard so many times how indestructable rosemary plants are, and I've also succeeded in murdering quite a few. Granted, I've tried to grow them from seed and not tried to maintain one of those pre-grown plants from the store, but still.

    Either way, this needs to happen in my house immediately. I love rosemary on potatoes and this looks like that but more so...

    1. I have seen people who managed to get five foot tall hedges of the stuff around the house, but apparently our weather is far worse than theirs.
      I do love rosemary potatoes! They're so good and so easy.

  2. Those look sooo good! I adore fresh-baked homemade bread, and rosemary is so fragrant and delicious.

    1. Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs. It just smells so good!