Thanksgiving is nigh. I’m not ready.
Usually my grocery list for this epic dinner is pages long, listing ingredients for new dishes and old favorites. It’s too much. This is not the year for it. My standbys will be on the table: a roasted turkey breast (we’re not fond of the rest of the bird around here). Cornbread dressing in a slow-cooker. Potatoes mashed with sour cream and baked with french-fried onions on top. Fresh green beans. Cranberry sauce. Sweet potatoes that maybe only I will eat, although someone could surprise me. Pumpkin pie. Pecan pie. And rolls. Of all that lineup, the roll recipe is the one that merits posting on this week of thanks.
I cut it out of the Arkansas Times, a weekly news tabloid, maybe 25 years ago. It wasn’t even titled, just described as “the Little Rock school cafeteria roll.” Somewhere in my misty memories of 20-minute lunch periods that served up closed cliques and pubescent social quicksand floats the image of a golden brown, lightly sweet, and tender roll. It was delicious. There must have been some national standard for lunchroom rolls back in the day, because, although I was never a student in the Little Rock school district, this roll tastes like the rolls I loved in other school lunchrooms. To those long-ago cafeteria cooks who took the time to make something tasty for a bunch of rambunctious kids (and one shy girl skirting the edges), I give thanks.
Lunchroom Rolls (Adapted from a recipe printed unknown years ago in the Arkansas Times, which is published by Arkansas Times Limited Partnership.) You’ll need a standing mixer for this.
2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons or 2 packages dried yeast (can use instant)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided use
1 egg at room temperature, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
Combine water and yeast in the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a flat beater. Let stand for several minutes, until yeast has begun to bubble and bloom. Add sugar, salt, and 1 cup of flour. Beat 2 minutes. Add egg and shortening, and beat another minute or two. (The shortening will break up but will not blend fully.) Gradually beat in remaining flour. Continue mixing, preferably with a dough hook, until dough leaves the side of the mixing bowl. Add a little (not a lot) more flour if necessary. Remove the dough hook or beater.
Lightly coat the sides and bottom of a second large bowl with vegetable oil. Scrape dough into bowl, swirl the bowl vigorously to rotate the dough inside so that it gets coated with oil, then turn the dough over to oil the top. Cover bowl with a light dishtowel and let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Push dough down with fists to deflate. Let rest for a few minutes.
Lightly grease a 9×13-inch pan with vegetable spray or butter, along with a smaller pan to hold the overflow. Sprinkle flour over the surface of a large cutting board. Turn dough out onto floured surface. At this stage I prefer not to handle the dough any more than necessary, in order to preserve its lightness. Press and shape the dough gently with your fingertips into a rectangle about 1-inch high. With a large knife, cut rows into the dough crossways and then again from top to bottom to form rectangular rolls that are more or less similar in size.
Place the cut-out rolls in the greased pans with a small space between each. Cover again with the dishtowel and let rise until rolls are doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350°F.
Bake in the center of the oven until rolls are golden brown, about 25 minutes. Brush tops with melted butter while rolls are still hot. If time is short and people are hungry, just peel back the paper from the end of a stick of butter and baste the hot rolls with that. Keep the rolls warm at the table by serving in a napkin-lined basket, edges folded over the bread. Divine.