Starting from Scratch with Warm Dinner Rolls

“Starting from scratch” is a phrase that often connotes a plan that failed, a misguided project in need of a system reboot. Something went wrong and you’re taking a mental sweep of the hand across the table to clear it off and do it right this time.

For those of us who cook as stress release, for whom a meal isn’t just a mindless few minutes of satisfaction but a source of therapy, starting from scratch is an exercise in Zen. Laying your mise en place out on the counter, immersing yourself in the repetition of chopping, measuring, stirring, tasting, assessing; it’s a calming sensation that’s ripe with potential as you shape a dish into being.

And in a week where nearly everything went pear-shaped (such a lovely British term for such an unfortunate turn of events), starting from scratch was the only way to go.

It began with inadvertent self-injury, as in the span of three days I made myself .001 pounds lighter by slicing off part of my thumb on a food processor blade. Then burnt my arm while roasting 22 pounds of cashews. Then hit myself square in the forehead with an All-Clad saucepan (yes, it’s possible—don’t try this at home).

Unpleasant, but nothing I couldn’t bandage up and move on. Then the heavy, less-immediately-bandageable stuff came down. ReadyMade announced it was folding (final issue on stands now, website closure soon) and almost just as heartbreaking, Big Man Clarence Clemons played his final gig.

Needing to regain some equilibrium, I realized it was time to take a cue from what turned out to be my final piece for ReadyMade, published this week: a treatise on the easy (yes, easy, I swear!) skill of making pie crust based on a two-day intensive baking seminar at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont.

At Blog & Bake, a session pulled together by the incomparable Allison Furbish as a baking boot camp for food writers, 12 of us were put through our paces in bread baking, pie making, and dough stretching by a battery of incredibly talented chefs and instructors. These women are the real deal. They will instill supreme confidence in anyone who fears the seemingly precise and unforgiving world of baking, and turn all skeptics into raving flour zealots. I would put a money-back guarantee on it.

For my therapy immersion and wake-up call, I needed something simple, a reminder that no matter what sends me reeling, I can still cook, I can still write, and I can still consume large amounts of yeast- and flour-based food. With its quick rising time and opportunity to roll lots of squishy dough bits around in my hands—not to mention its sympatico relationship with a pat of butter—a dinner roll recipe would do.

All the usual comforting adjectives apply to these golden orbs: pillowy, soft, fluffy, buttery. These rolls could be the poster child for carbs. PJ Hamel, the visionary behind the master tome The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion and one of the smart cookies who writes for the KAF Baking Banter blog, hit the sweet spot with this recipe.

dinner rolls
Just a few tweaks made the rolls exactly what I wanted them to be—I reduced the amount of sugar to end up with a more savory dough, I subbed in buttermilk for regular milk because I just can’t resist, and I didn’t bother filling the rolls with any cheese (what?? I know!). If you’re willing to shell out a few bucks for King Arthur’s pizza dough flavor, the few optional tablespoons I’ve added to the recipe make a huge difference. The package says the seasoning is a combination of dried garlic, cheese, and other spices, but I actually think it’s made of magic.

If you’re interested in what my Blog & Bake colleagues had to say about the King Arthur Flour experience, here’s a roundup of our various posts. Between the dozen of us, I’m still not sure we were able to cover everything we learned, but we certainly all presented it eloquently:

Disclosure: ReadyMade compensated me for attending Blog & Bake, and King Arthur Flour provided lodging and instruction gratis for all attendees.

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  1. says

    I’m sorry that last week was a major bummer, but I just love your writing. You’ll land on your feet, I’m just sure of it. I baked the same bread recipe we did on our first day yesterday. You’ll be happy to know that it was just as good. I’m going to have to use that pizza dough flavor to make these rolls, they look spectacular.

  2. Merr says

    There is something magical about bread baking – I’m not sure what it is exactly that I find compelling, maybe something in the rising of dough. Something about that just fascinates me!

  3. says

    Oh, Casey, what a week! Sorry for your woes. But those therapeutic dinner roles look lovely and perhaps you could wash one down with your mint cocktail currently featured on BlogHer. Not such a bad end to the week, hey?

  4. Jane Boursaw says

    Mmmm… homemade dinner rolls are lovely. And I’ve never heard the term pear-shaped used in that way. Will have to remember that. So much nicer than what I usually say: “I had a really crappy week!” Sorry for all the cooking injuries! Hope you’re on the road to health and wellness.

  5. says

    Sorry to read about all of this, Casey! (And apologies for being so belated about it.) I’m glad baking gave you a bit of solace – and I hope things are getting easier for you by now.