Don’t you love it when a mistake made in the kitchen sometimes turn into a popular dish? Like St. Louis’ own toasted ravioli that came into being when a piece of ravioli was accidentally dropped into the fryer. One of the most fortuitous of culinary mistakes occurred when an angry pastry cook slammed a tray of rolls into the oven, causing an indentation in the dough. Parker House rolls were born.
From this humble beginning, this 19th century dinner roll became a favorite of the Parker House, a famous Boston hotel and the same hotel that created the Boston Cream Pie. Among their customers to enjoy the bread were such celebs as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fannie Farmer brought the recipe to further fame in her 1896 cookbook. (Side note: We have Fanny to thanks for kitchen measuring spoons and cups; before that ingredient amounts were much less precise—a handful of this, a dash of that.)
So what’s the secret to the popularity of the long-admired dinner roll that’s scored down the middle, folded and pinched before baking? Some think it’s the unique pocket shape, that’s so perfect for inserting a pat of butter. But those who ponder such things more deeply say it’s the butter. There’s butter in the dough, and it brushed on the rolls before and after baking. And the diner adds yet more butter at the table.
Parker House Rolls Grow Up
As you might imagine, there are variation that have developed over the years. Some recipes call for eggs, as does both King Arthur Flour and Martha Stewart, but not the Pioneer Woman, though she does offer a very helpful step-by-step photo series.
Some cooks shape the rolls from rounds while others form them from a folded rectangle. Today’s chefs have gone to sprinkling the top with fleur de sel salt after the rolls are baked and buttered and one figured out how to cook a sausage link between the fold.
The adaptable rolls can be made ahead and left to rise slowly in the refrigerator. When ready to use, remove and let stand for an hour before baking. Or, if you chose, bake the rolls and rewarm them at 300 degrees for 15 minutes. Alternatively, let them rise on a baking sheet, freeze, remove from the tray and store in freezer bags. Take the rolls from the freezer when ready to use and let them sit for a few hours before baking.
The recipe below is the New York Times‘ adaptation of the original.
Fannie Farmer’s Parker House Rolls
- 4 Tbs. butter, at room temperature
- 2 Tbs. sugar
- 2 tsp. salt
- 2 cups warm milk
- 1 package dry yeast
- 6 cups white flour, approximately
- 4 Tbs. melted butter for brushing dough
- Mix the 4 tablespoons room-temperature butter, the sugar, the salt and the warm milk in a large bowl and let cool to lukewarm.
- Stir the yeast into 1/4 cup warm water and let it stand for 5 minutes to dissolve.
- Make the sponge: Add 3 cups flour and the dissolved yeast to the milk mixture and beat vigorously for 2 minutes to form a loose batter. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
- Stir in the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time to form a shaggy dough firm enough to knead. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, knead for a minute or two, then let rest for 10 minutes. Resume kneading until smooth, 8 to 10 minutes. (Alternatively, add the sponge and 3 cups flour to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, and knead on low until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, 10 minutes.) Cover the bowl and let rise again until doubled in bulk, 45 to 60 minutes.
- Using a rolling pin, roll out dough until it is 1/3 inch thick. Cut with a 2 3/4-inch round biscuit cutter or with an oval Parker House roll cutter.
- Using the dull edge of a knife, make a crease through the center of each piece of dough, brush with melted butter, fold in half along the crease, and press edges lightly together.
- Place rolls 1 inch apart on a buttered baking sheet (or use a silicone baking mat). Let rise again until dough has doubled in size, about 45 minutes. (It should feel spongy to the touch, and hold an indentation when pressed with a finger.)
- Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat to 425 degrees. Bake rolls until golden, about 12 to 18 minutes. Brush again with melted butter. Let cool for a few minutes, then serve warm. The rolls are best when freshly baked but can be reheated in a 350-degree oven for a few minutes before serving.