I think Thanksgiving math is supposed to come down to things like head count. Like how many pounds of turkey per person. Or how many bottles of wine for a crowd. Or how many hours of extra roasting time you'll need if, say, you find, Thursday morning, your bird is fairly well frozen, through and through.
Not that I would ever have such a need. But, theoretically speaking. That sort of thing.
Not mine. At some point—maybe last year? The year prior?—my Thanksgiving math began looking like this: Ahhhhh!!!! I've only got (insert single-digit number) more years! AHHHHHH!!!!!
This year, said single-digit was five.
Five more years.
My eldest, you see, is fourteen. Decidedly not a single-digit number. And while half of my brain is still fresh with the retiring of rubber-handled baby spoons and crumb-filled strollers, the other half blinked, in recent years, to this show-stopper: our days are numbered.
It's so odd. For so long, your head is filled with endless baby numbers. How many months until they first sit? Walk? Talk? Read Hamlet? (Pending...) How many more DTaPs? How many more nappies? How many more months of naps? (Spoiler alert: never enough.) HOW LONG UNTIL THEY SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT? (Here's a happy ending: they all do!)
And all the while, you're thinking the thing is sleep, or preschool, or walking independently and without tears, and imagining you're ticking off these milesones until, done! You did it! Home free! Only you thought the set-up was a race, albeit slow and steady, and rather sticky, but otherwise tidy, linear. Start. Finish. All that.
But really, and without realizing it, you've not been working your way toward a finish line at all, but walking this plank, see-saw style, making your way slowly to the middle. And you walked right on by that fulcrum thing, there in the center, without any fanfare, and soon enough, you're on the other side, and the plank tips slowly, so sloooowly down, back toward the ground, from whence it came, when you first brought that squiggly fragile thing home.
Only this time, they're as tall as you are, and strong, too, and talking about things like college and jobs and things Big and Real, and part of you thinks, yes! They speak! And do their own laundry!! Mission accomplished! And part of you thinks, wow. Oh, wow. We're on the downhill slope, here. Not sure exactly when the teeter tottered, but definitely, it happened. Wow.
And if I have done my job well, which is to say that if in the midst of all my botched effots and parental bungling and (considerable) first draft fails, if I've managed a shred of success, this kid's leaving home in a handful of years.
Which means the next five Thanksgivings had better count.
(It also means I'll clear an afternoon, if it means I get to play Munchkin with my dude. And stay up way past my bedtime, for a late-night Yahtzee tournament, me and him.
And, too, that I have this cute/acute awareness of where the plank sits, with my others. That when they whip out a Perler bead bird, or a Puritan-hatted construction paper gobbler, or festoon the kitchen chalkboard with a most excellent turkey, just to honor the day, I cheer and gulp in equal measure. And when my girl grabs a rake when she hears I'm headed out to clean up under the oak, we take our time and make heaps of leaves and leap and spin until our legs hurt because, holy cow, the others are past jumping.
And when those same two burst into the kitchen, asking to help on Thanksgiving morning? Heck, yeah. We'll eat whenever. Schedule, shmedule. After all, the bird's frozen solid...
Also, when the 6-year-old offers to write up the Thanksgiving cooking countdown? Be still my maudlin little heart.)
ANYway. This memorable Thanksgiving thing, it would seem simple enough. Except if you don't do turkey. Or stuffing, or gravy, or cranberry sauce. Or mashed potatoes. Or sweet potatoes. Or brussels or salad or sweet buttered squash. Or for that matter, apple or pumpkin pie.
If, in other words, there's not one single thing on the Thanksgiving table that appeals? Thanksgiving, that day all about food, about feasting? It's pretty dreadful.
I've been working on this pickle for some time.
Several years back, I decided to add biscuits to our already-heady line-up of starches. They were good. They are good. So good, in fact, we make them often for breakfast, at least once a month. I highly recommend them. For this, and any occasion. After all, any biscuit deluxe enough for Thanksgiving, and simple enough for a school-day morning, is a huge keeper in my book.
However, that very familiarity began to dull their special, just a touch. Mostly, I think, this is just me. I think he'd have been as happy with biscuits. But because I know what Thanksgiving is, what it can be, when done right, that ritual of the feast, of the once-a-year foods, of the celebration of things grand and good, I switched things up in the bread department, last year and this.
Do you do butterflake rolls?
I didn't, or hadn't, until last November. I have, since, several times. And every time I bake a batch, I feel better about the whole five year thing.
I worked my way through several recipes, before arriving at the hybrid that follows. More than most breads, butterflake rolls seems to involve more art than science. I like that. Flour amounts vary, depending on the day. Rising times range from one to three hours. Baking time is a tight range, but one with discretion in the crunch/flake continuum. None of which is to say they're hard. They're not. Not at all. Indeed, they're easier, and faster, and way more fun, than most ordinary sandwich breads. And, in case you had any doubts, easy enough for children. Obviously.
The dough is a basic white yeasted dough, enriched with egg and buttermilk. Once mixed and kneaded (I use my trusty KitchenAid), it is further enriched with butter, sliced thin and layered in, like a primeval laminated dough. Basically, you tug your just-made dough into a rectangle, shave some butter over, fold the whole thing like a letter, then turn and roll. Repeat, repeat, slice, rise, bake. Done. Really. Easy. And memorable.
I love that dough goes straight from mixing to laminating, no rising required. I love that there are only three turns, and no degree signs or thermometers or mentions of precision. I love that the flour measurements are vague, and the dough forgiving, and the rolls impossible to screw up. I love that they are simple enough for a six- and nine-year-old to make. And special enough for fourteen-year-olds to smile over, and anticipate.
Why? Because fresh bread is fresh bread and that's warm and wonderful and awfully special, end of story. But wait, they're also sweet with sugar and golden with eggs, and so eye candy. And too, they're rich and enviably flaky, from that layering and buttering and letter-folding. And then, the roll-and-slice approach adds its own specific appeal. Individual breads. Crisp outside. Melting inside. Excellent, all-around.
(And THE BEST bread for turkey-cream-cheese-cranberry sauce sandwiches, the next day. If you're into the turkey, thing. Or cranberry sauce. Or sandwiches. You odd duck.)
Here is their only drawback: butterflake rolls are so easy, I now see, I may be tempted to make them year-round. This is not good. This is a problem. This is how the cream biscuits got bumped.
We'll see how often these rolls show up on our dinner table, between now and next November. It's a bit of a numbers game, this bread business, preserving the mystique, on the one hand, while creating compelling reasons to return home, on the other. Time will tell. Stay tuned. The see-saw is still in motion.
This is a dough to be made by feel, not rigid recipe following. Sometimes I need three cups of flour; sometimes, four. What you are after is a dough that pulls away from the side of the bowl, but only just, once it's been kneaded 1-2 minutes. Begin with 3 cups of flour, and continue adding, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough is pillowy and no longer sticky and comes together around itself. Still, this is a tacky dough, one that will want ample flour in the rolling. Dust your surface well, and continue to add flour, as needed, as you add the butter layers. These are not cookies; do not fear extra flour. Trust your instincts, and the dough; you can't go wrong. I've been known to use a heaping half cup in the rolling. You'll be rewarded for your efforts with tender, flaky, golden rich rolls.
The roll-and-slice cut, below, is unconventional, but I love its look and texture. For a more traditional butterflake "fan", simply roll out your final dough sheet 6"x12", leave flat, cut into equal 2" squares, and place end-up in the muffin tins. And if you have any leftover (ha), these freeze beautifully. We always double the below batch, and eat all 24, within days.
1/2 cup very warm water (110-120 degrees)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 1/4 tsp. yeast
1 egg + 2 egg yolks *or* 2 whole eggs
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup buttermilk, well-shaken (ideally whole)
8 Tbs. salted butter, 15 minutes from the fridge
3 - 3 1/2 unbleached, all-purpose flour + more for dusting
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine water, sugar and yeast; let sit until foamy, 5-10 minutes. Whisk in salt and eggs (I do this with a hand whisk), until thoroughly combined. Add buttermilk, and whisk until combined.
Add 3 cups flour, fit mixer with the paddle attachment, and mix, beginning on low, until dough is soft and pillowy. You want a dough that is soft and tacky, and that holds together, without being sticky. Think pillowy. Add more flour, per above, mixing a minute between additions, until dough just hits the pillowy stage.
On a well-floured surface, knead dough a few times, then roll out into an approximately 10"x12" rectangle, roughly 1/2" thick, adding flour generously, as needed. Cut butter into thin-thin slices, then lay (approximately) 2 Tbs. butter evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2" border. Fold dough in thirds, as you would a letter, rotate 90 degrees, and roll, until dough reaches a 10x12" rectangle. Repeat the butter/fold/roll routine three more times. After the final, fourth add, roll the dough up, beginning with the long edge, jelly-roll style, and pinch long side seam to seal. Don't pinch the ends.
Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin by rubbing cups with butter, or spraying with oil. Cut rolls into 12 equal slices. I do this with a bench scraper, first cutting the log in half, then each half in half, then each quarter into thirds. (Otherwise, I invariably wind up with wildly uneven rolls.) Place one roll into each muffin cup. Cover and let rise 60-120 minutes, or until well risen and almost doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake on middle rack for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Watch carefully, as sweet, rich dough such as this burns in the blink of an eye. Set your timer for 12, then linger, checking every 1-2 minutes, until done. Pale gold will yield tender, flaky rolls, soft throughout. Deep gold will yield rolls with crunch on the exterior, and tender flake within. Your call.
Cool 5 minutes, then devour.