I was perfectly content to make your usual, bland, industrial crescents-in-a-tube as my dinner roll for the in-law's Thanksgiving meal. Then my latest issue of Saveur showed up (featuring Thanksgiving dishes, bless their little hearts), and in it I find an article on Tom Colicchio's Parker House dinner rolls (as a Top Chef fan, I must admit I can hardly resist anything with Chef C's brand attached to it). Of course, the article makes the rolls sound so sexy and irresistible (as magazine articles are designed to do), that I decide, what the heck, I'll try them.
Lucky for me, I had the foresight to do a dress rehearsal batch on Monday before unleashing them on the unsuspecting relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. My first challenge was finding one of the ingredients: barley malt syrup. According to TC, this sweetener lends "caramel and molasses undertones to the flavor of the bread". Unfortunately, unless you happen to have a brewery in your basement, it's a little hard to find, and mail order 3 days before the holiday simply wasn't an option. I did find dark corn syrup, which is listed in the recipe as an alternative, so that would have to do.
The next challenge was heating up milk to 115F, which is the activation temperature of active dry yeast. I was able to use my deep fry thermometer in a saucepan to get the milk temp as close as I could, then dumped it in to the yeast-corn syrup mixture. After about 10 minutes, it was supposed to get "foamy", although my starter didn't get more than just remotely effervescent (I should have taken this to be the first sign of potential trouble). The next tripping point came during dough kneading as the article states to mix the dough only "until it's tacky to the touch but not sticking to your fingers", lest you generate too much gluten from rough handling (this is desirable when making pasta, but not for soft dinner rolls). My dough became smooth after only about 2-3 minutes of kneading, much less than the 5-6 minutes cited in the recipe. To stay on recipe, I went for an extra minute or two, but this may have been detrimental to the final product as we'll see soon.
After letting the dough rise for the instructed time period (about 1 hour and 45 minutes), I rolled out the balls and put them in a greased 9" metal round baking pan (I didn't have an 8" cast iron skillet, nor an 8"x8" baking pan). I didn't think that dish size/shape would make much difference; however, once put in the oven, the dough balls neither rose much nor browned much, ending up mostly lumpen in appearance (hardtack, anyone?). So where did I go wrong? Milk temp? Too much kneading? Wrong pan? Any combo of the above? We'll probably never know, although my money is probably on #1 and #3. I'll forever be more careful in selecting the right equipment for baking recipes, especially after reading a recent Wall Street Journal article demonstrating how little variations in pan size and even the type of salt used can have drastically different results when cooking or baking.
For the adventurous among you, here's a link to the recipe: Parker House Rolls (Editor's note: after reading several reviews posted to the recipe site, apparently almost everyone had trouble making this work, so perhaps the recipe is wrong to begin with. I feel so less dopey.....)