Friday, October 12, 2012

Sweet Potato Pull-Apart Dinner Rolls . . . Let's Hear it for the Surprise Factor!

There is a small organic-farm stand in the equally small city where I live. It sits on a wide grassy lot between an old-fashioned ice cream shop and an antique store, on what serves as our town's main street. It's only been here for a few months but I really, really hope it's going to become a permanent seasonal fixture. The beautiful produce it sells comes entirely from Michigan farms, most of it not terribly far from the Detroit area, and everything is so exquisitely fresh. They strive to ensure that the produce they sell has been picked within 24 hours of reaching their stand. The items available on any given day are an eclectic mix, so the selection is kind of unpredictable, and that's one of the things I like most about the place--its surprise factor. You never know exactly what's going to be there or, more importantly, what's not.

One day this week, I thought I'd check there for basil and, hopefully, sweet potatoes. I'd seen some remarkable purple-and-reddish sweet potatoes there a couple of weeks before, and they were like no potato I had ever laid eyes on in the past. But they didn't have any at all the day I was planning to make these dinner rolls, so I just ended up buying some fragrant Jonagold apples and ripe tomatoes as my consolation prize.

It's an unequivocal treat to visit this stand, in part because the fruits and vegetables are so artfully arranged without their placement seeming contrived; all emphasis is on the incredibly vivid colors. From dusty crimson beets, to glossy eggplants, to slender carrots with long bushy greens, Peter Rabbit would risk life and limb for this stuff, drop off his loot, and then head back for more. Every time I stop here I wish I had my camera with me. I wonder what they'd do if I just showed up one day and started clicking away like a madwoman.

After purchasing the apples and tomatoes, I spent a few minutes marveling over the remarkable variety of heirloom pumpkins for sale. I had an intense impulse to take home one of everything. Knowing that it's all so fresh and, even more so, knowing that it's all from Michigan, makes this kind of produce irresistible to me. I think I could give Peter Rabbit a run for his money. We would be partners in crime.

About this recipe . . .

I ended up using two standard sweet-potatoes from the grocery store. And, as for the surprise factor, I suggest you serve these and see if people can guess their secret ingredient. My hubby, Andy, only needed to give them a few discerning sniffs before coming up with sweet potatoes as the right answer (he's good that way). He loves these rolls.

I adapted this recipe from one at the Red Star yeast site ("Pumpkin Pull-Apart Pan Rolls") that called for canned pumpkin and pumpkin spice (I omitted both). I figured a recipe from Red Star had to be good and I was about to give it a whirl, unaltered, when inspiration grabbed me. I thought sweet potatoes would likely make the rolls even better, in part because the addition of potatoes in certain bread-dough recipes seems to reliably have that effect. The rolls I ended up with were extremely good, and they seem to have an impressively long shelf life, staying soft and moist for at least two days. The potato flavor is pretty subtle, giving the rolls just a slight sweetness. This would be an excellent bread item to serve on Thanksgiving. The recipe makes 15 rolls in one 9"x13" pan. I froze about two thirds of the baked rolls after they'd cooled, and I defrosted and warmed a few of those last night in the oven on 250 degrees, wrapped loosely in foil. Served them alongside steaming bowls of white-chicken chili. They felt and tasted like they'd just been baked. This one's a definite keeper.

Sweet Potato Pull-Apart Dinner Rolls

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: 15 rolls (One 9"x13" pan)

1/2 cup lukewarm water, or more
2 tablespoons milk, no colder than room temperature
1/4 canola oil
1 cup of baked sweet potato (no skin), mashed, and cooled to room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
unbleached bread flour, approximately four cups (have more on hand, just in case)
1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)
1/3 cup light brown sugar, loosely packed
2 and 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (or use 1 tablespoon active dry yeast)

melted butter, 1/4 cup

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment on the lowest speed, stir together 2 cups of the flour, the salt, brown sugar, and yeast.

In another bowl, stir together the water, milk, oil, and sweet potato. Pour all of it into the dry ingredients. Beat at medium speed for about 2 minutes. Add in the eggs, and continue beating for about 3 minutes. On lowest speed, slowly add in 1 and 1/2 cups more of the flour. If the dough seems too dry, sprinkle drops of water in a few at a time.

Use part of the remainder of your measured flour to liberally flour your work surface. Flour your hands. Dump the soft dough out onto the floury surface and knead it for at least 5 minutes; you want it to feel smooth, spongy, and elastic (it should feel tacky but not sticky). Add in additional pinches of flour as needed.

Grease, or spray with vegetable spray, a large bowl. Place the dough into the bowl, turning it over once to coat it. Cover the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap that's also been greased/sprayed; cover that with a thin dish towel. Let the dough rise at room temperature for up to two hours, or until almost doubled (whichever comes first). One way of telling when the dough is ready is to gently press a finger into it; if your finger leaves an obvious indentation that does not seem to spring back, the dough is ready to move to the next step.

Liberally grease a 9" by 13" pan with vegetable shortening.

Turn the risen dough out onto a very lightly floured surface (it's not a good idea to add much flour into the dough at this point). Have your melted butter close at hand (warm, but not hot). Very lightly flour your hands. Deflate the dough gently but firmly by pressing it with your palms.

Use a bench knife, or very sharp chef's knife, to divide the dough into three equal parts. Then divide each third into five even pieces (15 pieces total). Cover the pieces with the greased plastic wrap and let them rest, not touching each other, for about 12 minutes.

Remove the plastic wrap and shape each piece of dough into a ball, being careful to seal any seams on the bottom (if you're not quite sure of the best way to do this, here's a helpful tutorial that explains how to successfully shape dough into rounds). Dip the top of each dough ball into the butter. Place each buttered ball into the greased pan, in 3 long rows with 5 dough balls in each short row. Space them evenly, but don't worry if a few of them are almost touching. They will bake together in the oven in any case.

Cover the pan of dough with a piece of sprayed plastic wrap. Lightly cover that with the dish towel and let the dough proof (ie., let it have its final rise) for up to about 90 minutes, or until the dough leaves an impression when pressed with a finger; it won't necessarily looked doubled and that's okay.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

When the dough has risen, bake it on the middle rack of the oven for about 20 to 25 minutes. Check the rolls after about 18 minutes; if it appears to be browning too quickly, cover the pan loosely with foil. (The inside of the rolls should be about 190 to 200 degrees when they're all done; if you're not sure, poke an instant-read thermometer into one of the biggest rolls in the pan. I routinely do this when I'm not sure if bread is done baking.)  They will be quite golden, and dark golden on the bottom.

Remove them from the pan and let them cool on a rack.

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