You know that thing? That thing popping up on menus everywhere, but you don’t quite know what it is? And it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal with.
If you’ve ever enjoyed something called a “Parker House roll,” you can thank the eponymous Boston hotel now known as the Omni Parker. The good folks at Parker House neglected to trademark the name after one of their bakers first created the recipe in the late 19th century—and restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, and large-scale baking outfits alike have been benefitting ever since.
We can’t blame them for taking advantage. A proper Parker House roll is fluffy, impossibly buttery, faintly sweet, and crustless—the American answer to the crusty, crunchy Old World-style breads that dominated the culinary scene up until the roll’s conception, Omni Parker rep David Ritchie told us.
Photo credit: The Omni Parker
"We were doing breads and the Parker House rolls for years by the late 1800s, [but they] were perfected in the 1900s," said Ritchie. "Before that, everybody had only ever experienced European-style breads. It was a big wow."
The rolls owe their signature texture to copious amounts of butter, says Ritchie: There’s butter in the dough, and more butter is added after the dough has partly risen. (Take a look at the recipe for proof.) “The bread doesn’t have a chance to get hard,” Ritchie explained. “It’s kind of like basting a turkey.”
Authentic Parker House rolls also have a telltale feature—a fold that Ritchie described as looking like a smiley face, tucked into the side of the roll. According to hotel lore, the fold was the unintentional invention of a German baker who threw his hand down on a tray of rolls in a fit of anger, altering their shape.
"Since that day, they were folded in that style every day. And that’s how the smiley face got on them," Ritchie said.
Renowned late food writer James Beard was also a fan of the rolls. “They have been copied by every cookbook author and every baker in the country,” he once wrote, according to the James Beard Foundation. “Some versions are exceedingly good and some are absolutely dreadful because they skimp on good ingredients. (We’ll bet his recipe falls into the “exceedingly good” category.)
As for copycats, the Omni Parker takes a benevolent stance. “It doesn’t need to be trademarked, because we’re not in the commercial baking business or anything,” Ritchie opined. “To have everyone using the Parker House name is a real good thing.”
You’ll find products labeled “Parker House rolls” on grocery store shelves, too. But we suggest you walk right on by. These rolls are best enjoyed warm, right out of the oven—if not in your own kitchen, then from someplace else that indulges Beard’s basic requirement: good ingredients.
We’ll add one more necessity: a smiley-face fold.
Parker House Rolls
Courtesy of the Omni Parker House
Yield: About 3 1/2 dozen rolls
- 6 cups all-purpose flour (about)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 1 cup margarine or butter (2 sticks), softened
- 1 large egg
In a large bowl, combine 2 1/4 cups flour, sugar, salt, and yeast; add 1/2 cup margarine or butter (1 stick). With mixer at low speed, gradually pour 2 cups hot tap water (120 degrees F to 130 degrees F.) into dry ingredients. Add egg; increase speed to medium; beat 2 minutes, scraping bowl with rubber spatula. Beat in 3/4 cup flour or enough to make a thick batter; continue beating 2 minutes, occasionally scraping bowl. With spoon, stir in enough additional flour (about 2 1/2 cups) to make a soft dough.
Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, working in more flour (about 1/2 cup) while kneading. Shape dough into a ball and place in greased large bowl, turning over so that top of dough is greased. Cover with towel; let rise in warm place (80 to 85 degrees F.) until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours. (Dough is doubled when 2 fingers pressed into dough leave a dent.)
Punch down dough by pushing down the center or dough with fist, then pushing edges of dough into center. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead lightly to make smooth ball, cover with bowl for 15 minutes, and let dough rest.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In 17 1/4-inch by 11 1/2-inch roasting pan, over low heat, melt remaining 1/2 cup margarine or butter; tilt pan to grease bottom.
On lightly floured surface with floured rolling pin, roll dough 1/2 inch thick. With floured 2 3/4-inch round cutter, cut dough into circles. Holding dough circle by the edge, dip both sides into melted margarine or butter pan; fold in half. Arrange folded dough in rows in pans, each nearly touching the other. Cover pan with towel; let dough rise in warm place until doubled, about 40 minutes.
Bake rolls for 15 to 18 minutes until browned.