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The way we roll for Thanksgiving

I claim that the number one job of a Thanksgiving roll is to soak up gravy.  "And butter," Nancy Leson added.  

Here are our two favorite roll recipes.  Both have the virtue of being started the night before, giving already harried Thanksgiving cooks a head start on Turkey Day.  

First, Nancy's: "I got this recipe when I was at Café Juanita nearly 20 years ago." The original formulation included rosemary and olives but over the years, and at the urging of her husband, Mac, she has pared it down to this.

Nancy’s Dinner Rolls

Makes 16 rolls

For the dough:

  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 scant tablespoon (or one packet) active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the bowl
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 5 ½ to 6 cups bread flour (or substitute all-purpose flour)

To finish:

  • 1/4 cup semolina flour (or substitute fine cornmeal)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon, or other coarse salt)
  • Optional: freshly cracked black pepper,


  • Optional: Warm the mixing bowl with hot water, then rinse.
  • Add 2 cups water to the bowl, sprinkle in the yeast and sugar.
  • Stir to combine and allow to mixture to rest for 5 minutes.
  • Add salt, 1 tablespoon olive oil and stir.
  • Add flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is no longer sticky. If you’re using a standing mixer, keep testing the dough by pinching it between your fingers. Start doing this after you’ve added about 5 cups of flour.
  • Let dough rise in an oiled bowl (covered with plastic wrap) until doubled — about an hour, though longer is even better (just punch down, as need be, until you’re ready to roll ‘em). Note: Once risen and punched down, you may rest the dough, tightly covered, in the fridge for a day or two — until ready to use. Just bring it up to room temperature before continuing with the recipe, below.
  • Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.
  • Briefly knead the dough, divide it in half and divide each half into 8 pieces.
  • Form dough into rounds — about the size of a tennis ball — and place on a semolina-lined baking sheet (I like to place them on parchment, but you don’t have to).
  • Let the shaped rolls rest and rise for 30 minutes, loosely (but entirely) covered with plastic wrap.
  • Slash the top with a single cut (kitchen shears work great), brush with melted butter and top with flaky salt and/or cracked pepper, if using.
  • Bake until the tops (and bottom) turn golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Dick Stein's Favorite TG Rolls

I got this recipe from Stella Parks, aka Bravetart.  It uses a yukone or flour/water roux in the dough, then an overnight rise in the fridge, and a brief boil of the shaped and risen rolls TG morning. 

Parks' recipe produces a fluffy crumb with a bit of chew and a delicately crunchy crust. Here's a link to her pictorial essay on why this works so well.

Like Nancy's method, Stella's allows a night-before head start.  In the morning, just boil and bake.  The rolls will keep fine at room temperature all day or can be reheated briefly just before serving.  

"Butter and gravy.  I can feel my arteries slamming shut already." 
– Nancy's husband, Mac

Dick Stein joined KNKX in January 1992. He retired in 2020 after three decades on air. During his storied radio career, he hosted the morning jazz show, co-hosted and produced "Food for Thought" with Nancy Leson and wrote and directed the Jimmy Jazzoid live radio musical comedies and 100 episodes of Jazz Kitchen.