This post was originally going to be called “Martha Washington’s Potato Rolls.” I had found recipes by that name in several cookbooks, and thought this would be a straightforward historical re-creation. Well food history is rarely straightforward — haven’t I learned that by now? The recipes turned out to be completely different, and I couldn’t tell which was really Martha’s.
One recipe for “Martha Washington Light Potato Rolls” is in The Williamsburg Art of Cookery (1938), a collection of “the most ancient & Approved Recipes in Virginia Cookery.” The attribution for this one is “Old Recipe, Chase City, Virginia.” These are simple rolls made with mashed potatoes, milk, yeast, and just a little sugar and butter:
Boil and mash two good sized Irish potatoes and while still hot add two Tablespoons of Butter, one Tablespoon of Lard, two Tablespoons of Sugar, one Teaspoon Salt, and one and a half Cupfuls of Water in which the Potatoes were boiled, and one Cupful of tepid Milk. Beat all well, adding gradually four Cups sifted Flour and when lukewarm stir in a Yeast Cake dissolved in one fourth Cup of tepid Water. Beat very hard, then turn out on a Board, adding more Flour as required and knead well. Set away in a warm sheltered Place for six Hours…. Roll, cut into Rounds, let stand until very light, and bake in a hot Oven.
The recipe refers to yeast cake, which wasn’t invented until 1825, but perhaps the recipe is older and was modified. According to the wonderful website Food Timeline, potato breads have been around since the mid-18th century. Mashed or in the form of potato flour, potatoes were first added to bread when ingredients like wheat were scarce and expensive. Bakers then realized that potatoes actually improved the taste of bread, making it lighter (and whiter), so they started adding the tubers by choice.
In the 19th century, potatoes became a common ingredient in breads and cakes, both in Europe and the United States, particularly where German, Irish, Scottish, and Polish immigrants settled. Potato rolls caught on not just in Virginia and the mid-Atlantic states but also in New England, where they were called “featherbeds” because of their lightness. Eleanor Early’s 1954 New England Cookbook includes a featherbed recipe, and although Early doesn’t discuss its origins, I noticed that it is virtually identical to the Virginia recipe above attributed to Martha Washington.
Another “Martha Washington Potato Roll” recipe is in The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook (2001). This one contains eggs and a whole stick of butter, so it’s quite different from the recipe above and seems more like a French roll. French rolls were very fashionable in well-to-do Virginia households in Martha’s time, so perhaps her cooks took this very genteel bread and added potatoes. Sacrebleu! But since many recipes in this book are merely inspired by colonial dishes, I don’t know how closely this one is based on what was actually served at Mount Vernon.
So did Martha’s cooks make potato rolls with or without eggs, and with a little or a lot of butter? I don’t know. I also stumbled on a potato roll recipe — containing eggs — by none other than Dolley Madison, our fourth First Lady. This one is in The First Ladies Cookbook (1965), and according to the author, Dolley’s rolls were called “Madison Cakes,” not to be confused with Dolley Madison’s caramel layer cake. Did Dolley perhaps steal/borrow Martha’s recipe? (Her sister was married to George Washington’s nephew.)
Not having answers to any of these questions, I decided to make the Chase City potato rolls, which struck me as the earliest recipe, whatever its source. I made only slight changes, such as using all butter instead of a combination of butter and lard. These are good basic dinner rolls — they’re light and soft, and excellent spread with butter. They would be a nice bread to serve at Thanksgiving dinner, especially since they can be made a day or so ahead of time. You can tell your guests they are “Possibly Martha Washington’s Potato Rolls.”
Adapted from Chase City, Virginia, recipe published in The Williamsburg Art of Cookery
2 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into big chunks
¾ cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 package (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
6-7 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Place potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover them with cold water. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook potatoes until tender, 20-30 minutes. Drain, reserving 1½ cups of the cooking liquid. While potatoes are cooking, bring milk to a simmer in a small pan, then remove from heat.
2. Mash the hot potatoes, then add the sugar, salt, and butter and blend well. Then add the reserved potato water and the milk and beat well. Cool mixture until lukewarm.
3. Add the yeast to ¼ cup warm water, stir, and set aside for five minutes until bubbly. Gradually add four cups of flour to the potato mixture and beat well.
Then add the dissolved yeast and blend well. Add the remaining flour, about ½ cup at a time, beating well after each addition, until the dough is stiff enough to knead. You may not need to use all of the flour.
4. Turn dough out onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes), adding additional flour if necessary. Brush a large bowl with a thin layer of oil and place the dough in the bowl. Turn dough to coat with oil, cover with a tea towel, and let rise in a warm location for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
5. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly grease two rimmed baking sheets. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, gently punch it down, then roll or pat to a ¾-inch thickness. Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll them into balls, then flatten these slightly. You should make about 24 rolls. To end up with the right number, I used a knife to cut the dough in half, then in quarters, then made six rolls out of each quarter section. (Alternatively, you could cut out rounds using a biscuit cutter.) Place rolls slightly apart on the baking sheets, then let rise until doubled in size, approximately 45 minutes. Bake about 20 minutes, until golden brown on top. Serve warm.