Sweet and simple

If you've ever made halla or another yeast bread, you'll find the technique for making sweet rolls familiar.

sweet rolls 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sweet rolls 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For a tempting treat at breakfast, brunch or with coffee, sweet rolls are a particular favorite among Israelis and Americans. Although they are easy to find at bakeries in both Israel and the US, many of us owe our familiarity with these satisfying goodies to an Ashkenazi background. In A Baker's Odyssey: Celebrating Time-Honored Recipes from America's Rich Immigrant Heritage, author Greg Patent notes: "Sweet yeast breads... are more likely to come from the ovens of northern cultures than southern ones... the breads made in the Middle East and in southern climates tend to be savory rather than sweet." If you've ever made halla or another yeast bread, you'll find the technique for making sweet rolls familiar. In the days of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, when many people regularly baked halla every Friday for Shabbat, sweet rolls were a tasty by-product of that activity. People used some of the halla dough to make cinnamon rolls, rogelach, babkas or other treats. Students at my cooking classes have told me they were nervous about making yeast dough because the yeast might not work. Some old-fashioned recipes even call for both yeast and baking powder; the baking powder acted as insurance in case the yeast didn't rise. Today, however, yeast is much more dependable, as long as it's not past its expiration date in the case of dry yeast, or dry or discolored in the case of fresh. The main precaution to take is to avoid killing the fermenting agent by pouring very hot liquid over the yeast. If you don't have a thermometer to check the temperature, use lukewarm or warm water. If in doubt, err on the side of using liquid that's too cool - the dough will take longer to rise but eventually it will do so. Patience is the most important principle when making yeast dough. You can't rush the rising. Place the dough in a warm place in the kitchen to give the yeast a comfortable environment conducive to rising, but don't try to force it by placing the dough somewhere really hot. Like most fine yeast cakes made from a rich dough, the sweet rolls below have the best texture when the dough rises twice. To make timing their preparation more convenient, I make the dough ahead and refrigerate it. In the refrigerator the dough continues to rise slowly, so be sure it has enough room in the bowl to expand. After you have shaped the rolls, you let them rise at room temperature. Making sweet yeast cakes is a relaxing activity, great for relieving stress, and is one of the joys of winter. Nothing compares to the rich aroma they produce as they bake, and to the pleasure of eating them while fresh and still warm. Handling the soft, smooth dough is fun and, unlike puff pastry, this dough benefits from being played with. Knead it by hand if you like, or follow the easy mixer method in the recipe below. Vary the filling to your taste by adding chopped hazelnuts, pecans or walnuts, along with the chocolate chips. CHOCOLATE CHIP SWEET ROLLS The recipe for these scrumptious pastries came about as a result of a request from several students at a class I taught on Jewish baking. The filling is simply a sprinkling of chocolate chips, cinnamon and sugar, and the dough comes together easily in a mixer. Butter gives the dough the best flavor but you can make them parve as well. This dough is made in a mixer with a dough hook. To make the dough by hand, follow the note at the end of the recipe. 7 gr. active dry yeast (about 1 Tbsp.) 1⁄4 cup warm water (43º) 5 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 tsp. salt 3 large eggs 85 gr. (6 Tbsp.) butter or margarine, cut in 12 pieces, room temperature, or vegetable oil 2 tsp. ground cinnamon about 2 Tbsp. melted butter or margarine or vegetable oil (for brushing) 1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips In a small bowl sprinkle yeast over water; add 1 teaspoon sugar. Let stand 10 minutes or until foamy. Stir yeast mixture. Put flour into bowl of mixer; make a well in center. Add salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 eggs. (Keep third egg in refrigerator to use as glaze.) Mix ingredients in center of well briefly with dough hook of mixer. Add yeast mixture. Mix at low speed until mixture comes together to a dough, pushing in flour occasionally. Scrape down mixture. Continue beating on medium speed about 12 minutes or until dough is very smooth. Add butter pieces. Beat on low speed, scraping down dough often, just until butter is blended in. Dough should be soft; if it is dry, beat in 1 tablespoon water. Lightly oil a medium bowl. Place dough in oiled bowl; turn dough over to oil surface. Cover with damp towel or plastic wrap; let dough rise in a warm draft-free place about 1 1⁄2 hours or until nearly doubled in bulk. Gently turn dough over several times to knock out air. Return to bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets. In a small bowl beat 1 egg with a pinch of salt to use as glaze. Mix cinnamon with remaining 4 tablespoons sugar. On a cool floured surface, roll out dough to a 25-cm. x 38-cm. rectangle, flouring often. Brush dough lightly with melted butter. Sprinkle evenly with cinnamon-sugar, then with chocolate chips. Brush plain border with egg glaze. Roll up dough from opposite long side like a jelly roll. Press roll of dough along egg-brushed border to seal. Trim ends. Cut a 2.5-cm slice of rolled dough. Using rubber spatula, set slice on buttered baking sheet, with more narrow side of slice (side that was pressed with knife) facing down. Slice remaining dough; set slices about 5 cm. apart on sheet. Work quickly so dough will not become too soft. Press any uneven slices to an even round shape. Let cakes rise uncovered in a draft-free area about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 200º with rack in center of oven. When baking rolls, set baking sheet on center rack; if necessary, bake in 2 batches. Bake them for 12 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 175º. Bake 10 to 12 more minutes or until rolls are golden brown. Transfer to a rack; cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 15 sweet rolls. NOTE: To make the dough by hand: If using butter or margarine, be sure it is very soft; or melt it so it will blend more easily into the dough. Soften the yeast in the water, following the first paragraph. Sift flour into a large bowl. Make large deep well in center of flour. Add salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 eggs and mix briefly. Add yeast mixture and mix with the other ingredients in well. Mix in flour, first with a spoon, then by hand, until ingredients come together to a dough. Dough should be soft and sticky. Knead dough vigorously on work surface until it is very smooth and elastic, about 7 minutes; during kneading, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time if dough sticks, adding just enough to make dough manageable. Return dough to bowl and add soft butter pieces. Knead to blend them into the dough. 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.