There are some holidays where I feel free to improvise- I view them as an opportunity to try out new recipes and techniques. Thanksgiving is not one of those holidays. Thanksgiving is tradition.
When I was growing up, my parents had, (and still have), a group of friends who got together three times a year-Thanksgiving at the Sterns, Hanukkah at the Saphs and Purim at my parent's place. Every year it was the same people and the same food. So what could be Purim without my mother's stuffed cabbage, and a gathering of kids watching Rocky and Bullwinkle in the basement; and what could be Hanukkah without Leonard's latkes and boxes of Dunkin' Donuts, and the kids running from adult to adult to ask them increasingly bizarre survey question; and finally, what could be Thanksgiving without Cheryl's sweet potato rolls and that long winter drive down to Hyde Park in the dying light?
I grew up. I moved away. Things changed. I made my own traditions. Latkes at the Saph's became homemade donuts at Deb's. Purim, also at Deb's. Thanksgiving is mine. The guest list is not precisely the same from year to year, but it's close enough. The menu varies in its small details, but always there is turkey and cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie and green beans and mashed potatoes. Most importantly, always, there are friends and there is community.
Thanksgiving is so important to me. It has become a way to hold on to my American identity, a way of expressing my belief in the power of ritual and the importance of gratitude. It is a wonderful thing to be able to celebrate it at home with friends.
This year, I'm adding an old/new tradition- sweet potato rolls. Cheryl's sweet potato rolls are one of my most vivid memories from those Thanksgivings. I loved that they were sweet, and adorably orange. It's been years and years since I've had them, and I think I sort of missed them, so this year I decided to revive the tradition and see if they live up to my memory of them. Spoiler alert- they do. They are both less orange and less sweet than I remember them being, but they are still delightful little things, soft and fluffy and tinged with sweet potatoes. Make them, and they'll very likely end up in your yearly rotation. Sure, it's a bit of a fuss to make your own bread, but if you don't fuss on Thanksgiving, when else are you going to fuss? It's worth it, I promise.
Happy Thanksgiving. May we all have many things to be thankful for this year.
Roasted Sweet Potato Rolls
Adapted from Cheryl Stern
2 medium sweet potatoes, roasted and mashed
3 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 ½ cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ tsp salt
7-7 ½ cups bread flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
1. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in water. Add a pinch of sugar. Let it sit for a few minutes until the yeast mixture is frothy and bubbly. Add in the sugar, salt, olive oil, eggs, and 3 cups of flour. Mix, and then add rest of flour, mixing until it forms a sticky dough. Either turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, or place in the bowl of a stand mixer. Knead until smooth and elastic- (about 10 minutes on medium speed in a hand mixer, closer to 15 minutes by hand, depending on the strength of your forearms.)
2. Cover and set aside in warm spot. Let rise until doubled, about an hour. Punch down the dough and let it rest for about 5 minutes. Divide into 4 parts. Cut each part into 16 pieces. Roll the pieces into strands-about say, an inch and a half to two inches long. Knot the strands to form cute, little rolls. Cover and the rolls and place them in a warm spot. Let rise for a half an hour.
3. While the rolls are rising, preheat your oven to 400 f. When the rolls have doubled in size, slide them into the oven and bake for 15-20 min. They are done when the tops are lightly browned and a tap to the underside of the roll produce a nice, hollow sound.