This Vintage Southern Yeast Roll Recipe Has a Surprising Secret Ingredient

Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls

If you know anything about southern cooking or cooking in general, then you've probably heard the name Edna Lewis uttered a time or two. While Julia Child and Ina Garten are names in the cooking world that are often highly celebrated (and should be for their own contributions), one person who should be talked about more is Edna Lewis.

Widely known as the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking, Lewis has left an undeniable mark on the culinary landscape. Renowned for her pioneering spirit and unparalleled contributions, she stands as a luminary figure whose influence resonates far beyond the kitchen. With an exuberant passion for the rich and diverse tapestry of Southern cuisine, she skillfully wove together tradition and innovation, transforming the way we perceive and savor the flavors of the American South.

A trailblazer in her own right, Lewis not only mastered the art of cooking, but also became a revered teacher, storyteller and advocate for preserving the cultural heritage embedded in Southern recipes. Her innovative approach to recipe development became a celebration of history, community and the unspoken stories behind each dish.

Once I found her recipe for Featherlight Yeast Rolls, I knew it was one that deserved my attention. It was a recipe steeped in history and also sounded incredibly delicious. So, I gathered up all my ingredients and got to work. Here's how it went.

Get the recipe: Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls

Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls Process<p>Courtesy of Choya Johnson</p>
Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls Process

Courtesy of Choya Johnson

Ingredients For Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls

For this recipe, you'll need a russet potato, unsalted butter, milk, salt, sugar, active dry yeast and all-purpose flour.

How to Make Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls

Before beginning, it's important to note that this is a two-day process, so you'll want to make sure you've carved out enough time to get this done. Once you're ready to start, place the peeled and chopped potato in a saucepan and generously cover the pieces with water. Bring the water to a boil and let the potato simmer until it's tender, which should take around 10 minutes. Before draining, reserve one cup of the potato cooking liquid.

Melt your butter and set it to the side. In a bowl, mash the hot potatoes using a fork before adding the melted butter, milk, salt and sugar. Next, ensure your reserved potato cooking liquid has cooled and that the temperature doesn't exceed 115°. This is to avoid killing the yeast you'll add in the next step.

Related: This Vintage Southern No-Bake Cookie is a Forever Favorite

Once the temperature of the liquid is below 115°, add the yeast and let it bubble up and foam. Then, stir the yeast mixture into the potato mixture before incorporating the flour using a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. Flour a counter or large cutting board and knead the dough until it becomes elastic and soft, about 10 minutes.

Coat a large bowl with butter and place the dough inside, coating it with butter as well. Place the dough in the refrigerator and allow it to rise for 8 to 10 hours. Once that time is up, remove the dough from fridge, punch it down and divide the dough in half. Shape each portion of dough into a log, cutting each one into 12 pieces. Roll these pieces into balls and arrange them evenly in a 9-by-13-inch pan. Cover the pan with a kitchen towel and let the rolls rise for approximately 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Melt the remaining half stick of butter and brush the tops of the rolls with the melted butter. Bake the rolls in the middle of the oven until they're golden brown, which should take about 20-30 minutes.

Related: All About James Hemings, One of America's First Celebrity Chefs

Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls Dough<p>Courtesy of Choya Johnson</p>
Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls Dough

Courtesy of Choya Johnson

What I Thought of Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls

Crafting Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls proved to be an adventure, albeit a slightly more time-consuming one. The outcome, however, presented a few surprises.

First, my yeast rolls turned out larger than anticipated, and the dough, unfortunately, displayed a stickiness that made shaping and placing it in the pan a bit challenging. While the taste wasn't unpleasant, it fell short of the "wow" factor I hoped for.

Despite the minor setbacks though, the experience of trying my hand at Edna Lewis' yeast rolls was a valuable lesson in the artistry of baking and it highlighted the intricacies involved in achieving the perfect balance of size, texture and flavor.

So the big question: Would I make them again? Absolutely. But I'd do my best to get the shape and size to be as close to what Edna created as possible.

Related: How to Celebrate Black History Month, According to Black Chefs

Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls Final<p>Courtesy of Choya Johnson</p>
Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls Final

Courtesy of Choya Johnson

Tips for Making Edna Lewis' Featherlight Yeast Rolls

Use salted butter on top of the rolls. Though the recipe calls for unsalted butter, the final result of the rolls lacked a bit of flavor. Though the butter gets brushed on top of the rolls before they bake, you can't really taste it after they're done. Using salted butter may help with this.

Up next: All About Edna Lewis, Renowned Chef and Godmother of Southern Cooking