Of the four elements, the onion is like the earth that balances the fire. A humble servant, it forever wants to be liked and always tries to please. It is like your best friend who brings you soup when you are sick. The ring bearer who knows that it is your day.
And how do we treat our best friend, the onion? We hide it in the basement. Toss it in a drawer. Forget about it until it starts to sprout green ears.
Many years ago, I loaded crates of onions onto awaiting trucks on an onion muck in Oswego, NY. Every night I came home wearing new layers of dirt. The wet earth lived inside my nostrils. When it rained, the crates doubled their weight. I sustained myself with peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The few weeks that I did this defined for me what hard work is. I learned that not only were onions bad for your breathe but they were also bad for your back—at least my back. I can’t say that I experienced a romantic back-to-the-land moment. I didn’t. But holding an onion in my hand has become a grounding experience. Once my knife penetrates that first layer of the onion, I know that my family will have a home cooked meal.
When I want to move onions from the supporting cast to center stage, I caramelize them. I slice two or three onions and let them simmer in a pan with a few splashes of olive oil for about 30-40 minutes. Stirring is the enemy of caramelization. An occasional stir or shaking of the pan is all that is needed. Cook until they are golden brown. Let the onions sing their song. You will know they are ready when pesky family members decide that the kitchen is the only place in the house where they want to be. My wife loves scraping the pan for burnt pieces. You might want to keep a flyswatter nearby.
Like onions, rolls are workhorses. And like onions, they are often taken for granted. They are also overly sensitive to the weary voices of deli clerks asking, “What type of roll do you want that on?” Rolls are bread’s stepchildren and wear IWTBL (I Want To Be Loved) t-shirts in all colors. They are fond of accessorizing with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, rolled oats, and when they’re feeling down, a pick-me-up of egg wash. Unlike one who is on a lifetime diet, rolls don’t seem to mind what shape they’re in. Round, oval, knotted, square, baked together in a pan; they know they look beautiful no matter what their shape. When I make challah, I usually bake two loaves, often giving the second one to a friend. But sometimes I shape the second one into rolls for burgers. I especially like them with wild Alaskan salmon burgers that I buy at Costco. Ten or so minutes in the frying pan makes it for a really quick meal. And nothing sits better on that burger than a heap of caramelized onions. One of my favorite roll recipes is Peter Reinhart’s Hoagie and Cheesesteak roll, though I have to admit I’ve never had a cheesesteak on one. I usually opt for chicken apple sausage, topped, of course, with caramelized onions and served with potato salad or oven fries and coleslaw on the side. You have to plan ahead for these because they require an overnight fermentation, but you don’t have to bake the rolls until the next day. The dough can keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Shape and you are ready to go. Get crazy and even caramelize some red peppers along with the onions.
A roll and caramelized onions glom onto each other like two teenagers sitting in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie theatre. I’m not sure if I use caramelized onions as an excuse for baking rolls or baking rolls as an excuse to caramelize onions.
Hoagie and Cheesesteak Rolls (Makes 10 Seven-Inch Rolls Or 5 Foot-Long Rolls)
5 1⁄3cups (24 oz/680 g) bread flour
2 teaspoons (0.5 oz/14 g) salt, or 1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon (0.5 oz/14 g) sugar
1½ teaspoons (0.5 oz/5 g) barley malt syrup, or ¾ teaspoon (0.17 oz/5 g) diastatic malt powder (optional)
3 tablespoons (1.5 oz/43 g) vegetable oil
1 cup (8 oz/227 g) lukewarm water
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 oz/142 g) lukewarm milk
2¼ teaspoons (0.25/7 g) instant yeast
1. In a mixing bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and sugar together. In a separate bowl, whisk the malt syrup, egg, and oil together. Separately, combine the water and milk, then whisk in the yeast until dissolved.
2. Add the oil mixture and the water mixture to the dry ingredients. If using a mixer, switch to the dough hook and mix on the lowest speed, or continue mixing by hand, for 4 minutes to form a coarse ball of dough.
3. Let the dough rest for five minutes.
4. Knead for 2 minutes more on medium-low speed or by hand with a spoon, adjusting with flour or water as needed to form a smooth, supple, and tacky but not sticky dough.
5. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 1 minute, working in more flour or water as needed.
6. Form dough into a ball.
7. Place dough into a greased container, cover, and place in the refrigerator overnight or for up to 4 days.
On Baking Day
8. Remove the dough from the refrigerator about 2 hours before you plan to bake and transfer it onto a floured work surface – divide the cold dough into 4-ounce (113 g) pieces for 7-inch rolls or 8-ounce (227 g) pieces for foot-long rolls.
9. Flatten each piece of dough with your hand, then form it into a 4-inch torpedo shape, or a 7-inch torpedo shape for foot-long rolls, much as you would do for a batard. Let each piece of dough rest as you move on to the other pieces.
10. When you return to the first torpedo, gently roll it back and forth to extend it out to about 7 inches, or 13 inches for a foot-long roll. The roll should only have a slight taper at the ends.
11. Place the rolls on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat with about 2 inches between the rolls. Mist the tops of the rolls with spray oil, cover loosely with plastic wrap, then let the dough rise at room temperature for about an hour.
12. Preheat the oven to 425. Place a steam pan in the oven (a cast-iron frying pan or sheet pan works just fine).
13. Remove the plastic wrap from the rolls. Continue to proof the dough for another 15 minutes, uncovered. The dough will rise only slightly—not more than 1½ times its original size.
14. Use a sharp serrated knife, lame, or razor blade to cut a slit down the center of the roll (about 1/4 inch deep). Let dough proof for 15 minutes after you make the cuts.
Transfer the rolls to the oven, pour 1 cup of hot water into the steam pan, then lower the oven temperature to 400.
▪ Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 10-20 minutes, until the rolls are light golden brown and their internal temperature is 190 in the center.
Feel free to substitute whole wheat flour or other whole grain flours for some of the bread flour, If you do so, increase the water by about 1 tablespoon (0.5 oz/14 g) for every 7 tablespoons (2 oz/56.5 g) of whole grain flour you substitute.