The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it — basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, a guide to making fluffy, perfectly enriched rolls.
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Harmony — a word that sums up the primary concern when developing a recipe that involves multiple ingredients and components; cooks and bakers know this all too well. When creating a new baking formula, I often step back to assess what I'm making to ensure all the components work in greater unity. The texture and flavors must play their part in contributing to the overall eating experience, and a successful recipe hinges on the presence of all these components in just the right proportion.
In the case of these savory ricotta and Parmesan rolls, I wanted to make sure the dough had all the requisite lightness and tenderness, but also that it was more than just a vehicle for the filling. Thankfully, one of the beautiful things about sourdough is its inherent flavor development over time. Layers of complex flavors permeate the dough when it's given sufficient fermentation time, and part of developing a formula with sourdough means emphasizing these flavors to full effect.
In addition to natural fermentation flavors, the dough for these rolls is enriched, meaning it has a percentage of butter, eggs, and milk added (conversely, a lean dough is one without these additions). Each of these ingredients brings tenderness, richness, and flavor. And while their percentages are relatively low, compared with something like a proper brioche, their additions do make the dough increasingly harder to handle as their quantity increases.
Here, I aim to point out how small changes in a few key areas — enrichment level, dough thickness, and filling adjustments — led to a savory roll with a dough that is easy to work with, has a soft texture, and with a filling that is delicious enough to eat with a spoon straight from a bowl (always buy extra ricotta!).
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Dough enrichment: What to keep in mind
Developing an enriched dough has considerations a typical bread dough does not. First, adding milk, butter, eggs, and sugar will have an effect on the dough's fermentation activity and schedule, and they will affect the dough's strength and consistency. If any of these ingredients are pushed to too high of a percentage, you'll end up with a dough that's sluggish in fermentation (especially with natural leavening) and one that's challenging to work with when shaping.
Finding the right balance for enrichments in a dough usually requires several rounds of testing and tweaking, where each iteration hopefully gets you closer to your ideal. And ultimately, this ideal is a dough that satisfies in both flavor profile and texture—it's a judgement call made when tasting the result of every iterative step.
In terms of strength and consistency, a leaner dough is always easier to work with because fewer enrichments mean a stiffer and stronger dough. And this ease of handling is important, especially when you have to quickly roll the dough out to a rectangle to spread the filling before it warms and begins to become sticky. So deciding on just how much milk, butter, and egg go into a dough you must weigh the ease of handling versus the benefit of their inclusion in the end result.
In terms of fermentation, sugar has a big impact, and even more so when exclusively using natural leavening. At a high enough concentration, sugar begins to rob yeast of water, which is necessary for growth. But, because the focus for these rolls was for a savory application, I decided to omit sugar altogether from the dough. Doing so not only ensured reliable fermentation, it also worked well in the end as the ricotta filling had plenty of sweet notes to complement the other ingredients.
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How to mix in enrichments
In addition to the fermentation and dough strength impact enrichments have, you must also determine how the ingredients will be added to the dough during mixing.
It's preferable to add butter at the very end of mixing dough, once the gluten in the dough has been strengthened to a moderate degree. This is because the butter, a fat, coats protein strands, preventing gluten cross-linking. When the dough is mixed and strengthened, the gluten cross-linking creates a tight matrix almost like a net, which traps gas produced by fermentation and allows for the dough to rise properly. If a large percentage of butter is added too early in the mixing process, mixing times have to be stretched out considerably, and the dough may never reach the same level of strength as if it didn't have butter.
Milk and eggs are easier: They almost always are added right from the start of mixing. Why? Because they contribute more to the liquid portion of a recipe, and without them at the start, the dough would likely be impossible to mix. In order for the dough to come together, there must be sufficient liquid to hydrate the flour in the recipe. And while these two each contain fat content, it's not quite to the level of solid butter, which means they won't have as significant of an impact on gluten development.
Once the dough formula was set and the mixing process complete, next on the list of considerations was how to roll and fill the dough.
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Adjusting the texture and thickness
When I make any rolled dough, whether it be something sweet like cinnamon rolls or babka, or something savory, like these cheesycheesey rolls, it's important to consider the thickness of the dough at each layer. If you roll the dough out to a smaller square or rectangle before spreading the filling, you'll end up with rolls that have thicker dough layers sandwiching the filling. If the dough you're working with is heavily enriched dough like brioche (which is usually north of 40% egg and 40% butter!), the thicker layers work because the dough is texturally very soft. But, as discussed earlier, I wanted this dough to be leaner with less egg and butter.
Because the dough is more doughy, when I tested rolling the rectangle out to about 12 x 12-inches (instead of the 16 x 15-inch in the recipe) the resulting rolls were too doughy and tough — there simply was too thick of a lean dough between the layers of soft ricotta filling. While the flavor was still great, the eating quality wasn't quite there.
In subsequent tests, I began to slightly increase the enrichment level while simultaneously rolling the dough out farther and farther, to create more layers in the final rolls. More layers in each roll meant an overall softer end product with a dramatic textural improvement.
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Tackling the savory filling
Once I had the dough formula mostly decided upon, I then sat back to decide what type of filling would work well in a slightly rich and light dough. I'm well versed in making sweet rolls of all kinds, but a savory slant requires a shift in thinking: What ingredients would taste great on their own but also shine when paired with a dough? For inspiration, I seem to always turn to my Italian heritage, and there's no better place to look for dough and filling pairings than pasta.
Ricotta, perhaps my favorite of fresh cheeses, is used heavily in many stuffed pasta dishes, but it also takes on a slightly sweet flavor when paired with certain foods. While these rolls were intended to be savory, it's always nice to have sweetness as a counter note, something to enliven the palate and provide respite from anything excessively savory. Drawing further from classic Italian pairings, ricotta is usually matched up with fresh herbs and I knew it would go well with freshly chopped thyme.
My first test of this recipe was simply with a filling of ricotta blended with fresh thyme, and while the flavor was great, it was missing something. The filling didn't have the depth of flavor and it was a bit on the under seasonedunderseasoned side — it needed more salt and even more savoriness. ParmesanParmesean always springs to the fore when looking for something salty with layers of savoriness.
My second test was with a blend of fresh ricotta, thyme, and a good helping of Parmesan mixed into a spreadable medley that had all the notes I was after — a little sweet, herby, and savory. The flavors worked well with the modestly rich dough with its milk, egg, and butter; the only thing left to tweak at that point was just how much filling to use, and that was easily arrived upon through a few more trials.
As a baker, part of the joy in creating new recipes is learning to walk that fine line between too much and not enough. It's all about learning to tease out that balancing point — the point where the flavor of all the ingredients and the texture of the dough work together to form a harmonious loaf of bread, a sweet or savory roll, or a delicate pastry. And what's the other part of the joy in creating new recipes? Well, it's the eating part. Happy baking!