RECIPE: Better home baking begins with hero rolls

Italian Hero Sandwich with Staplehouse salumi. You can make your own hero rolls at home. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

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Italian Hero Sandwich with Staplehouse salumi. You can make your own hero rolls at home. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Editor’s note: Bake Better is a new column that focuses on home baking. Look for the column online every other Wednesday and in print alternating Thursdays in the Food section.

I grew up in an Italian American household in upstate New York, where my mother — a public school teacher of 30 years and the greatest cook and baker that I have ever known — kept three cookbooks.

I, a professional baker, am the owner of a quadrillion cookbooks. All of them are beautiful and useful, and, shamefully, too many of these wonderful books sit in messy stacks around my desk, pleading with me to be a better student.

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I’m working on it, but in the meantime, my mother still owns three, and the titles probably wouldn’t surprise you: James Beard’s “American Cookery,” a rarely used copy of “Joy of Cooking,” and a charmingly ancient copy of Craig Claiborne’s “New York Times Cookbook,” complete with margin notes and my grandmother’s cheesecake recipe faithfully handwritten in the back endpaper.

Why does the Times’ cookbook own such a special place in my mother’s home? For one, it’s a great book. For another, because newspaper recipes are meant to be shared, loved and improved upon. They’re a great exercise in community cooking.

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My mom loves newspaper recipes, I love newspaper recipes, and because of this, I am honored to join The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a baking columnist.

Let’s establish some ground rules.

Stand mixers, specialty baking ingredients and fancy baking gadgets have nothing to do with good baking. Do a stand mixer and a scale make things easy and replicable? Yes. Will you bake better with these things? Not necessarily.

What matters more is the courage to try something new, good humor in case it all goes wrong, and some leftover courage to give it another shot.

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If a piece of equipment or a special ingredient is critical to a recipe, I’ll let you know, and recommend an easily accessible substitution or technique.

Rule No. 2: Good baking, like good cooking, is not a science project. We bake to nourish. If you’re into ratios and percentages, that’s wonderful. If math is not your thing, that’s fine. Either way, baking is for you.

I once worked for a masterful French baker who had little more than a grade school education, but lots of passion and intuition. If you have the passion to nourish and learn, we will develop baking intuition together, through practice.

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Our first recipe is about as useful as it gets. Hero rolls, hoagie rolls, or sub rolls — no matter what you call them, this basic riff on an Italian olive oil bread can be purposed in many ways: cut the dough a bit smaller to get wonderful hot dog rolls, shape the dough into buns for burger night, or coat with butter and a bit of coarse salt before baking for fragrant, savory dinner rolls.

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Sesame Hero Rolls. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Sesame Hero Rolls. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

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Sesame Hero Rolls. (Courtesy of Nicole Lewis)

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Credit: Nicole Lewis

Sesame Hero Rolls
  • 1 1/2 cups (323 grams) room-temperature water, plus 1/4 cup for brushing
  • 4 cups (435 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2 tablespoons (18 grams) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon (15 grams) salt
  • 1 packet (7 grams) instant yeast
  • 1/2 cup (70 grams) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup (145 grams) sesame seeds, for topping
  • In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, add 1 1/2 cups water, then the flour. Mix to a smooth consistency (on low speed if using a mixer), making sure that no dry bits of flour remain. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes.
  • Add sugar, salt and yeast, then knead dough until smooth and elastic. If the dough sticks to your hand or the bowl more than to itself, keep going. If mixing by hand, this step will take about 20 minutes; if using a stand mixer, it should take 4-6 minutes on medium-high speed. If mixing by hand, resist the urge to add more flour. Be brave and have faith that your dough will come together. You’re done kneading when you pull on the dough and it fights you quite a bit and tries to pull back.
  • Once dough is smooth, add olive oil, a little at a time, and squeeze the dough to work all oil into the dough. Be sure that it is mixed well. If using a machine, mix on low speed with the dough hook until all the oil is incorporated.
  • On a clean work surface, coax the dough into a loose ball, and place back in mixing bowl. Cover with a clean cloth to prevent a skin from forming on the dough and let stand for 1 1/2 hours at 72-75 degrees.
  • Turn dough onto a very, very lightly floured work surface. I mean it. Don’t go crazy with the flour. Cut dough into 6 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 7-10-inch log, being sure not to add too much flour to your surface. One side should have a straight seam — this will be the bottom of the roll; the other should be relatively smooth — this will be the top.
  • Brush the tops of the rolls with water and roll in sesame seeds. Alternatively, use a clean, damp tea towel and roll the tops in the towel, and then in the sesame seeds. (This is an easy way to get an even coverage of water on top of the roll for the sesame seeds to stick without drenching the dough.)
  • Place rolls, seed side-up on a cookie sheet. (The cookie sheet should not be greased, but can be lined with parchment paper for ease of cleaning. The dough need not be covered at this point, since the water and seeds will prevent any kind of skin from forming on the dough.) Allow to stand for 1 hour, at 72-75 degrees.
  • Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  • When the rolls look as if they’ve taken a deep breath and exhaled, but are not looking bloated, they’re ready to bake. If poked very gently, the indentation should come back very slowly, and the roll should not collapse. Bake 13-15 minutes, until golden. Makes 6 (6-ounce) rolls.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per roll: 620 calories (percent of calories from fat, 44), 13 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 31 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 968 milligrams sodium.

Chris Wilkins has been a professional baker for 12 years. He is a two-time James Beard Award nominee and the founder and co-owner of Root Baking Co. and Pizza Jeans. Submit your baking questions to