Roasted Sweet Potato Rolls for Thanksgiving

In two days, I’ll drive out to the desert to give thanks. Coyotes might howl into the basin that night, but I’ll call my mom around noon her time to say I love you. It’s all so familiar and so different now, how three years have changed me since I came to the California. People say the coast is forgiving of your past; but for me, it’s the only thing I’m clinging onto anymore, the one thing I refuse to give up. I did my own sort of pilgrimage and found myself on the border between two worlds, between two selves. The shorelines blur between me and the Pacific and I’m still dipping in to see which one is colder.

I’m clinging to my past. My mother in sweat pants. We’d eat at three. My dad would keep the television on in the background. It could drown out the silence at the table some years. There are five of us in my family; we hardly have anything in common. My mom would wear her sweatpants until the dinner was done, she’d change into jeans and we would pray for the first and last time that whole year. My sister liked lasagna, so we had lasagna one year. My mother kept the pumpkin rolls moist in damp paper towels and one Thanksgiving I ate nothing but mashed potatoes and bread. I wasn’t grateful for anything then, I lived with the idea that it was deserving of everything handed to me. Food sat stacked on the buffet that usually held report cards and old balls of yarn. It was a mess of a drawer in a mess of a house, because my parents worked three jobs between them. We were kids then and I thought the world owed me more than canned green beans and the TV in the background.

We’d be done in half an hour. I’d sleep the rest of the day. One Thanksgiving I saw a cherry glow and fade with the metronome of my sister’s breath. She used to sneak out and smoke by the porch swing. It gets dark early in November.

It was the only thing I saw for miles.

And this year, as I have for the last three years, I will be spending 3,000 miles away from my family. Three thousand mile markers that pass in green and white blurs down the turnpike exits between pastoral town names like Donegal and Somerset. So much separates me from the person I used to be. A teen that rolled his eyes when his mother would cry at the dinner table. I never offered a hand to hold. She’d work ten hours on the turkey and I would say I wasn’t hungry. She’d work ten hours at her job and then I would say she was never around. She’d sleep for five hours and be up in the morning to drink her coffee and say goodbye before going back to the warehouse to work. And I never once offered to clear the dishes, to organize the buffet, to tell her I love her or lend her a hand. I’m three thousand miles from that person now. I’ll be celebrating in a desert this week who I have become; but the person I was in my past lives still glows like an old ember in my mind. It’ll be the only thing I see for miles before bed.

But I am thankful I know who I am now. I am thankful I can see how much she loved me. I am thankful the last time I was home for Thanksgiving that my mom and I shared the last of the sweet potato casserole from a Tupperware dish and ate it cold with forks while watching It’s a Wonderful Life. I am thankful I have those memories now, to hold onto when it feels so cold in the desert these days.

Roasted Sweet Potato Rolls

This is the first of two Thanksgiving recipes that I worked on this week. I wanted to share this one with you first, as it can take some time. I have broken the recipe up into two parts: the roasted sweet potatoes (which can be made into their own dish if you'd like), and then the rolls. These are, perhaps,the softest rolls I have ever made and can be made smaller than the picture. A true Indiana boy at heart, I made them in cast iron with a lot of butter and brown sugar. Makes 12 giant rolls or 18 medium-sized rolls. 

Ingredients for the Roasted Sweet Potatoes:

  • 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions for the Roasted Sweet Potatoes:

  1. Preheat oven to 350*F and prepare a half sheet pan with aluminum foil
  2. Place sweet potatoes in a medium bowl
  3. In a small measuring cup, whisk coconut oil, syrup, sugar, olive oil, pepper, and salt
  4. Pour mixture over sweet potatoes and stir with a wooden spoon to coat
  5. Pour onto prepared pan and spread out
  6. Roast for 50 minutes or until browned, tender, and a little caramelized
  7. (Can eat here as its own side dish or proceed on)
  8. Let cool and puree in a food processor

Ingredients for Roasted Sweet Potato Rolls:

  • 2 cups water, warm to the touch
  • 5 teaspoons yeast
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar + 2 TB brown sugar, packed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt (pref smoked salt here)
  • 1 cup sweet potato puree (above)
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tablespoon butter, 2 TB softened
  • 4 1/2-6 cup AP flour + more for kneading and topping


Directions for Roasted Sweet Potato Rolls:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, add water, 1/2 cup brown sugar, salt, and yeast. Let sit for five minutes until foamy
  2. Add egg, puree, and 2 tablespoons of softened butter. Turn mixer on low to mix all ingredients together
  3. Keeping the mixer on, begin adding flour, one cup at a time. Keep adding flour until dough begins to stick away from sides of bowl (if you add too much flour and dough becomes "sandy", add a small amount of water or milk to reconstitute)
  4. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead for 3-5 minutes until springy
  5. Place in a well-oiled bowl, turning once. Cover with a towel and let sit for an hour in a warm, dry place until doubled in size. 
  6. Turn back out onto floured surface and punch down slightly. Cut into 12 or 18 equal pieces and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or in cast iron skillets that are heavily buttered)
  7. Cover with a towel and allow to rise for 20 minutes
  8. While rising, preheat oven to 350*F
  9. When done rising, place pan or skillet in oven and sprinkle with remaining brown sugar and break remaining 2 TB butter off and sprinkle over dough
  10. Bake for 25-32 minutes or until golden brown on top.
  11. Enjoy. Best first day, but can be stored in a container for up to three days.