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Recipes for French rolls are found in numerous cookbooks of the 18th century; this one is derived from those of E. Smith and Mary Randolph. In genteel households, small rolls of French bread were individually tucked into linen napkins by each diner’s plate for the beginning of the meal. This practice arose after King Charles II returned from exile in 1660 to reclaim the British throne, bringing various elements of French culture with him and consequently making them fashionable both in England and its colonies. Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, noted the observance of this mealtime nicety at Mount Vernon in his memoirs.

This recipe is a modern adaptation by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump from the book Dining with the Washingtons.


  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • Melted butter for brushing


  1. Sprinkle the yeast over the water, and set aside to proof for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the yeast gets bubbly.

  2. Combine the milk and butter, and warm over low heat until the milk warms and the butter begins to melt. Remove from the heat, and set aside.

  3. Sift the flour with the salt into a large bowl. Gradually blend in the warm milk, mixing together until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Stir the yeast and water together and add to the dough, mixing thoroughly. The dough will be sticky.

  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a buttered bowl, turning to coat with butter. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise about 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. Punch down the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

  5. Grease two 9-inch French-roll or round cake pans with vegetable shortening.

  6. To finish the rolls, break off pieces of dough, each about the size of a large egg. Shape into rounds, and arrange about 1/2 inch apart in the prepared pans. Cover with towels and set aside to rise again in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

  7. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Position the rack in the upper third of the oven.

  8. Bake the rolls for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn out of the pans onto a wire rack to cool slightly.

  9. Brush the rolls with melted butter and serve warm. They are best eaten directly out of the oven but will keep for about a day. Store leftover cooled rolls in plastic wrap or foil. To warm the rolls, set them on a baking sheet and heat in a 250°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

Makes 20 rolls