Parker House Rolls are buttery, fluffy yeast rolls made with white wheat flour. They have a fold (or crease or indent) on the top in the centre for easy tearing — the crease also helps to increase the surface area that can be crusty.
You make a Parker House Rolls from a small round of dough rolled about 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick and about 3 inches (7 1/2 cm) wide. You brush the top of the rounds with melted butter, then fold them in half (buttered side in) off-centre, so that one “half” will be bigger than the other “half”, and so that the large half overlaps the smaller half slightly. You press a bit on the fold so it will stay in place, then let rise until doubled in size, and bake.
Parker House Rolls originated in the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Hotel) in downtown Boston (USA), at the corner of School Street and Tremont. Originally five stories tall, the hotel was founded in 1855 by a Harvey D. Parker. The hotel expanded to fourteen stories in 1927, in the same location, without closing.
The rolls appeared by the mid 1870s, a creation of an in-house German baker whose last name was Ward He was working under the Chef at the time, John Bonello.
Parker House Rolls were certainly on offer by 1876. The French composer Jacques Offenbach was staying there then, and at dinner sang “Parker rolls, Parker rolls, how I love you.”
By the 1880s, cookbooks started to have recipes for the rolls. Not only were the rolls good in their own right, but the Parker House was a prestigious hotel.
Later, Parker House Rolls made in the hotel’s kitchens were also sold to other restaurants, hotels and stores, becoming a business in their own right.
The hotel kept the exact ingredients secret until 1933, when it acquiesced to a request for the recipe from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Ho Chi Minh, the Communist Vietnamese leader, worked in the hotel’s bakery from 1911 to 1913.
Today, the hotel’s bakery will also fill private orders for the rolls at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Literature & Lore
Some people equate Parker House Rolls with “Pocketbook rolls”, but the first edition of the The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1884) makes it clear the two rolls are different:
“Parker House Rolls are made after the receipt for Milk Bread with sponge, and when well risen and ready to shape, roll the dough on the board as you would pastry, and, if wanted richer, spread a generous tablespoonful of softened butter all over it. Fold the dough, and roll out again until nearly half an inch thick. Lift the rolled dough from the board and let it shrink back all it will, and be sure it is of uniform thickness before cutting, or the rolls will lose their shape. Cut with a round or oval cutter; press the thumb across the middle and fold over like a turnover, letting the edges come together. As they rise they will open a little, and, if folded only half-way over, they are liable to open too far. Spread a bit of soft butter the size of a pea on the edge before folding it, if you like the crusty inside which that gives. Or roll the dough thinner, and put two rounds together with a thin spreading of butter between; these are called Twin Rolls.
To make Pocket-book or Letter Rolls, roll the dough in a rectangular shape one fourth of an inch thick, and cut it in strips four inches wide and as long as the dough will allow. Spread with soft butter; fold one end of the strip over about an inch and a half, and then over again. Cut off even with the folding, and then fold another, and so on. Or cut the dough into strips two inches wide by seven long, and spread each strip with butter, and fold one third over and then again like a letter. Or roll the dough out one fourth of an inch thick, then roll up and cut pieces one inch wide from the end of the roll, turn them over on the side, and place close together in a pan to rise.”
— Mary Johnson Lincoln. The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1884. pp 70 to 71.
Moore, John. Boston landmark serves up tasty helping of history. Toronto Star: Toronto, Canada. 13 January 2007