Make Melt-In-Your-Mouth Buttermilk Buns
A local chef shares one of her favorite family recipes.
By Christina Barrueta | Photography by Rick Gayle
Food is nostalgia. The art of preparing a meal for others has the ability to transport us to another time and place. From family recipes passed down through generations or dishes inspired by bucket-list trips to exotic locales, every ingredient recalls fond memories. In this, the first of a series, we look at the people, places and experiences that influenced local chefs’ favorite menu items.
For Rebecca Tillman, making buttermilk buns is a labor of love that brings back treasured memories of time spent with her grandmother. “She passed away when I was young, so I didn’t have a lot of time with her,” the executive sous chef shares. “All my memories I have with her are of cooking or baking bread, and, specifically, these rolls. She would make them all the time—when we visited her in Ireland, when people would come over, when she came to the U.S. I would help her grate the potatoes, and she would bake little buns just for me.”
Wanting to feature a delicious bread on her menu at Mowry & Cotton in The Phoenician, Tillman thought of her beloved Nan’s buns, but she didn’t have a recipe. Re-creating her memory of aroma, flavor and texture involved spirited measurement discussions with her mother, phone calls to an aunt in Ireland and tracking down such ingredients as heritage flour and specific cider vinegar. “It took a while to get it right—we tried about 20 different versions—but I remember the day we made that batch,” she says. “I pulled it out of the oven, and before I even tried it, I thought, that’s it, that’s what they smelled like. Then I tasted them, and the memories came flooding back. Even now, when somebody is baking them, I can smell if it’s not right, even if it’s a little change,” she laughs. “It’s crazy.”
“My grandfather was a butcher, so Nan would dip the buns in rendered meat fat or sometimes churned butter and then sprinkle them with a fine, flaky sea salt she kept in a fancy pearlescent bowl. I remember it so clearly,” Tillman continues. For a similar flavor sensation, the chef coats the rolls in a European-style butter and sea salt and serves them with pickled vegetables and two additional butters: On one side of the serving board is a duck fat and fig butter topped with lavender-pickled blueberries and dried corn; on the other is a citrus butter with smoked sea salt and fresh herbs.”
“For me, it’s comfort food,” Tillman explains. “I eat them on an almost daily basis and, every single time, it’s as if I have my grandmother back again.”
1⁄4 cup Kennenbec potatoes, cooked and riced
1⁄4 cup butter, soft
1⁄2 cup full-fat milk
1⁄2 teaspoon live active cider vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon cane sugar
7 ounces bread flour plus extra to dust
1 teaspoon salt
Mix potatoes, butter, milk, vinegar and sugar together in a warmed glass bowl (slightly heat in the oven or over a range, or run under warm water before using) until mixture is warm and melted together. Add yeast and whisk. Add eggs and whisk. Add flour and salt. Mix. Pour dough onto counter and knead for 10 minutes or until it bounces back. Dust with additional flour to keep dough from sticking. Dough should be soft but not tacky. Place dough back in bowl, cover with plastic wrap and proof in a warm area (room temperature is okay) for 1-2 hours until doubled. Portion into 2-ounce balls. Let balls rest for 10 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, flatten the center of each dough ball. In a 6-inch cast-iron skillet, place 4 dough balls in a circle; add one 1-ounce ball in the middle. Proof again until doubled in size. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. Brush with butter and salt.
Makes 15 buns