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Tim's Pepperoni Rolls
originally from - 08/03/02

Note: the recipe was updated September 10, 2000. Dozens of folks have e-mailed me to reminisce about pepperoni rolls, or to tell me how much they liked the recipe. I'm constantly experimenting with the recipe, and this is the best version so far (and is faster than my original one, since I've found that the second raising is not necessary.)

I was raised in southern West Virginia. When I went to college in Fairmont, about 120 miles north of home, I heard of pepperoni rolls for the first time. All the local bakeries made them, and every convenience store and newsstand had a jar of them for sale on their counter (often displaying them in an old Tom's Peanuts heavy glass jar with a shiny metal lid.)

I've bought pepperoni rolls at gas stations, drug stores, grocery stores, and sandwich shops. They aren't exactly alike, but all are good and also cheap. I assumed the rest of the world knew about them, and that my late discovery of them was due to being raised in relative isolation. 

Once I left the state, however, I found that pepperoni rolls aren't common. In fact, asking lots of people and searching the internet turned up nothing. They seem to be a truly local food, limited to certain parts of northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, possibly introduced by the large Italian population living in the hills there.

A pepperoni roll is a few thin slices of pepperoni baked in a soft, golden oval of slightly sweet dough, smaller than a dinner roll. They aren't "bready," and they aren't tough and hard like pizza crust, either. Pepperoni grease seeps out of the ends of the roll as it's baked, leaving an orangish-red soft spot at either end.

The contrast between the soft, sweet roll and its spicy filling is very satisfying. They are great while warm, just fine a day later. Without cheese and tomatoes, they are completely unlike pizza, and in fact about the only place thatdoesn'tsell them in northern West Virginia is pizza joints. You usually just eat them out of your hand, although some restaurants (like Colasessano's in Fairmont) split them open and serve them hot from the oven topped with marina sauce and melted cheese, more like an entree than a snack.

I never had pizza growing up, but I learned to like pepperoni rolls. When I later went on to West Virginia University in Morgantown, they were even more common, being sold all the way up to Pittsburgh as I later found. People took bags of them to ball games and on trips.

I wasn't satisfied waiting for trips North to eat pepperoni rolls, so I tried over a couple of years to develop a recipe that would be at least similar. I couldn't find anyone who made them at home, except for some bad-sounding versions involving hot roll mix or canned biscuit dough. I didn't know bakers up there, and postings on the newsgroups got me nowhere. I attributed some early failures to not having a fancy baker's oven, although I've worked around that as well as I can.

The recipe below is what I've come up with. It makes a nicely puffy, yet soft-chewy roll that my family likes. My wife says these are very close to those from High Street Bakery in Morgantown.

What I learned by trial and error is: (1) you don't need any shortening or eggs; (2) use a good bit of sugar for the right taste; and (3) powdered milk keeps the rolls soft and rich-tasting.

So, give these a try if you like, and e-mail Tim how they turned out.

Pepperoni Rolls

Makes about a dozen rolls, although I always double the recipe (just use twice as much of everything, except one package of yeast is fine.)
1 1/2 cups water, barely warm to the touch
1/3 cup sugar
1 package yeast
1 teaspoonful salt
1/4 cup dry powdered milk
4 cups flour
Thin-sliced packaged pepperoni, about four ounces (paper thin is best)

Dissolve sugar, yeast, salt, and powdered milk in the warm water. Stir in the flour, using extra flour or water as needed to make a soft dough that isn't too sticky. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for a couple of minutes. Shape into a ball and let raise in a bowl for 30 minutes to an hour, covered with a towel. Volume should double.

Turn the raised dough back onto the floured board, and cut it into 12 pieces (I use a scraper/cutter, but a knife works fine.) Take each piece, flatten it lightly on the board with your hand, and place 4-5 slices of pepperoni in the middle, overlapping but not stacked. Roll it up like a jelly roll, and then primp it with your fingers to seal the ends into an oval, with no pepperoni sticking out. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. 

Melt a tablespoonful of margarine and beat in an egg and two teaspoonfuls of sugar. Brush rolls lightly with this glaze. You don't need to let the rolls raise further.

Bake rolls at 400 degrees until golden brown. Brush immediately and lightly with melted margarine so they soften up nicely.

They are wonderful when cooled for five minutes or so, or place in a sealed bag to eat later. Makes a dozen good-sized rolls, which will make four people very happy.

My daughter's a vegetarian, so today instead of pepperoni I made a few with a small cube of Monterey Jack cheese in the center and baked them normally. They were just as wonderful. You could use both pepperoni and cheese, or add some roasted red pepper, or maybe other non-traditional fillings that would still be very tasty.

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