In my experience, all West Virginians have two fundamental things in common:
- We know all the words to John Denver’s classic “Country Roads” and always sing along (often tearing up) even if we stumble upon the tune unexpectedly echoing down the aisles of a Northern Virginia grocery store.
- We possess an unflinching loyalty to our state dish – pepperoni rolls – and love educating those poor saps from other states that have never heard of them.
Go right ahead and make all the predictable jokes you will about my birthplace – I’ve heard them all. And though I love poking fun at no one more than myself, I’ve yet to hear one WV joke that is clever, entertaining, or true enough to be worth repeating. The WV I know has little do to with tired stereotypes and everything to do with gorgeous landscapes, neighbors that feel more like family, summer nights spent playing flashlight tag and holiday trips careening down roads that cling to the mountainsides with little more than static electricity.
Then there are the beloved pepperoni rolls. Thought to have been invented by Italian immigrant coal miners as a compact yet filling lunch that did not require refrigeration, they are now as ubiquitous as peanut butter crackers and available in bakeries, gas station markets and grocery stores across the state. In elementary school I was fortunate enough to have parents that valued nutrition and delicious homemade lunches, but pepperoni roll day was the exception. The smell of soft yeasty bread, spicy pepperoni and melted butter climbed the walls, snuck into air ducts and hit you square in the face as the cafeteria ladies loaded tray after tray into their ovens. The lunch line on pepperoni roll day snaked down the hallway but even the youngest and most hyper kids would anxiously wait their turn, anticipating the treasure to be found at the other end.
I developed this recipe over several attempts at perfecting my pepperoni roll. Thus far, this is the closest I have gotten to the rolls of my childhood. The bread recipe is adapted from a classic Italian Bread featured in Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I intentionally chose an enriched Italian-style bread as I imagine it is similar to what the early Italian miners used and the starter adds a depth of flavor that holds up well to the spiciness and saltiness of the pepperoni. However, for the less-obsessed and/or time-crunched bakers out there, feel free to substitute any soft white bread or roll recipe. For an even easier rendition, though not as flavorful, many West Virginians purchase pre-made white roll dough which can be found in your grocery store’s refrigerator section.
Adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
Just a few notes: The use of cheese here is optional but I prefer the added flavor especially of provolone. Also, many pepperoni roll recipes call for using sticks of pepperoni, but I like thinly sliced as it spreads evenly in the dough for more pepperoni per bite and makes the dough easier to roll. Makes 8-9 rolls.
3 1/2 cups (18 oz) biga starter
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 2/3 tsp salt
1 Tb sugar
1 tsp instant yeast
1 Tb olive oil
3/4 cup to 3/4 cup plus 2 Tb milk (warmed slightly)
Provolone cheese, cut into slivers or shredded
Pepperoni, thinly sliced
2 Tb unsalted butter, melted
One hour before making the dough, remove biga from the refrigerator and cut into 8-10 pieces. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it come to room temperature.
Combine the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the biga pieces, olive oil and 3/4 cup of warm milk. Mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until a ball forms. Adjust the milk or flour amounts until the dough is slightly sticky and soft but not too batterlike.
With the dough hook attachment on your mixer, knead the dough for about 10 minutes on medium speed. Dough should pass the windowpane test and register between 77 and 81 degrees internally. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled large bowl, rolling to coat, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the dough doubles.
Divide the dough into 4 ounce pieces, which will yield 8-9 pieces total. Press the pieces of dough into a rectangle shape and place 2 slices of cheese and 6-7 slices of pepperoni in the center. Then, continue to shape into torpedo rolls (if needed, here is a decent video demo of how to shape – yours will be smaller roll-sized pieces however.) Most importantly, make sure you seal the dough well on the bottom so the cheese does not ooze out while baking.
Stagger4 or 5 rolls on a parchment lined sheet pan, lightly spray with oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let the rolls rise at room temperature for an hour and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Using a sharp knife, make 2 diagonal slashes in the tops of each roll. Place the rolls in the oven and immediately lower the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Bake 15-18 minutes or until golden brown. Remove the rolls and immediately brush with melted butter. Allow to cool on a rack for approximately 45 minutes before serving.