Buttery Brioche Batter Rolls & The Morris-Jumel Mansion

One of my favorite places to take Hudson for his afternoon walk is the grounds of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which is located just a few blocks away from my apartment.

The gorgeous white mansion is the oldest house in Manhattan, built in 1765 by British Colonel Robert Morris as a summer country home for his wealthy American wife, Mary.  The house then briefly served as Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War Battle of Harlem Heights, and was later purchased by a French wine merchant Stephen Jumel for his wife Eliza who was a fascinating lady in her own right!

Photo via the Morris-Jumel website

The story (in my own words) goes like this: Eliza was born in Rhode Island to a prostitute named Phebe and her lover, an American sailor. As a young woman she apparently also worked as a prostitute, until she met Stephen Jumel, who was unaware of her career history. The two married, but she was rejected by New York society (though they didn't know she was a former prostitute, just of low birth), so he bought the house to try to get in the good graces of the local socialites.

It kind of worked--they wanted to come dine at the grand house, but she still wasn't very accepted, so they traveled frequently to France where she was warmly accepted and even became the darling of Napoleon himself (he gave her many gifts of furniture still seen in the mansion today). That apparently didn't last very long as her opinions soon got her scorned among French society, and she was asked to leave. Upon returning to New York, Eliza started using Stephen's money to buy her way up the social ladder (a la Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair).

Stephen eventually learned of her questionable past--and that she was spending all his money--and the relationship deteriorated, he staying in France while she ran about New York. He died (some claim she actually let him bleed to death!), leaving her what was left of his fortune.

She then went on to marry controversial former VP/murderer, Aaron Burr, in what was meant to be a mutually beneficial arrangement (he would bring her status; she would provide him with money).

Unfortunately, that only lasted about 4 months, because Eliza soon realized that Aaron's debts and terrible investments were eating through her fortune. Not one to shy away from scandal, she filed for divorce and kicked his butt to the curb.

Once the divorce was finalized (incidentally on the day of Burr's death), she proceeded to spend the rest of her life traveling between New York and Europe, all the while maintaining the mansion as her permanent residence.

She died at age 90 and is buried in the cemetery across the street from my apartment (along with Ed Koch). It is said that her ghost still haunts the mansion (and I would like to meet it because she sounds like she has some stories to tell!)

The Mansion itself sits upon a hill surrounded by gated yard and gardens in the middle of the Jumel Historic District--a tiny area of cobblestone streets, townhomes, and perfectly preserved colonial rowhouses (the latter of which are regularly used in movie shoots since they're seriously like a snapshot from another era). The mansion is now a museum, open to the public, and regularly hosts cultural events, musical performances, art exhibits, and talks on the property.

I find it endlessly fascinating that this mini historic village exists a mere 5 minute walk from my apartment in the middle of what is generally a pretty urban neighborhood of bodegas and Dominican restaurants.

What does this have to do with those delicious looking rolls up there? I shall explain!

Being a dog, Hudson could care less about the storied history of the place; he just likes to nose around in the grass, collecting a tangle of burrs in his fuzzy white belly hair. While he rolls around, I let my mind wander and usually end up daydreaming about floor-length dresses and old fashioned tea parties. Upon returning home from our walks, I usally start Googling things about the house and old fashioned recipes that people back then would have eaten.

Which is how I came across the entire concept of batter breads, which were popular among 18th century cooks.

Just as it sounds, batter breads (the most popular kind is called Sally Lunn bread) were yeasted breads with a very wet, liquid dough that is stirred in a bowl like a cake rather than turned out and kneaded.

The resulting bread is light and airy, and perfect for serving at breakfast or tea with an assortment of jams or soft cheeses. Rich with eggs, good butter, and just a touch of sugar, these lush little rolls are just the sort of thing that would perhaps have been served at a fine house like Morris-Jumel.

Upon learning this, I immediately had to try them, so I played around with recipes and made one batch, then another, and another, until Eugene came home and found in a bit of an 18th century bread coma.

It was well worth it, I assure you. And once you try these, I think you'll agree.

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Buttery Brioche Batter Rolls
Makes 12 rolls

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1" pieces
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk

Generously grease a standard 12 muffin tin with butter and set aside.
In the base of a mixing bowl with the paddle attached, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast, mixing until evenly combined.

In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the milk and butter, and stir just until the milk is heated and the butter is melted. Let cool 5 minutes, or until you can dip a finger in and hold it in the warm milk for 10 seconds.

Pour the milk into the flour mixture and beat 3 minutes until smooth. Add the egg and egg yolk, and beat 3 more minutes until the batter is thick and smooth--it should look like a sticky pancake batter. Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot for 45 minutes or until doubled in size. Return to the mixer and beat again for 3 more minutes, then use an ice cream scoop to divide the batter evenly among 12 greased muffin tins (they should fill it up about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way). Let rise again for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake 25 minutes, or until rolls are puffed and golden on top. Let cool in the tins for 15 minutes, then transfer to a rack. Serve warm with butter or jam. Best served the first day.

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