The Alabama Orange Roll

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My heart and palate have still not left my new favorite state, Alabama, since my trip there nearly a month ago. I fell in love with its deep culture and southern cuisine.   Theirs is the cuisine of the deep south, with some of the residue of Louisiana creole cooking, but with its own viewpoint.   I found yet another local favorite dish from the area.   The Alabama Department of Tourism lists it as one of the “ 100 Foods To Eat Before You Die”.   But, it was one I hadn’t experienced while I was there.   I asked our server at Kitchen on George in Mobile, for an example of a regional popular dish.   All he could come up with was crawfish and shrimp and grits.   He gave me no inkling of the secret food that accompanies most family dinners in the Gulf Coastal south – a yeasty sweet bun called the Alabama Orange Roll.

Maybe our server didn’t mention this delicious treat as a regional delicacy because it comes in a basket for every table in Alabama.     It’s taken for granted because it’s everywhere.   Whatever the case, I was intrigued.

This new tip came by way of our corporate chef.   Before coming to our company, he had cooked with some of the finest executive chefs in Birmingham, Alabama.     It was on a recent visit to a southern fried chicken chain in Dallas, Texas, that our chef told me about this Alabama Orange Roll.

You see we assume that all southern fried chicken family meals are created equal.   They are not.   Not only in the type of oil in which they’re fried or the spice, makeup, and crunch of the batter.   In the Carolina and Georgia Low Country every chicken dinner, and for that matter, any other southern dinner, comes with a biscuit.   Well, in the Gulf Coastal South, which includes Texas and its interior, everything comes with a yeast roll, not a biscuit.   I don’t know if it’s because it’s hotter there, but Gulf Coast southerners prefer a lighter roll with their dinner that has a bit of sweetness to it.     Sure, just like the Low Country Coasters a bit north of them, they’ll douse the roll in butter and local honey.   But they prefer their yeast rolls.

This particular chicken chain made their own sweet yeast roll. It was one of the items whose cooking we were assessing to recommend our oven.     It was during this assessment that our sales rep and our chef were talking about how in Texas and the coastal south the yeast roll reigns supreme over the biscuit.   The store manage said they tried a biscuit adder to their menu, but no one ordered it. They wanted their yeast rolls.

In Alabama, particularly around Birmingham, this delicious Orange variety is served with every meal in every family style restaurant. It’s like a cinnamon roll in that it’s a yeast dough, rolled, and doused in a glaze.   But it doesn’t have cinnamon and it’s glaze is made with orange juice, orange zest and confectioner’s sugar.     The orange roll has been described as “a little tangy, a little sweet, a little buttery, and a lot delicious.”     Although they’re served throughout the year, they’re a popular item at Christmas and the holidays.

One of the most famous places for this orange roll is a restaurant called All Steak in Cullman, Alabama, almost smack-dab between Birmingham and Huntsville.   Cullman is a picturesque city with an historic German heritage, who’s magnolia and azalea lined streets fragrance the city in Spring.   They have a Festehall Market Platz that hosts their annual Oktoberfest and numerous music fests.   But their Orange rolls are what makes them famous.

In 1934, a man named Millard Buckman opened a restaurant in Pulaski, Tennesee, that he planned to call All Steak Hamburgers.   But when he bought a sign he only had enough money for All Steak and that’s what the name became. Four years later Buckman moved the restaurant to Cullman.   Buckman sold to Charles Dobson in about 1970, who had started there washing dishes in 1958.    In 2006, it sold to a Decatur native, Matt Heim.     Dobson divulged their Orange Roll recipe to Bon Appetit magazine in the 1980s, and later had second thoughts about this revelation.  You can still find that original recipe online.

There are some orange rolls commercially available in groceries, even to us northern Yankeees. Sister Schumann’s is a well-respected brand, nicknamed ‘Sinister Schumann’s’ by local chefs that’s available at Krogers and other local groceries.   A Birmingham local, Millie Rae, also makes orange rolls on the order of 720 dozen a day and sells to grocery stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.   Her rolls were made famous by Urban Cookhouse Restaurant in Homewood, Alabama.

Yet another place is famous for their orange rolls and that’s “The Club” (emphasis on THE), a dinner club with one of the best views of downtown Birmingham.   Their recipe is a little bit different, because theirs contains coconut, which the others do not.

The origin of the recipe and the concept are not known.   Whoever invented this citrus sticky bun, should get a James Beard Award in my opinion. I am going to have to integrate them into a holiday brunch, maybe alongside a slab of crispy goetta topped with a fried green tomato!

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