Laura Dean Bennett
It’s not unusual to step into Mary Dilley’s kitchen and be welcomed by the wonderful aroma of fresh bread baking in the oven.
Mary is one of Pocahontas County’s most accomplished homemakers, and one of the best bread bakers in this, or any other county.
“It’s fun to make bread,” Mary said. “I really enjoy it.”
And it’s a good thing, because she makes a lot of bread – not only for her family – but for the many friends, neighbors and miscellaneous moochers (myself included) who have come to crave the soft texture and sweet taste of her “light” bread, dinner rolls, biscuits and cinnamon rolls.
Many homes in Pocahontas County were blessed with mothers, grandmothers and aunts who made bread as a matter of course, so we were spoiled – and thought it was nothing out of the ordinary.
But not everyone grew up watching their mothers make bread, and more’s the pity.
If you’ve never tasted homemade bread, well, all I can say is, vive la difference!
Mary credits her bread baking wizardry to her dear mother-in-law, the late Mary Lou Dilley, whose expertise in the kitchen was legendary around these parts.
“I guess the first time I ever made bread was probably in 1975 or so,” Mary remembered.
When asked how much bread and rolls she’s made over the years, she laughed and said she’d never thought about it.
I took a guess and said, “I’d bet it’s in the millions of batches.”
“Oh, no, it can’t be that much!” Mary said.
After a little figuring and some tapping on a calculator, we arrived at some approximate figures.
Mary estimates that – over the last 45 years – making light bread and/or rolls twice a month for her family, she’s probably made about 2,000 batches, or more, if you factor in extra for holiday meals and gifts.
She figures, making biscuits on average about once a month, she’s made at least 540 batches of biscuits.
I guess it’s true what they say, practice makes perfect.
Mary also made bread when she worked as a cook at the Frontier Restaurant and when she worked for the school lunch program for 35 years.
“When I went to work for the school system, it was so much easier that I had experience, thanks to Mary Lou teaching me so much,” she said.
“And the other cooks taught me about how to make extra-large quantities.
“We made rolls twice a week or more for the kids at the Elementary-Middle school in Marlinton.
“Lots of former students tell me they remember our rolls,” Mary said with a smile.
“After the flood, we moved to the Middle School. So from 1987 to 2014, when I retired, we made rolls about twice a week, depending on the menus.
“That was one big batch of bread making five pans of rolls – 96 rolls in each pan – about 960 rolls a week”
No wonder when Mary’s pinching off rolls and placing them on a pan, it looks like she could do it in her sleep.
“I learned a lot working at the restaurant and in the schools,” Mary said, smiling.
“It’s nice when you have good teachers, and I was lucky to have a lot of them.
“Mary Lou was a patient teacher,” Mary continued.
“She taught me by having me beside her, copying whatever she did. ‘You do everything I do,’ Mary Lou would say.
“And she never got impatient with me.
“I remember when she was first showing me how to mix up dough, she put her bare hands into it and I just thought, ‘Oh, my!’
“But that’s how she did it. This was way before everybody started using latex gloves.
“Mary Lou was amazing. She never got flustered with company being in her kitchen while she was cooking or making bread,” Mary reminisced.
This writer remembers that, too. Mary Lou was my mother’s best friend, and it was rare that she didn’t have company – such was her generous and welcoming nature.
She could entertain a houseful of company and carry on a conversation and never miss a beat with what she was doing.
And it seems that Mary has inherited that gift from her, because she can mix up bread and cook a meal, all the while, visiting with guests in her kitchen.
“I love cooking – and then everyone gets to enjoy the results.” Mary said.
“Anything you cook or bake takes time. But when you love to cook, it doesn’t seem like it’s hard to do.
“I love baking. I like to make all kinds of pies. Apple is probably my favorite.”
Mary is kind enough to donate a pie to the Huntersville Traditions Day pie auction every year- and those who’ve been to that auction can tell you that a Mary Dilley pie always fetches a pretty penny.
I’ve never eaten anything that Mary has cooked or baked that isn’t scrumptious.
She is famous for her homemade ham salad and chicken salad.
When company’s coming to W.G. and Mary Dilley’s house, Mary likes to fix spaghetti with meat sauce – made with home raised beef and home canned tomatoes – salad and rolls.
“I make rolls and cinnamon rolls for people all the time,” Mary said. “And I really don’t mind doing it because they enjoy it, and I know they appreciate it.”
Which brings us to the topic of cinnamon rolls.
Mary’s have to be, hands down, some of the best anyone in the world has ever eaten.
Mary Lou taught her to make them, too.
Maybe one of these days, Mary will agree to do a story about how to make her famous cinnamon rolls.
Stay tuned, bread-makers.
Mary Dilley’s Homemade Rolls
This recipe makes 4 dozen rolls and 1 loaf of bread – although you can just cut the ingredient amounts in half if you want to make a smaller batch.
Step 1 – Put 1 qt. lukewarm water in a pan or pot and add 2 level Tbsp. of instant dry yeast to the water.
Stir well and let it sit while you are preparing the dry ingredients.
Do not let the yeast water sit for longer than half an hour before making your dough.
Step 2 – Measure 12 cups (almost a 5 lb. bag) of all purpose flour (Mary uses Hudson Cream) into a large mixing bowl.
Add 3 tsp. salt (less if you prefer) and 1/2 cup of sugar (Domino, of course, and add more sugar if you are making cinnamon rolls) and stir everything thoroughly.
Set aside 2 cups of flour for later.
Step 3 – Add 2 cups Crisco to the flour mixture and cut it into the flour mixture by hand. Mary uses latex gloves.
Pour in the yeast water, half at a time and continue mixing by hand.
Step 4 – Get 2 cups plain lukewarm water ready to pour into the mix. Add a little at a time until all the flour is mixed in. Add some of the reserved flour – about a cup or so) as you are kneading until you have formed a ball shape.
Pull the dough up and away from the sides of the bowl and “punch it down” until you have a manageable dough ball that you can remove from the bowl. Clear the bowl of excess pieces of dough and add it to the dough ball.
Step 5 – Return the dough ball to the bowl and punch it down again and flip it over and glaze the top by hand with vegetable oil.
Step 6 – Cover with waxed paper and let rise for 2 hours at room temperature.
Step 7 – Get two 9” x 13” metal baking pans and a standard loaf pan ready – grease them with Pam or shortening. You can also use smaller loaf pans for cute little loaves.
Preheat the oven to 350º.
Step 8 – When dough has risen to a nice round shape above your bowl, punch down the dough again. Then make whatever kind of bread you want –loaves or rolls or cinnamon rolls.
For rolls, pinch off approximately 2-to-3-inch diameter amounts for each roll. Do this by pushing the dough up between your thumb and forefinger like a bubble – this will make your rolls smooth on top. Tuck the bottoms gently and place on greased bread pans, 24 rolls per pan. The leftover dough makes enough for one loaf. Fold it gently into an oblong shape and lay it in the loaf pan.
Step 9 – Cover the rolls and bread loaf with paper towels and let raise for 35 minutes at room temperature.
Step 10 – Bake rolls for 35 minutes at 350º.
Mary bakes her rolls first while the loaf bread raises a little more because she likes to leave plenty of room in the oven for the heat to circulate around the pans.
This is important – do not overcrowd your oven when you are baking. You need even circulation.
Remove lightly golden brown rolls and/or bread loaf from oven and remove from pans immediately.
Let cool before wrapping in plastic bags with a twist tie closure.
Mary’s Extra Tips:
“For baking, you need to know your oven – how hot it runs. And you also want to know about your pans – the darker ones will bake a little faster.”
Most of all, Mary says don’t get discouraged if your first few batches aren’t the best.
“Don’t give up,” she said. “Try again and again. Like everything else in life, it’s all about practice.
“Remember that nobody’s bread is ever exactly like someone else’s, even if you’re using the same recipe.
“Just keep practicing!”