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.
UPDATE: I have since found the perfect dough recipe for pepperoni rolls. The new and improved recipe can be found here.