Mix the dough:
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt.
Poppyseed variation: If making this variation, add 1 Tbs. poppyseeds to the flour mixture now.
Fit the mixer with the dough hook. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the half-and-half and the 3 oz. of butter, stirring constantly, until the butter melts and the liquid registers about 120°F on an instant-read thermometer. With the mixer on medium low, pour the warm milk mixture into the dry ingredients. Add the yolks. Mix on medium low until the flour is completely incorporated, 1 to 2 min.
Cheddar & Black Pepper variation: If making this variation, add 5 oz. (about 2 cups loosely packed) finely shredded extra-sharp Cheddar and 2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper now.
Increase the speed to medium high and knead until the dough is very smooth and elastic and pulls away from the bottom of the bowl (a little will stick to the sides), about 5 minutes.
Herb variation: If making this variation, add about 3/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (try 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, 1/4 cup chives, and 1 tsp. thyme) now.
If the dough climbs up the hook, stop the mixer and scrape the dough back into the bowl. Repeat as needed. Also, the mixer might dance around on the counter, so hold on to it.
No mixer? It's easy by hand: In a large bowl, whisk the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. In a small saucepan, heat the half-and-half and the 3 oz. of butter, stirring constantly, until the butter melts and the liquid registers about 120°F on an instant-read thermometer. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the warm milk mixture into it. Beat the egg yolks just to combine; add them to the bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon until the flour is completely incorporated. When the dough becomes difficult to stir with a spoon, use one hand to anchor the bowl and knead with the other by pushing the dough with the heel of your hand, lifting it up, and folding it over. Knead in the bowl until the dough is no longer sticky and then turn it onto the countertop. (There’s no need to flour the counter unless you’re making the herb variation.) Continue kneading until the dough is smooth, supple, and elastic, 8 to 10 min. (Add the variation ingredients at the intervals indicated above.)
Let the dough rise:
Scrape the bowl, scoop up the dough, and shape it into a ball. Lightly grease the sides of the same bowl (or another large one) and put the dough into it. Cover the top securely with plastic. Let the covered dough rise in a warm spot until nearly doubled in size, 45 to 55 min.
Portion the dough:
Turn out the dough onto a clean surface and gently press to deflate. There's no need to flour the countertop or your hands (unless you're making the herb variation, in which case the dough may be sticky). With a pastry cutter or a chef's knife, divide the dough into about 16 equal pieces, 2 to 2-1/3 oz. each. To ensure even rolls, use a scale to weigh the portions. Lightly grease a 9x13-inch Pyrex baking dish with butter.
Shape the rolls:
Work with one piece of dough at a time; cover the others with plastic or a damp towel. There's no need to flour your hands (unless you're making the herb variation). Put one piece of dough on the counter. With a cupped palm, press down gently but firmly, rolling the piece in tight circles on the work surface until it forms a smooth-skinned ball with a seam on the bottom. Put the ball, seam side down, in the greased baking dish, cover loosely with plastic, and repeat with the remaining dough. (The dough balls can be arranged in rows or placed randomly; just be sure they're even.) Cover the baking dish with plastic and let the balls rise in a warm spot until they're about one and a half times their original size and have risen about three-quarters of the way up the pan rim (they won't yet fill the pan). This will take 40 to 60 minutes, depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375°F.
The shaped rolls have a tight skin on the top and a neat seam on the bottom.
Poppyseed variation: If making this variation, sprinkle on 1 tsp. poppyseeds now.
Bake the rolls:
Remove the plastic wrap and bake the rolls until they're puffed and well browned, 20 to 25 min. Remove from the oven and brush the tops with the melted butter, if you like. Serve warm.
Make Ahead Tips
A day ahead, prepare the dough, shape the rolls, and arrange them in a baking dish. Cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. Take the rolls out of the fridge about 4 hours before you want to bake them. Set them in a warm place until they rise as described in the recipe. Or, bake the rolls a day ahead and store them, covered in the pan, at room temperature. Reheat at 300°F, covered loosely with foil, until warm. The baked rolls can also be frozen for up to two months before thawing at room temperature. Reheat as instructed above.
Photo: Scott Phillips