Baking a pan of sticky buns is a clever way to do any one of the following: Coax drowsy adults and children out of their beds, fill your kitchen with the aromas of good baking and, quite possibly, nudge awake your inner child.
Breaking apart a plump sticky bun with big chunks of pecans on top and a spiral of cinnamon-sugar within is one of those delights entirely available to those willing to bake. And although it seems that cinnamon buns are everywhere in franchised form, none are so enticing as those filled, rolled and nurtured at home.
Personally, I'm captivated by sticky cinnamon buns -- the dough is soft and yielding; it encloses butter, sugar, nuts and spices. Obsessed with creating sticky buns of the highest order, a definitive recipe, I have kneaded my way through countless balls of dough and stirred together endless batches of what I hoped would ultimately become a thick, caramel-like glaze that settles under (and, eventually, over) a handsome baked cinnamon bun.
What were my objectives? To have a soft, moist dough that browns well, holds its shape and bakes to a tender conclusion. To have a filling that is sweetly scented with cinnamon and enriches the dough. To have a delicious sticky glaze mixture that covers each bun and is minimally absorbed.
Following is my how-to baking blueprint for building a memorable sticky bun: The Sweet Yeast Dough
As yeasts dough go, this one is straightforward; it's lightly sweetened and moderately rich. To form the dough, a softened yeast mixture and a scalded and cooled milk-butter-sugar mixture (combined with an egg and egg yolk) is blended into all-purpose flour. Remember at the start to incorporate less than the full amount of flour in the mixing process. Extra flour can always be worked in later, either directly in the mixing bowl or kneaded into the dough once it is turned onto the work surface. Keeping the dough slightly moist makes for a tender-textured bun on baking.
This cinnamon bun dough should be slightly sticky, even when fully kneaded. It is difficult to give an exact amount of flour because of its ability to absorb moisture. Flour is affected by the dampness of the day and the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. The Filling
Spices, sugar and butter usually figure in a cinnamon bun filling. The amount of cinnamon in this recipe is a flavorful 1 tablespoon, but if you adore cinnamon, you can sift the lightest additional haze over the entire surface of the sheet of dough. The dough actually can take a generous dusting of the spice without turning acrid, but this is a matter of personal choice.
Some sticky bun purists prefer nuts embedded in the top only, and a plain sugar-spice filling. Others insist on repeating the nuts (finely chopped) in the filling or using dark raisins (or currants) instead. I favor using pecans in the sticky topping and including chopped pecans in the filling.
One thing to watch for: When mixing the filling ingredients, make sure that both sugars (dark brown and granulated) are combined well to avoid gritty patches in the baked buns. The Cinnamon-Nut Sticky Mixture
The sticky mixtures made with dark or light corn syrup that I tried were unsubstantial, had an off flavor and no depth. Most corn-syrup glazes soaked into the buns; this was not my goal. What I wanted was a blend that, after baking, glossed the top, glazed the nuts and tasted delicious. This perplexed me for a while.
Many sticks of butter, many cups of sugar later, I settled on a blend of dark brown sugar and butter, with a little ground cinnamon for emphasis and a few tablespoons of honey for density. The honey proved to be the pivotal ingredient. And the butter would have to be creamed with the other ingredients, for I learned that melting the butter beforehand actually contributed to a slightly wet, soggy glaze.
The sticky mixture outlined in the following recipe is an excellent one to use for sweet rolls, or to undercoat yeast coffeecakes. Equipment for Baking the Buns
I prefer to use muffin tins for baking individual buns with a sticky glaze. When nestled in the cups, the buns bake through thoroughly (guarding against doughy interiors) and the glaze covers each bun nicely.
My recipe calls for jumbo, or "Texas-size," muffin tins (each cup measures 4 inches in diameter and has a liquid capacity of a scant cup). There are six muffin cups in each tray. Jumbo cups produce big, lush buns.
There are two alternatives to this: Use standard muffin tins (measuring 2 3/4 inches in diameter by 1 3/8 inches deep) or one 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan.
For the smaller muffin tins, cut the cylinder of rolled-up dough into 25 to 27 pieces and apply the sticky mixture and nuts as you would for the larger buns. Reduce the baking time to 20 to 21 minutes.
For the baking pan, smear the sticky mixture over the bottom of the pan and sprinkle on the nuts, then add the spirals of dough (you can still make them large if you wish). CINNAMON STICKY BUNS (Makes 14 jumbo buns* or about 25 small buns*) FOR THE DOUGH:
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup warm (110 to 115 degrees) water
3/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 3/4 cups unsifted bleached all-purpose flour, plus an additional 1/4 cup flour for dusting the work surface, or more as needed
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 extra-large egg
1 extra-large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vegetable oil or softened unsalted butter for the dough-rising bowl FOR THE CINNAMON FILLING:
1/2 cup granulated sugar blended with 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/4 cups chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans) or 1 cup dark raisins
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened FOR THE CINNAMON-NUT STICKY MIXTURE:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons mild honey (such as clover)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 2/3 cups pecan halves and pieces (or substitute walnuts)
Nonstick cooking spray for the inside of the muffin tins
To make the dough: Combine the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the granulated sugar in a small heatproof bowl. Pour over the warm water, stir and let the yeast soften in the water for 10 to 15 minutes, or until swollen and puffed.
In the meantime, place the milk, butter, vanilla and remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a medium-size saucepan; scald the mixture, stir, then remove from the heat to cool to between 110 to 115 degrees.
Combine 3 cups of the flour with the salt in a large mixing bowl. Beat the egg and egg yolk into the cooled milk mixture; blend in the yeast mixture. Pour the milk-yeast mixture over the flour and stir well, using a flat wooden paddle or firm spatula. Work in the remaining 3/4 cup flour, as needed, to form a slightly sticky dough.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes; the dough will be smooth and soft, and will stick to the work surface here and there in patches. Use a dough scraper to move the dough as necessary and enough flour to keep most of the dough from adhering to the surface.
Grease the inside of a medium-size bowl with the 2 teaspoons oil or softened butter. Place the ball of dough in the bowl and turn to coat all sides with the oil (or butter). Cover the bowl tightly with a sheet of plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm, cozy place for 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
To make the cinnamon filling: In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon-sugar mixture with the brown sugar and nuts (or raisins); set aside. Have the 4 tablespoons softened butter at hand.
To make the cinnamon-nut sticky mixture: Cream the 8 tablespoons softened butter, dark brown sugar, honey, cinnamon and vanilla extract in a small mixing bowl. Set aside. Have the pecan halves (or walnuts) at hand.
Punch down the dough. Film the inside of 14 jumbo muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a sheet measuring 16-by-16 inches. Spread the 4 tablespoons softened butter (set aside in the filling step) over the surface of the dough and sprinkle evenly with the sugar-spice-nut (or raisin) mixture. Press down on the mixture with the palms of your hand. Then roll the dough into a fat sausage, tucking over the ends as you roll.
Plump the roll with the palms of your hand and seal the long seam end by pinching it with your fingers. Gently elongate the roll by pulling it out slightly until it is about 21 inches long. With a sharp knife, cut the roll into 14 even slices.
Place big dollops of the cinnamon-nut sticky mixture on the bottom of each muffin tin cavity, dividing it evenly among them. Press the pecans on top of the sticky mixture. Place a spiral slice of the yeast dough on top of the sticky mixture and nuts and press it down lightly.
Cover pans of sticky buns with a sheet of plastic wrap and let rise for 45 to 50 minutes, or until barely doubled in bulk. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 385 degrees.
Place each tray of buns on a cookie sheet (to help catch any of the sticky mixture that may bubble over) and bake for 27 to 30 minutes, or until the buns are golden brown on top. (Be careful not to underbake, especially if making the buns in jumbo muffin tins.)
Transfer the buns to cooling racks and let stand for 7 to 8 minutes. Carefully remove each bun from the muffin tin to a large plate or jelly-roll pan. Some of the sticky mixture and pecans will remain in the bottom. With a small spoon, scoop out this mixture and top each bun with it. The sticky mixture/glaze will set and the nuts will bond to it as it cools.
Let the buns cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. (They can be made in advance, wrapped individually and refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for 2 months.)
To freeze, place individually wrapped buns in self-sealing plastic bags; defrost the buns in their wrappings. Reheat the buns gently before serving. * Make the large buns in muffin tins measuring 4 inches in diameter and 1 3/4 inches deep. Make the small buns in muffin tins measuring 2 3/4 inches in diameter and 1 3/8 inches deep.
Per jumbo bun: 597 calories, 9 gm protein, 67 gm carbohydrates, 31 gm fat, 72 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 135 mg sodium Lisa Yockelson is the author of "A Country Baking Treasury" and the newly published "Layer Cakes and Sheet Cakes" (both from HarperCollins).