(Sticky Caramel Pecan Cinnamon Buns - the quest has ended - recipe in post)
Cinnamon buns may be the quintessential 'easy' baking - the college student breakfast, the junkie's quick fix - and there are no shortage of recipes detailing their goodness. But I am prepared to go against the grain, here, and say there is more to this classic confection than meets the eye.
Let me be clear: these are not the cinnamon rolls found in mall kiosks and Cinnabon bakeries... these are Sticky Buns. Ooey-gooey, hot from the oven, cinnamon laden and pecan sportin' rolls of pull-apart brioche dough.
I propose that the purpose of making these spiraling swirls of stick-to-your-fingers goodness is not merely for a breakfast treat, or to satisfy a craving, but to outshine every other available option. To be so good you lose your composure, get swept off your feet, and literally swoon over every bite.
My goal is not to make them easy - it is not to make them healthy - and it is not to make them 'good'. It is to make them great. I don't often indulge in such things, but when I do, I want to do it right!
Several weeks ago The Boyfriend - a true sweet-tooth totin' confections connoisseur - requested that I make sticky buns.
He posited that a good sticky bun needs to have the right goo to bread ratio, should have a yeasted dough for added flavor complexity, and must be ever-so-slightly under baked to ensure the perfect progression from the firmer outer layers to the very moist inner spiral. This, he said, was key for the pastry to hold his attention. Without enough variation in texture, the bun became boring.
If you agree, as I do, with The Boyfriend's definition of a good sticky bun, than this is the recipe for you.
Knowing the bar was set high, I did my research. The first recipe I came up with was okay, but the dough was bland and uninteresting. The second solved that issue - I fell in love with the dough, and am so excited to share it with you - but the sugar in the supposedly 'sticky' topping failed to dissolve, resulting in a less than gooey glaze. This didn't stop me from eating three of them, in what I would later claim to be 'research' for the next batch. Having vowed to The Boyfriend that I would make the stickiest of all sticky buns, the search continued. The third attempt, dear readers... the third...
Sticky Pecan Cinnamon Buns
(Dough adapted from Noshings)
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
2 TBSP white sugar
2 TBSP brown sugar*
6 TBSP unsalted butter, softened
4 TBSP cream cheese, softened
6 oz. (3/4 cup) buttermilk, warm (115f.)
2 1/4 tsp. (1 packet) instant dry yeast
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, separated
1 1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/4 cup (half stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed*
1 1/2 TBSP cinnamon
Optional: 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 cup (one stick) butter
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed*
1/4 cup honey
2 TBSP brown rice syrup (or corn syrup)
1 TBSP cinnamon
1 TBSP vanilla extract (or up to a few TBSP bourbon or other liquor)
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans (or walnuts)
*I used dark brown sugar throughout this recipe, but feel free to use light brown for any or all of it.
Also, it occurs to me that the butter in the filling and the cream cheese in the dough could probably be replaced with mashed banana - I haven't tested this, but if anyone tries it please let me know what you think!
In a bowl, warm the buttermilk. Not hot or boiling, just warm. Stir in the white sugar and yeast, and set aside 5-10 minutes to let the yeast come alive.
In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese, egg/yolks, and brown sugar.
While mixing, add the buttermilk mixture to the butter.
Add in 2 cups of the flour and all of the salt. Beat until thoroughly combined, then remove the beaters and sprinkle the remaining 1.5 cups of flour over the dough. Begin working the dough with your hands (or switch to the dough hook on your stand mixer), kneading until all of the flour is incorporated. The dough will be extremely soft and supple at first, and will get increasingly more firm as you go.
Once all of the flour is off the sides of the bowl, turn the dough out onto your counter. If it's too wet to work with at this point, add more flour one TBSP at a time - but don't add more than two or three TBSP in total. The dough should be very soft and tender, not dry.
Knead the dough for 3-4 minutes, then shape into a ball and set in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours, or until doubled in size.
At this point the dough can be used immediately, or stored in the fridge for overnight or up to a day or two. The longer the dough rests, the more flavorful it will be.
When you're ready to make the rolls, if the dough has been chilled, let it warm up at room temperature for 30-40 minutes before using.
With a fork, mash together the butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg if using. Set aside along with the brown sugar.
In a pot on the stove, combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, and syrup. Bring to a bubble over medium heat, stirring frequently, until all of the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat, stir in the cinnamon and vanilla, and pour into the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Sprinkle chopped nuts evenly over the top, and set aside.
Gently sink your fist into the dough to 'punch' it down, releasing some of the trapped gasses. Pull it out of the bowl and onto a cutting board or counter top - the dough will be moist, but should not require any extra flour.
With your palms and finger tips, press and stretch the dough to about a 12x18 inch rectangle. You could use a rolling pin if you'd like, but the dough should be soft enough to work by hand, and the warmth will help the dough to relax.
Once you've got a big rectangle, spread the softened butter/cinnamon mixture evenly over the surface. A flexible rubber spatula helps. Take the filling right up to the edges, then spread the brown sugar over top.
Roll the dough as firmly as you can into a long cylinder. Using a lightly oiled knife, cut the tube in half, and then quarters. Cut each quarter into thirds, and you should have 12 even buns.
(Tip: I hear the halved or quartered roll of dough can be frozen for up to a month or more. Simply thaw the dough prior to use, slice into rounds, and continue with the rest of the recipe as instructed).
Place the spirals into your baking dish on top of the caramel sauce and nuts. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until the rolls have doubled in size. They should be touching each other and nearly filling the pan.
Preheat the oven to 350f.
Place the buns onto the middle rack, and put a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any drips.
Bake 12-15 minutes, then rotate the baking dish and cover the buns loosely with aluminum foil. This is very important to keep them from getting to brown/burnt on top. Continue to bake for another 15-20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edges. Wait about 5-10 minutes for the sauce to cool down and stop bubbling, then turn the dish over onto a large platter or baking sheet and marvel at the wondrous mess before you. Be sure not to let the buns cool completely before removing them from the pan, lest the goo become, well... glue.
Best enjoyed fresh from the oven, but will last up to a few days in an airtight container. I suggest a quick spin in the microwave if you're having them next-day. That is, if there are any left the next day...
Did they live up to The Boyfriend's standards? Did they meet my demand of excellence? Did they outshine just about every other sticky bun I've ever eaten? Yes, absolutely, and did they ever!
As I said before, I am in love with this dough - the feel of it in my hands, so tender - the Pillsbury Dough Boy has nothing on this. There's nothing I enjoy more than a good dough. Except The Boyfriend, of course. And sticky buns.
And as for the goo - oh, the goo - sweet sticky caramel bubbling up the edges of the pan, dripping down the sides of the buns, and cascading over my fingers as I pull them apart... this ain't no donut shop glaze, m'kay.
Sweet, sweet success!
I ate this one, seeing as I'd already begun to dissect it.
Then I ate another one... and then I maybe had a third, because it just didn't look as good as the rest and we all know presentation is important. I want to spare the world of less-than-picture-perfect sticky buns. You're welcome, world.