November 30, 2011

Cinnamon Buns

We've been wanting to make cinnamon buns forever, and there is a glorious looking recipe  in Peter Reinhart's The Breadbaker's Apprentice. Cinnamon buns might be one of the best things on earth. Even otherwise reasonable people are tempted by the smells of Cinnabon at malls and airports. There's just something completely irresistible about a sweet, yeasty dough filled with fragrant cinnamon and drizzled with a glaze (I'm calling it a glaze and not a frosting because this is a breakfast food, and I wouldn't want to make you think otherwise).

What kept us from making these tempting buns was the time required to prepare them. The dough needs to rise for two hours before you shape it into buns, then rise again in bun form for another hour and a half before they're ready to bake. We're not afraid of the occasional long preparation (wait for our forthcoming bolognese recipe), but if you want to eat these buns for breakfast, you'd have to get up at the crack of dawn to have them ready. And we are  afraid of waking up too early - especially on the weekends. However, we found a brilliant solution from Smitten Kitchen, who suggests freezing baked goods like scones after you've formed them but before you've baked them. Then you can remove them from the freezer and bake them at your leisure. After enjoying several weekends of being able to wake up and pop some scones in the oven, we thought that this might work just as well with cinnamon buns. And guess what? It did. 

These are truly wonderful - they lived up to our every expectation. The process is long but one that we found thoroughly enjoyable. If you've never worked with a sweet yeast dough before, you must try it - the texture and smell are so lovely that I couldn't help but exclaim about it ever time I touched the dough. Spend a weekend afternoon putting these together and then, if you're like me, the thought of cinnamon buns and coffee on Saturday morning will get you through the week. 

Cinnamon buns (makes 12)
Adapted from The Bread Baker's Apprentice

- 6 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 tbsp butter, at room temperature
- 1 large egg
- Grated zest of one lemon
- 4 cups all-purpose flour (plus more as needed)
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 1 and 1/4 cups whole milk, at room temperature

- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 6 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp cinnamon

- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- A few drops of vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup warm milk

Cream the butter, then add the sugar and salt and beat on medium speed in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Add the egg and lemon zest and beat until smooth. 

Stir in the flour, yeast, and milk, working in batches and adding some of each to make the mixing easier. Mix on low speed, and when the dough forms a ball, switch to the paddle attachment. At this point, you'll be able to tell whether or not you need to add more flour - the dough should easily form a ball and not stick to the edges or bottom of the bowl. If you do need more flour, sprinkle it in a tablespoon at a time until you have the right texture.

Switch to the dough hook and mix for about twelve minutes on medium speed (according to Reinhart, you could also knead by hand - just allow a little more time). At that point, test the dough to see if it's ready. It should be a little tacky, not sticky, and nice and tender and elastic. You can check by doing the windowpane test: pinch of a little piece of dough and gently stretch it with your fingers. You should be able to stretch the dough into a thin, translucent membrane without it breaking. If the dough breaks, continue to mix, testing every couple of minutes or so until the dough is ready.

Coat a large bowl with vegetable oil and put the dough in it, rolling it around so that it gets coated on all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, set the dough in a warm place, and let it rise for about two hours, until it doubles in size.

When your dough is ready, prepare the filling. Melt your tablespoon of butter and stir together the brown sugar and cinnamon. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle a working surface with a little bit of flour so you can roll out the dough.

Put the dough on your work surface and begin to shape it into a rectangle with your hands. Then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a rectangle about 18 inches wide, 9 inches long, and 2/3 of an inch thick (the thickness is more important than the other dimensions; just try to keep the width about double the length). Remember to roll from the center of the dough so that you maintain a more or less even thickness.

Brush the surface of your dough with the butter, and sprinkle the cinnamon sugar on top of that, distributing it as evenly as possible. Then, starting on one of the longer sides, begin rolling the dough into a log.

Cut the log into twelve even pieces and place them about a half inch apart on the parchment paper. Cover them with plastic wrap and let them rise for about an hour and a half, or until they have almost doubled in size.

At this point, if you're going to freeze the buns to bake later, put them in the freezer on the baking sheet. When they have mostly frozen (this should take about an hour) you can remove them from the sheet to a plastic bag or other storage container (they won't stick to each other).

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake the buns for 20 - 25 minutes, until they're lightly browned and have puffed up nicely. Keep in mind that you want the buns to be nice and tender, so err on the side of less cooked rather than more.
If you've frozen your buns, you can take them out to defrost or you can put them straight in the oven - if you do that, you may have to bake them on the higher side of the time range.

When the buns are ready, remove them from the oven and prepare the glaze. Put the powdered sugar in a bowl and slowly drip in the milk, whisking it as you go. Add just as much milk as you need to achieve a thick liquid glaze. Stir in the vanilla extract and use a fork to shake the glaze over the buns. Eat them hot!

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