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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cinnamon Buns

So, just like I said I was going to – I made some apple cinnamon/anise buns with those apples from Homemade Apple Sauce with Peel.  So, there was juice, and sauce from this, which I mixed with my 'wet' ingredients for what was otherwise just my regular artisan bread recipe.

This recipe is my own... but it is heavily influenced by Nigella.  The largest thing is the use of potato water.  You wouldn't think it would make such a difference... but damn... it really does.  I imagine it has something to do with the starch?  In any case, it is a big deal.  So much so, that in her book – the one from which this recipe was loosely spawned – she actually uses the phrase: “...plead with you to use old potato water as the liquid.”

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Let's just say that as soon as I tried that... I never went back.  You do have to remember, as she herself cautions, to check saltiness in this case, as we often will salt our potato water... and that salt is obviously going to count in this bread recipe.

Other than that, this is really quite simple.

  • Flour
  • Yeast
  • Salt
  • Water
That's my recipe.

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Although I do believe that, unlike most cooking, baking is slightly more 'science' than 'art', bread is a little... finicky.  It really does matter what your environmental conditions are – pressure, humidity, altitude, etc. - to such a degree that no one recipe can truly hold all the answers to a perfect bread.

So... the best advice I could give is to just learn to get good at judging when your dough is 'supersaturated' with flour.  There is a magic point when your dough has accepted as much flour as it's going to.  Usually this is found through successively adding small amounts of flour while kneading.

Because of this, when it comes to assembling the ingredients, I will just loosely measure.  It's usually around a 3:1 ratio dry to wet.  Usually.  Like I said, there is no certainty to this... sometimes it is as much as 2:1.  So... because YIELD is never rigid, I just mix up some dough, and add either more water or flour, whichever is needed... and if it yields more dough than I wanted... whatever... just a bigger loaf.

The other “tweak” I like to do is NOT to “punch down” the recently risen dough.  Every book I've ever read, states that, after you've kneaded, and let rise, the dough should be “punched down” - essentially, deflated.  The first half a dozen times I made bread I couldn't figure out why my dough would rise nicely, but the bread would not.  I tried everything... including kneading for over a half an hour one time...  Until finally I just said F@*# it and baked it in its risen state.  The result was delightful... A VERY fluffy, well-shaped, golden loaf of bread with a satisfyingly light crumb.

So... let's be clear.  The kneading action is absolutely necessary.  It mixes the ingredients smoothly, and allows for the formation of gluten, which is what allows for the bread to house the carbon dioxide breathed off by the yeast, and therefore rise.  Kneading is awesome.  It's cathartic and engaging... and not a small workout.  If you're not getting a good workout, then you're not doing it properly.
If you don't know how to knead, it's really simple.  Hard to describe, but really easy to do.  Basically (what I do anyway, is) push down on the dough with the heel of your hand(s), partially flattening it.  Then fold it in half, and push down again.  Repeat ad infinitum.

There really is a magic point when the bread has become saturated – the dough will go from being 'moist' or sticky-feeling, to smooth and velvety.

I like to really beat the $#!^ out of the dough.  Sometimes I'll even get my fingers in there and just squish the ever-loving crap out of it.  Like I said... cathartic.  It reminds of that Jayne line: 'I like smackin 'em'.  Heh heh heh heh.  :D

So, kneading is hugely important.

As for anything else... I can't think of anything.  It's just flour, a pinch of salt (literally... I'd say less than a measurable amount) and yeast.  I used to always use 'sachets' or pouches of dry active yeast, in which case it would be one of those to like 2.5 cups of flour roughly.  However, I don't use those anymore, because I started buying yeast in bulk, and storing it myself.  So... I'll just throw in about a tablespoon instead.  That's one tablespoon per 2.5 cups.

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When I make a variant off this white bread, it of course requires the addition/substitution of ingredients, more often than not, in the wet.  Sometimes it's garlic and chive-infused butter, sometimes it's milk, but in this case it was apple-sauce, and apple-juice, with the potato water.

So, this particular batch of dough was:

~6 cups flour
~2 1/4 tablespoons yeast
~2 cups “wet” ingredients (water)
no salt (there was enough in the potato water)
~2 tablespoons sugar (normally not added, but this is going to be a 'sweet' bread)

I imagine that doesn't help anyone who wanted to follow this recipe... but there it is.

Anyway, standard baking procedure ensued:

Mix all dry.
Mix all wet.
Make well in dry; pour in wet.
Mix together.
Then, kneading.  I kneaded this puppy for about 20 mins.  It seems like a long time... and it is.  But this is arguably the most important step in bread-making, and I like to make really sure it's really done well.

After kneading, I judged that I had just a little too much dough for one batch of cinnamon buns.  So I ripped off about a quarter of it, and shaped that into a loaf.  That got put in an oiled baking pan, and cling-filmed, and set aside to rise.  Normally I like to put this in a warm-ish spot, because it really helps, but today I started this early and so had plenty of time to wait for the rise.

As for the other 3/4 of the dough, I ripped off another tiny amount... I'd say about an eighth, and rolled that out thinly.

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This becomes the “base” of the buns.  I've actually forgotten this step before, once, and the buns still turned out OK.  The contents did NOT all just fall out the bottom without it... it was fine.  So, I'm not really sure why it's there, but whatevs.

Greased baking pan, spread base out to corners.

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Then I rolled out the remaining dough.  This took some time... the best advice I can give here is to just keep doing it over again until your rolling tenacity wins out over its natural penchant for elasticity, and the bloody thing stops shrinking back all the time.  Again, this all comes down to attitude.  It's a good idea to just hate the dough.  Not dislike, or mildly tolerate, but actually loathe it.  That way - with thoughts of blowing out its kneecaps - you can persevere.

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Now comes the cinnamon mix.  This simple addition is really all which separates a regular bread from cinnamon buns or bread or rolls.

I took what was left of the apple sauce (I had saved a little bit of it from the dough mix step) which wasn't much... maybe about a 1/2 cup.  Then I mixed in about another 1/2 cup of margarine, about 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (freshly ground would have been better, especially since I could have just milled it with my next two ingredients), fresh cardamom, and star anise.

As I have mentioned many times before, I'm sure, fresh herbs and spices are always better than dried or pre-ground.  If I had to make a flow chart, it would go: fresh herbs > dried leaves of said herb > dried pre-ground "powder" of said herb.  And with spices, it still goes dried whole spice > ground "powder" of said spice.

So, I strongly recommend that your spice cupboard be filled with the whole fruit (read: fruiting body) version of spice, rather than it's pre-ground plebeian cousin.  It takes almost no extra time to mill it yourself, in your trusty mortar and pestle, or if you can't be bothered with that, buy a super cheap coffee grinder (these can be less than $10) and just keep it for milling herbs and spices.

So, I milled some fresh-ish cardamom pods - the insides of which, are what you want... the stuff which looks like a mutant coffee bean:

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And crushed that on up - I'd say about 5 or 6 pods worth (not all of them come out looking whole and pretty like in this picture... in fact the vast majority are already broken up inside.)

Then about the same amount of star anise.  I love this stuff... it is quite like a pine cone in many respects, except a delicious pine cone.  Same thing - buy the whole version and grind it yourself, it make an immense difference.

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Ground these together:

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And then mixed it with the butter/apple sauce mixture.  Normally I'd use one of my gorgeous stainless steel mixing bowls for this, but this ceramic bowl is what held the apple sauce... and I'm nothing if not frugal when it comes to clean-up...  :)

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Spread this as evenly as you can across the rolled-out dough.  You HAD to see that coming, right?

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Then, roll it on up!  Try to keep it pretty tightly rolled.  It's not the end of the world if it isn't - the rising action of the dough will "fill it in" - but it will look nicer in terms of presentation, once you cut into the finished product.

Once the whole thing is rolled, I like to cut it (very delicately - try using a bread knife for this) in halves, and then halved again, and again, so as to ensure I'll end up with an even number of rolls.

Then, placed carefully on top of the base - with LOTS of room in between them, they get cling-filmed and set under my warm lights for several hours.  Just like the bread.

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They don't look like much right now, but look what happens after being allowed to rise for about 5 hours:

Pretty sweet stuff.

So, they go into the oven at 400° for surprisingly less amount of time than a regular bread would.  My normal artisan loaf goes in for over a half an hour... sometimes as long as 45 minutes!  These, however, because they were sweeter, went in for significantly less.

The bread was in for about 20 minutes only.  As always, it's never recommended to keep opening and closing the oven door to dote over your baking, but I find it's better in the long run to quickly grab it out and stick a bamboo skewer in the middle.  If this is for 'company' or you want it to look pretty, you can rap on the bottom of the pan, and if you hear a 'hollow' sound the bread is likely done.  The skewer method is relatively non-invasive however, and provides very clear, visible results (or lack thereof).

It looked pretty good, if I do say so myself.

And it had a delightfully crisp crust.

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As for the apple/cinnamon/cardamom/star anise buns... they took about 25 minutes, and were also delightful to look upon.

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They were even more delightful to eat.  With a small pat of margarine on top... delicious.


  1. Absolutely yummy looking ... makes my mouth water just looking at the buns!!

  2. Yah, to make 'em golden and shiny on top you're supposed to brush an egg on top before baking. I just forgot...

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