BUTTERMILK CINNAMON PUPPIES
For two years, without success, I had been trying to produce a cinnamon roll that was soft, smooth and cuddly like a new puppy. But instead of getting a chewy, moist bakery roll, I kept getting something like a supermarket roll that seemed a little coarse and even dry – more like an old dog than a puppy.
Even the best recipes lacked the real zing and luxuriousness that I was seeking. Although I developed some good techniques for creating big rolls that were close to the fresh, hot bakery models, they failed to achieve the status of downright excellent. My friends were forgiving and understanding through the entire ordeal however, probably because they were allowed to consume the failures.
The final insult to my culinary endeavors came at the Oregon State Fair as I watched luscious cinnamon rolls creeping out of a long, flat, almost completely automated stainless steel oven. They rolled forward in rows of twelve, bulging and brown, nestled together like the puppies I had dreamed of, waiting patiently for a bouncy, gingham-dressed young lady to pour sugar sauce on their soft, tawny heads. That machine represented the ultimate despair of the industrial age – we have turned even the craft of making perfect cinnamon rolls into a process of mass production.
Yet, even though my mouth watered and my head were lost in clouds of the irresistible aroma, the actual experience of eating one of the rolls was nothing remarkable. They were like the sirens of the Odyssey, appealing to longing, leading irresistible onward, only to dash the unsuspecting victim against the rocks of harsh reality.
Okay, maybe they weren’t quite that bad. But, the texture was only fair and the taste was bland. They were like German Shorthairs – they looked good but behaved badly. I drowned my sorrow, washed one down with a “twelve ounce espresso” (fortunately, it was just plain coffee) and, of course, had two more.
Despite the mediocrity of the pastry, the evening was warm and a good local country band played in the background and I may or may not have been in the company of a beautiful companion, so the blah treat didn’t matter one bit. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but now I realize that deep in my subconscious the experience renewed my desire to produce the perfect cinnamon roll – if only to prove my worthiness to my companion. However, I had one more discovery to make before I was ready to put on the oven mitts and climb back into the baking ring.
The discovery came the next day by coincidence. As I pawed through the refrigerator looking for something to whip up for Sunday brunch, I came upon a small container of buttermilk that my grandmother had purchased on her recent visit. For whatever reason, she had not used it or even opened it. An idea popped into my mind – buttermilk bread! I used a standard buttermilk bread recipe and produced a tender, thin but chewy-crusted loaf for our Sunday brunch. As I lathered my fourth thick piece with butter, I found that I had finished off the strawberry jam. Desperately I foraged for something sweet, and came upon a favorite topping from my childhood – sugar and cinnamon. I took one bite, and what had been hidden in my subconscious became a crystallized thought.
I ran to the cupboard and began pulling cookbooks off the shelf. My frantic research confirmed my suspicion. Every cinnamon roll recipe that I had tried began with egg dough, which always created a dry, sponge-like bread with a yellow cast to it. However, my ideal roll was as white and airy as a summer cloud. This was what I realized -- the perfect cinnamon roll does not start have to start with an egg. It was a revelation. An epiphany. A chorus of angels confirmed my inspiration --that buttermilk bread, milky white, smooth textured, with a chewy, flaky crust, was the perfect bread for my perfect cinnamon roll. After trying over a dozen recipes during the past two years, I finally threw out the cookbooks and started from scratch. And although I kept what I had learned along the way for reference, I approached the problem with an entirely new paradigm.
At five-thirty the next morning I began throwing the ingredients for my basic buttermilk bread dough in the bread machine. (I use a bread machine to make bread dough for time’s sake, but dough is dough however you make it – see the notes below.) As usual, I perched myself over the machine during the mixing cycle so that I could monitor the consistency of the dough as it progressed.
I like my cinnamon roll dough to be just a bit on the sticky side, so that I can roll it very thin and so that it is easy to pinch the sides of the roll closed – but, get it too soft and the rolls droop and slide around in the pan. The key is accurate measuring and careful mixing. In order to get the initial amount of flour just right, I pour the bleached, white flour into a large bowl and fluff it up with a spoon. I use the same spoon to gently scoop it into a measuring cup. Then I scrape the mounded top off the flour that it is level with the edge of the cup.
Even with the most careful measuring though, it takes constant monitoring to get the right consistency for the dough. I take my time adding the liquid ingredients because it takes the flour some time to absorb the moisture as it is mixed and kneaded. I melt the butter before measuring it, and heat up the honey also so that it sets level in the tablespoon and pours out easily. I use honey instead of sugar, because honey is better at preserving the bread’s moisture content after baking.
After all the initial ingredients are assembled in the canister, I hit the start button. The best dough bounces around inside the machine and leaves the sides of the pan clean. If it looks too moist and sticky, I add flour, about a teaspoon at a time, until it is smooth and elastic. If the mixer is binding and the dough looks rough, I dribble buttermilk in about a teaspoon at a time. After the dough is the right consistency I let the bread machine do the kneading and rising work for me, and an hour and a half later I have the punched down buttermilk bread dough.
While I’m waiting for the dough to rise, I grease the sides of two nine by three by five (two quart) bread pans with a generous amount of quality butter. Since we live in dairy country, it is easy to find good jersey butter. Using the best and freshest ingredients always gets the best results, so I use raw clover honey from Canada, Alpenrose reduced fat buttermilk from Portland, Oregon, and Bob’s Red Mill unbleached white flour from Milwaukie, Oregon. Bob’s Red Mill is stone ground on one hundred year old millstones and is all natural with no preservatives. Because it is made from extra high protein high gluten U.S Number 1 dark northern hard red spring wheat, it does not need any added gluten.
Once the dough has risen and been punched down, it rests for about ten minutes. Then I roll out the dough on the top of a butcher-block table so that I have a rectangle that is about a foot wide and about eighteen inches long. The rolled out dough gets a liberal slap of softened butter. Softened works better than melted because it doesn’t run off the edges of the dough, or out the bottom of the roll once it is standing in the pan.
After the layer of butter, the dough is dusted with cinnamon and a sprinkling of white sugar, just enough to cover the dough with a thin layer. Some people suggest light corn syrup here, but I prefer plain white sugar.
I follow the white sugar with about half as much light brown sugar, and finally a couple of handfuls of raisins. Starting with the short side of the dough, I roll it up tight like a sleeping bag, then cut it gently right through the middle. I used to cut it with dental floss, but now I prefer using a serrated bread knife. I cut the two short rolls in half again, and then put two rolls in each bread pan. I don’t sprinkle brown sugar in the bottom of the pans – that technique is for sticky rolls. Some of the sugar inside the rolls will puddle into to the bottom of the pan during the cooking process, making a nice, subtle caramel base to the rolls. Both white ceramic bread pans and metal bread pans work equally as well, although baking times may be slightly different.
I leave space around each roll so that they can rise properly. The rolls take a short snooze in a warm spot so that they can rise for an hour to an hour and a half, or until they get so fat and swollen that they look as if they will bust our of the pans. Just before baking, I dribble melted butter on top of each roll, and dust them with a bit more cinnamon.
They bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes on the middle shelf, with a small pan of hot water set on the lower shelf of the oven. The steam helps keep the puppies moist as they cook. I check them after about 25 minutes. When the tops are about the color of a golden retriever, I get them out of the heat, turn them out of the pans and stand them upright on a wire rack. They get to cool for a while (usually about ten minutes is all I can stand,) before they are dribbled with icing.
Here is my final suggestion: eat them while they are still warm and then go curl up in your kennel. After your nap, go work out at the gym and then get back on your diet. Life is short.
Basic buttermilk bread dough ingredients:
1 cup of buttermilk
2 tablespoons of honey
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of softened butter
2½ cups of bread flour
1½ teaspoons of yeast
Cinnamon roll filling:
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup raisins
Heat a quarter of a cup of milk so that it steams. Add a teaspoon of vanilla. In a small mixing bowl, place a cup of powdered sugar. Dribble in the hot milk mixture slowly, whisking as you go. Stop adding milk when the icing is about the consistency of white carpenters glue or stirred up yogurt. If it gets too thin, add more powdered sugar.
Note: There are at least three other ways to make the basic bread dough: by hand, by food processor, and by standing mixer.
By hand: Reserve one cup of flour and dump everything else in a large ceramic bowl. Mix for about five minutes. Work in about three-quarters of the reserved flour and then dump the dough onto a floured surface. Knead by hand for about five minutes, using additional flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface. Try not to get the dough too dry. Transfer dough to a large bowl greased with softened butter. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a cozy warm place till it has tripled in size (about two hours.) Gently dump the risen dough onto a lightly floured surface and press it lightly into a flat disk, as if you were pressing the air out of a beach ball. You are now ready to roll out the dough.
By food processor: The only difference between using the food processor and making dough completely by hand is in the mixing. Put the dry ingredients in the food processor and pulse it a couple of times to mix. Then add the honey. In a large measuring cup or bowl, mix buttermilk, melted butter and yeast. With the food processor running, pour the liquid through the feed tube and process just until the dough looks like a rough ball. It should be sticky, but not wet. If it looks a little wet, add flour, bit at a time, until it looks about right. Let it rest for two minutes, then process it again for about half a minute before gently dumping it onto the floured work surface. Knead by hand, place in a buttered bowl, and let rise till tripled in size. Place the risen dough on a lightly floured surface and press it lightly into a flat disk and then roll it out.
By standing mixer: Again, the only difference between using a standing mixer and creating dough completely by hand is in the mixing. Put the dry ingredients and the honey in the bowl of the standing mixer. Use the dough hook to mix it up. In a separate bowl, combine the buttermilk, the melted butter and the yeast. With the mixer running at low speed, slowly add the liquid ingredients to the dry. Once it all starts to come together in a clump, increase the mixer speed to medium and mix for about ten minutes. Stop the machine about every three minutes and scrape the dough off the hook with a spatula so that it all mixes up uniformly. At the end of ten minutes, the dough should be sticky enough to adhere to the hook. During mixing, feel free to add a little liquid or flour to adjust the consistency. Gently dump the dough on to a floured work surface, knead by hand for thirty seconds or less, then put it in a buttered bowl and let it rise till tripled in size. Plop the risen dough onto a lightly floured surface, press it lightly into a flat disk and then roll it out.