Buns in the Oven

As a long haul content creator, you never know exactly what’s going to hit, or when. In fact, it’s usually the pieces that seem the least likely to catch on that strike a chord, haunting you for years. Nothing dies on the internet, after all.

Such is the case for my big batch cinnamon buns, first whipped up in a frenzy of holiday baking back in 2007. Imagine, starry-eyed youth that I was at 18 years old, discovering the joys of yeasted doughs while the mere concept of vegan eggs, meat, and even dairy was still in its infancy. So much has changed since then, and yet that simple recipe not only survived, but continues to thrive.

It’s about time that original recipe gets more than a re-make, but a complete revamp. Now with better ingredients, better photos, better instructions, and more ideas for personalization, my Big Batch Cinnamon Buns can reach their full (and fully risen) potential.

What you’re getting here are the most buttery, pillow-soft, tender rolls twisted around a warm cinnamon sugar filling and then slathered in creamy maple icing, made for a crowd. They’re perfect for holiday gifts, make-ahead breakfasts and brunches, and late night desserts with all your loved ones. It would be hard to share if it was just one pan, but you’ll have enough to sweeten up everyone’s day, with seven full pans of these luscious treats in all. It takes very little work, which will be repaid ten fold in sugary satisfaction.

I’m sure you have questions about how such humble ingredients can be transformed into such lavish gifts. Luckily, I’ve made them quite a few times over the years now, and I have answers for you.

How can you modify these spiraled sweets to fit your tastes? Easy, my dear! Consider spicing things up with a blend of pumpkin pie or chai spice to replace the simple cinnamon swirl, for starters. From there, amp up the icing with lemon or orange zest, replacing the maple extract with vanilla, almond, or even chocolate exact. Oh, did I mention chocolate? For real chocoholics, go ahead and use 2 cups (12 ounces) mini chocolate chips to sprinkle evenly over the filling for a gooey, gloriously melted center. If you’re feeling colorful, go crazy with rainbow sprinkles over the top.

How can these be prepared in advance? For an overnight rest, fully assemble the buns in their pans, cover with plastic wrap, and let them chill in the fridge for up to 12 hours. Let come back up to room temperature before baking off, to have warm, fresh buns early in the morning. For long term storage, stash baked but un-iced buns in the freezer, again wrapped in plastic, for 4 – 6 months. Just prepare the icing fresh when you need it, because it will harden over time.

Is it possible to downsize for smaller appetites? Of course! This recipe is easily halved, but you may end up with one half-filled pan. You can also use fewer pans and bake a half batch in one 11 × 7-inch rectangular baking dish + 1 8 x 8-inch square baking dish, or a full batch in three 11 × 7-inch rectangular baking dishes.

Do I really have to share? Well, I don’t make the rules here and I won’t tell… But everyone will probably be happier if you do. Trust me.

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Hello Sunshine

Craning their necks high into the sky with bold yellow blossoms, sunflowers seem as bright as the sun itself. Native to North America, one could argue that they’re one of the first authentic foods of the US, cultivated and farmed before corn or squash. Whimsical as they may look, sunflowers are much more than mere decorative elements for your bouquet.

Adding that same cheer and utility to the dinner table, their seeds transcend the bounds of conventional sweet and savory definitions, seamlessly enhancing flavors across the board. Since they’re so versatile and affordable, there’s always at least a handful hanging out in the pantry here. Beyond just snacking on them out of hand, they’re one of my favorite additions to bread. Adding a toothsome crunch and subtly nutty taste into every bite, sunflower seeds make every slice a textural delight.

So, when it comes time to clean out that pantry, there are all sorts of odd measures of various flours to use up, united by these tiny kernels in one incredible loaf. Dark molasses sweetens the deal without pushing it into sugary realms, making it ideal for sandwiches or toast. Soft and supple, cassava flour gives it a satisfying heft, alongside hearty whole wheat.

Such a remarkably simple yet comforting bread seemed like the perfect recipe to share for the 16th annual World Bread Day. There’s so much to celebrate when it comes to this staple food. I feel like I should create something extravagant that will turn heads or become a viral hit, but the fact of the matter is that all bread is good bread, and I think we’ve already had enough sensational headlines to last a lifetime. I just want an easy-going dough that’s as comforting to knead and create as it is to eat and enjoy.

Banner World Bread Day, October 16, 2021

Even on a rainy day, this loaf will still rise and shine. That’s the power of sunflowers, blooming brilliantly for thousands of years.

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Melon Drama

If it’s named for a melon and looks like a melon, then obviously, it should taste like… Not a melon.

Such is the curious case of melon pan. Captivating the imaginations and cravings of Japanese bakers since the early 1900’s, right around the time that Western influences made bread the trendy starch of those in the know, it gave traditional rice flour a run for its money. Simple, sweet buns wrapped in a buttery cookie exterior, the name has more to do with its deeply grooved, crackled exterior than flavor. Said to evoke the appearance of the delicate skin of a muskmelon, covering the fruit like natural lace, it’s one of many theories, though it strikes me as the most plausible explanation.

Some are round, others are more like ovoid footballs. Most are plain, but some are filled with cream or jam. A few intrepid bakers try to make sense of the misnomer by adding artificial melon flavoring to the dough itself. For years, that was my impulse as well, but I could never fully connect the dots. Melon extract is not exactly the most common ingredient in the pantry, and even as a special order, few genuinely tasteful options exist.

What I’m proposing instead might seem like a stretch, but it’s the most sensible extension of the concept I’ve devised yet. The melon family, cucurbitaceae, is a classification that includes a diverse array of plants both sweet and savory, starting of course with melons like cantaloupe and honey dew, but also squashes such as pumpkins. That connection was the catalyst I needed to finally make a melon pan I could better justify.

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Bread So Nice, I Made It Thrice

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.

-Pablo Picasso

Adversity gives us perspective; despair informs our joy. Without suffering, we would never know what it means to be truly happy. Human nature is to avoid pain, which is a general approach I would advocate for, too, but sometimes the greatest victories rise from the ashes, like the phoenix reborn.

Much has been said about the devastation wreaked by the impossible winter storm here in Texas. It’s not what I imagined for my first winter in the deep south, that’s for sure. The experience has left a mark, visibly inside flooded and now moldy apartments across the state, and mentally, still haunting nightmares and wakeful moments alike. To be honest, I’m not quite over it yet, and I was one of the lucky ones. I lost power for three days, while temperatures plummeted into the single digits, and water for six. Melting snow in the fireplace to have water to drink and dredging out the pool to flush the toilet weren’t exactly the survival skills I was taught as a girl scout. I would have likely frozen to death if not for the endlessly kind friends within my orbit. From a swashbuckling rescue across the ice-slicked tundra, gliding through the black of night under dark traffic lights, to the seemingly small offer of a warm shower, I owe these people so much.

Which is why I made them all bread.

For the first loaf, it was a matter of what I could piecemeal from a kitchen that wasn’t mine, that could be reasonably fabricated without fancy equipment. Homemade bread, soft and tender, aromatic and still warm from the oven, is a simple pleasure that everyone can appreciate. It transcends the question of sweet or savory, avoids the pitfalls of expensive ingredients, yet tastes like love itself in every bite. Thick-cut, chewy rolled oats give body to this simple sandwich bread, adding just enough interest to make it a treat without further embellishment. That said, it’s at the peak of perfection when toasted and smeared with a fat knob of vegan butter.

The loaf was further refined with a second run, rising to even loftier heights with more patience and experience. Again, the company and context added a certain seasoning that mass-produced baked goods could never have. Bread is a living thing, you know; it’s like a pet that you must nurture and train with equal parts kindness and respect.

Only when I finally returned to my own kitchen did I finally master the art. For something that started as a throwaway formula, not even written down, it became a highly sought-after prize, with inquiries about the recipe coming in left and right. So, in case you were one of the lovely people following my harrowing journey on Instagram or Facebook, thank you. This last loaf is for you.

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Bedtime Story Plot Twist

How do you cope when you can’t sleep at night? Do you burrow deeper under the covers and count herds of sheep? Do you reach for your phone and scroll through social media feeds until your eyes can’t focus and the words all blur? Do you get out of bed to pull out a book, or binge-watch the latest trending series?

Me? I head straight to the kitchen. I’m not looking for a midnight snack, though. The first thing I’ll grab is a bag of flour. While the world outside is dark and still, all I want to do is revel in the soothing simplicity of making bread. Watching the yeast come to life, turning a shaggy, sticky batter into smooth, elastic dough. Gently, methodically kneading the warm mixture is almost like a massage enjoyed vicariously, without any messy human interaction.

Wordlessly, thoughtlessly going through the motions, it’s more about the process than the product. It’s usually a simple sandwich loaf I’ll find rising on the counter in the morning, still bleary-eyed and barely awake. Sometimes I’ll get more ambitious and try something new, a curiosity that I can’t decipher until taking a bite later. In other cases, it’s the perfect opportunity to fulfill longstanding cravings, set aside as being too time-consuming for the average day.

Scallion buns, soft as a pillow, twisted into golden strands that dance with green onions, might just be better than a full night’s rest. The stars aligned when I pillaged the fridge to discover a bouquet of fresh herbs already past their prime. This was their big chance, and mine, to make something magical.

The results would be equally satisfying steamed or pan-fried, but in my sleepless stupor, it was easiest to turn on the oven and walk away. Don’t go too far though, because they bake quickly, meaning you can leave the shaped buns in the fridge to finish off bright and early, rather than staying up all night.

Adapted from The Foodie Takes Flight, I would implore you to watch the superlative video to see how a real pro shapes these twisted sisters. Words can only do so much for such a visual technique.

Next time sleep is elusive and the hum of the oven beckons, I know exactly what I’ll be making. Do you?

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Czech Mate

How did such a humble, unassuming Czech pastry become so deeply intertwined with Texan foodways that it became an inextricable part of southern culture itself? While it remains largely unknown just beyond state borders, kolaches are serious business to any conscious eater. I had never heard of such a thing before visiting the Lone Star State, but kolaches are as essential to the local cuisine as barbecue. Arriving along with European immigrants in the late 1800s, central Texas became the nexus of kolache creation.

Technically, the savory version most popular in my immediate area are klobasneks, NOT kolache. Both employ a lightly sweetened, buttery yeasted dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings, but genuine kolaches are sweet breakfast treats, employing fruit preserves, cream cheese, or poppy seeds for flavor. Klobasneks are arguably more popular in these parts, calling for any sort of meat, from sausage links to ground beef to shredded chicken, cheese, jalapenos, and sometimes even egg and potatoes. Truth be told, any sort of stuffing might reside within these baked buns. For the sake of simplicity, they all get wrapped up under the kolache moniker. Those wise enough to tell the difference are also smart enough not to pick a fight.

Terminology aside, what makes for the best kolaches? It’s all in the dough. Supple, pillowy soft, catching the light with a subtle buttery shine, the tender bread should practically melt in your mouth. Impossibly light for such a rich mixture, it’s a delicate balance of art and science to achieve the perfect crumb. Years of experience with tireless practice are the secret ingredients; otherwise, the standard recipe is largely unexceptional. Flour, sugar, yeast, butter, and all the other usual suspects are present.

The key is all in quantity. Speaking with chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish, his carefully honed formula makes liberal use of butter, both in and brushed on the rich dough. Coming from a long line of Czech bakers, his recipe reflects that heritage to create the best version around, vegan or not.

“When I said I wanted to open my own place, one of the first things I did was make and sell kolaches at various events in an effort to get my name and face out there,” chef Vanis explained through email.

“Before that, when I lived in Houston, I would occasionally pick up work at a bakery that made kolaches. Even though grandma always had kolaches made and on hand, I was never a part of making them, like I sometimes was with cinnamon rolls. I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy them so much now. My grandparents passed away many years ago, but as I think about the baking and enjoyment of kolaches, there’s an opportunity to create new memories that are connected to grandma’s house. I don’t feel like I missed out on a chance to bake them as a child. I do feel grateful that I have those fond memories attached to them now.”

According to Craig, poppyseed or plum are the most traditional fruit fillings, but the sky is the limit. Any jam or preserves will bake in beautifully to make sweet pastries, and any sort of savory meatless or vegetable stuffing can create a hearty stuffed bun.

What remains a mystery is why the art of the kolache has stayed contained within the Texas Czech Belt, when the base formula is infinitely adaptable, and its appeal so universal. If you’ve never been so lucky to see them in local bakeries, do yourself a favor and start your own family tradition, baking from scratch.

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