Barabara Jean is happy to introduce James, our guest blogger for today. James has been my dear friend for just about 20 years. We met at University; my first year, his last. He is a talented musician, an excellent cook, and a wonderful, generous person with a dry, witty (and at times 'off colour') sense of humour. I hope you enjoy this post about Fancy Buns.
My dear old friend (Angela) Jean - soprano, mother, and a great person to have a lunch-hour bitch-fest with, asked me a while back if I would do a guest blog for her. I had no idea what to write about and she suggested I do something with one of my 'fancy breads'. I never thought there was anything 'fancy' about a bit of flour, water, yeast, and some salt, until I realized that my 'fancy' bread also had sugar, butter, and eggs in it. I might as well have deep-sixed the temperamental yeast (which I have routinely killed over the years), and just made some cookies.
Before I cook or bake anything I always have my mise-en-place ready to go. If I'm making red gravy, I'll have all my aromatics chopped, my salt pig and pepper mill nearby, and my San Marzanos crushed and waiting. For baking, I have everything pre-measured and in bowls so I can just do the cooking show thing and dump ingredients in as I need them. Rachael Ray can eat her heart out. (I bet it would taste cloyingly sweet and cheap.)
3 cups unbleached AP flour
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (1 envelope if you don't buy in bulk)
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs plus one yolk (reserve the white for the egg wash)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup water at room temperature
poppy or sesame seeds
I start by whisking the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Mix the eggs, butter and water together in the bowl of a standing mixer. If you don't have a standing mixer you should get one, but the dough may be made by hand. Just mix everything (liquids, then dry), in a large bowl with a wooden spoon until the ingredients come together. It can then be kneaded by hand on a floured surface. My mother made this by hand as she doesn't have a mixer, but then again, the last time I visited my parents they made me sleep on the hardwood floor of a room filled with boxes. They don't believe in luxury items like stand mixers and beds.
Add the flour mixture and mix at low speed with your dough hook until a ball forms, about five minutes (longer if kneading by hand). Add extra flour one tablespoon at a time if the dough seems too sticky. Form the dough into a ball and roll it in a lightly-oiled bowl. Hopefully your ball will be less lumpy-looking than mine.
Cover with plastic and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk - 1 1/2 - 2 hours. I like to take advantage of the fabulous bottom-mounted lights in my kitchen to keep my dough warm.
For several years I have been using a depilatory crème on the top of my head so that people think I am bald. I made good use of this rising time by giving myself an acid-based scalp wash to keep up my smooth look but I was very careful not to drip any Veet in the dough. Since I also decided not to cook dinner tonight, I order a pizza with pepperoni and garlic from Gigi's on Harbord Street. Some other time I'll tell you a funny story about that store and the day they were raided by the police for selling drugs to U of T students. Actually, that's pretty much the story right there.
After the dough has doubled, gently punch it down and let rise until doubled again, another 45 - 60 minutes.
Transfer the dough to your (lightly-floured) work surface and divide it into 12 even pieces. I stick with the 'slice-of-pie' system but still can't get everything perfectly even. The same thing happens every year at Christmas dinner and someone is always put-out with the size of their piece.
Using your hands, roll out each piece into a strand about 8-inches long. Anything longer is just showing off.
Wrap each strand into a small knot, one end being on the bottom of the bun and the other sticking out the top through the hole in the middle of the knot. Place them on a baking tray, cover with plastic, and let rise again until the buns become puffy, about 30 minutes.
During the final rise, adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and set the temperature to 375° F. After the buns have risen, stir 1 tablespoon of water into the reserved egg white and brush onto the tops and sides. (I don't always use silicone brushes, but when I do, I'm doing an egg wash. Stay eggy, my friends.)
They're writing songs of sesame seeds, but not for me. I always use a few poppy seeds before they go in the oven.
Bake for 11 - 13 minutes or until a deep golden brown. Like full-sized loaves, buns will sound a little hollow when you tap the bottoms.
If you want your bottoms to have a little crunch, you can sprinkle some corn meal on your baking sheet before shaping the buns. Today I felt like softer bottoms, so I didn't bother.
As with all homemade bread, these are best eaten the day they are made. They can be kept in a Ziploc bag for a few days, or frozen for a while and still taste pretty good.
I believe baking is equal parts art and science. I've only been baking bread 'seriously' for a few years and I still screw things up all the time. I think I deleted the pictures of my ill-fated attempt at sourdough - I basically ended up with an 11-inch hockey puck that weighed about 8 pounds. With today's effort, the dough seemed to take a long time to rise and I think it may have been because I put the eggs in right out of the fridge and the cold temperature slowed down the process. Unless otherwise noted (ice-cold butter for biscuits), baking ingredients should be at room temperature. With yeast baking, I've actually taken to using my instant-read thermometer to check my water if a recipe calls for 'warm' water at a certain temp.
After 35 years, I still can't play the violin perfectly so I'm not sure if I have time to perfect my baking, but I love trying. The great 'cellist Pablo Casals still practised four hours a day when in his 90s. When someone asked him why he felt the need to do that, Casals replied, "I'm starting to see some improvement."
PS - I found my sourdough...