House of the Rising Bun - Recap

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A realtor visits Alton’s house to evaluate it before he tries to sell it. She’s baffled by the camera she seems to see at the back of his cabinet, and dismayed because his house doesn’t smell friendly. Fortunately she has the solution: cookie in a can! She pulls a spray can from her valise and squirts a little cookie smell into the air. Alton believes he can do better. In humans scent recall is better than visual recall, perhaps because at one time scent was more important for survival. Suggesting that men are attracted to the smell of yeast because it reminds them of beer, Alton proposes leavened bread, a little bit sweet and a little bit spicy. Cinnamon buns fit that description. They smell good, and they’re definitely Good Eats!

Before he can cook cinnamon rolls, Alton delves into dough design. The French baguette and the cinnamon bun have much in common. Both start with yeast, unicellular critters that eat, reproduce, and give off gas. The gas, mostly carbon dioxide contributes a tangy flavor that balances the sweetness. The difference between the baguette and the bun are sugar and butter, but they change everything.

Alton’s recipe begins with four egg yolks and one whole egg at room temperature. These go into his stand mixer bowl. To this he adds granulated sugar, melted butter, and buttermilk. With the whisk attachment Alton mixes these into an emulsion and then adds flour and a package of instant rise yeast. Alton prefers instant rise over rapid rise because he believes the rapid variety eats the sugar too quickly. A bit a kosher salt completes the dry team. Alton starts slowly and increases speed, mixing to achieve a consistency like cake dough. Then he pulls out the whisk and switches in the dough hook. He adds more flour and integrates it with the hook. Then he checks the dough. It’s a little sticky so he adds some flour. Alton gives his hands a shot of non-stick spray and pulls the dough from the hook. The spray keeps the dough from sticking to them. Then he mixes again. Five minutes the dough sticks to itself but not to anything else. That’s when it’s done.

Alton takes his dough ball to a smooth work surface. Using the last bit of reserved flour, he flours the surface and kneads the dough for about thirty seconds until it is a smooth ball. He prepares a large bowl with a shot of non-stick spray then puts the dough in it and covers it with plastic. The dough rests there until it doubles in volume, about two hours.

There’s more sugar in this dough the yeast typically prefer. Although they eat sugar too much can deny them the water they need to reproduce. Sugar is hydroscopic, which means it absorbs water, so as more sugar is added there is less water available. This is why this dough takes several hours to rise. Exhorting his unicellular troops to do their best and “go rise” his dough, Alton turns his attention to the filling. That starts with a discussion of cinnamon.

Most of the cinnamon in kitchens is actually cassia – the ground bark of any of hundreds of trees but most commonly cinnamomum cassia. True cinnamon only comes from the bark of the cinnamomum zeylanicum, or the Ceylon cinnamon tree. True cinnamon is a light tan powder while cassia is the deeper red powder most people would recognize. True cinnamon has a sweet and floral flavor. In recipes with strong flavors it takes the stronger bite of cassia to cut through those flavors. This is such a recipe. Of course, there’s the problem of getting quality cassia. To solve it Alton turns to Cinna Man.

Cinna Man offers Alton serves up various kinds of cinnamon and cassia amid fanciful stories of the first people who harvested cinnamon – from valleys infested with poisonous snakes or high cliff top nests (or so the legends have it). Wherever it came from, Alton is darn glad to have it. He selects a cassia and adds it to light brown sugar and a pinch of kosher salt, then stirs this filling with a fork.

Pan preparation is next. With the help of Thing, Alton completely butters a baking pan. The dough has doubled in size so Alton punches it down and then uses a little flour to work it. Using his knuckles he forces out any bubbles. With a rolling pin he works the dough into a rectangle as close to 18” x 12” as possible. He spreads a melted butter on that and then layers on the filling. With his fingertips, Alton gently presses the filling into the dough.

Alton demonstrates how to roll this sheet into a round. He uses his fingertips since they are cooler than his palms. He moves back and forth from end to center and back to end until he reaches the top. Then he gently crimps the top over. To make the rolls, he cuts the roll in half, and then cuts each half into thirds and each third in half again. This creates a dozen roughly equally sized rolls. If the rolls aren’t equal in size some will be done before others, so Alton recommends taking care to cut the roll properly. He arranges his rolls as three rows of four, covers the pan with plastic wrap and stashes it in the chill chest overnight.

Alton starts the next day by proofing the rolls. He puts a baking pan into the bottom of his oven and adds enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the pan. The rolls, still in their pan, go on the rack above the water for half an hour. When the rolls are proofed Alton removes them and the water and heats the oven to 350º. When the oven reaches the correct temperature he puts the rolls back in to bake for half an hour.

While the rolls cool (on a wire rack) Alton makes frosting. He starts with cream cheese, whisking it in his mixer until it’s creamy. The he works in some whole milk and some powdered sugar. When the rolls are cool enough to handle Alton frosts them with a spatula.

The tongue can taste just five flavors, so how do we taste so many foods? Alton takes a trip inside a giant nose to find out. Some of the tasting process happens in the nose when aromatic molecules contact the olfactory epithelium, a bundle of nerves that project from the brain into the nose (they’re the only part of the brain normally exposed to air). This meeting triggers a nerve impulse that the brain interprets as a smell. During eating, it correlates smells with flavors to produce taste.

Alton has an answer for people who don’t like cinnamon buns. He starts with a batch of the same dough, this time rolled to a 12” x 24” length. Then he brushes most of it with butter and the very top edge with some beaten egg. Alton then mixes lemon zest, minced ginger, candied ginger, flour and sugar together. This filling goes onto the buttered part of the dough. Then Alton rolls the sheet into a tube (as with the cinnamon rolls) and joins the two ends to form a ring. He moves that to a baking sheet, covers it with plastic and stashes it overnight. The next day, he snips nine or ten openings into the top and proofs the ring using the technique he used with his cinnamon rolls. When the ring is proofed he pre-heats the oven and bakes the ring.

While the ring bakes Alton prepares a glaze. For that he selects apricot jam (but any jam will work) and adds candied ginger and a little water. He cooks that over medium heat until it’s melted and slightly thickened. When the baked ring cools, he paints this glaze over it.

Alton’s not done yet! He makes a new topping from butter, brown sugar, rosemary and raisins and cooks it at medium heat until the sugar melts. Half of it goes into two bundt pans (NOT tube pans). Then he builds a coating from unsalted butter and rosemary. Taking another batch of his risen dough, Alton forms it into a long snake and chops that into balls that weigh about an ounce each. These go into the coating and then into the bunt pan. Alton’s goal is about eighteen of these balls in each bunt pan. He covers the pans and chills them overnight. The next day he proofs them the same way, preheats the oven and bakes. About fifteen minutes in (roughly the half-way point in the baking), he adds the remaining raisin/sugar syrup to the top and finishes baking.

The next day, Alton’s realtor returns with a couple. They find the house homey and invigorating. Soon they’re more interested in each other than in the house... Noting their interest in each other, Alton’s agent takes the baked goods home “so they can’t cause any more trouble…”