There it was, perched on a rack at the checkout at Whole Foods, taunting me: the latest issue of Cook's Country magazine.
The first shocker was that the food-porn image on the cover -- which grabbed this sweet-seeker's attention all the way from the cheese counter -- wasn't a turkey. When it comes to American food magazines and the month of November, not featuring a Thanksgiving turkey is the equivalent of slapping Zack Galifianakis on the cover of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue.
Three cheers to the person or persons on the magazine's masthead responsible for skipping the path to chestnut stuffing nirvana and instead treating readers to a drool-inducing portrayal of a knife spreading thick cream cheese icing over a pan of spiraled cinnamon buns. I know my response was embarrassingly predictable: I immediately went in search of instant yeast, cream cheese and cinnamon.
Within little more than an hour -- no exaggeration -- this was the view inside my oven:
The dough -- super-powered by far more instant yeast used in conventional recipes, and boosted by a second leavening agent, quick-acting baking powder -- came together in a snap, just a bowl and a spoon followed by a few easy minutes of kneading.
The recipe's genius is its 30-minute proofing time. Cinnamon bun recipes that I've used in the past require a minimum of three hours for the dough to rise, in two 90-minute periods. Not here, which means that homemade cinnamon buns can be a relatively spontaneous breakfast decision. (A side benefit: You can't imagine the cinnamon-yeast scent that sneaks out of the oven and perfumes the kitchen).
Are they as habit-forming as the buns my grandmother Hedvig made when I was a kid? I wish I could say yes, but no, they're not. The quick-rise dough doesn't achieve the rich puffiness that comes with more carefully proofed breads. However, as a substitute for those tubes of cottony refrigerated dough (even the not-so-bad version from Immaculate), there's absolutely no comparison. They're also far superior to any supermarket bakery cinnamon bun that I've encountered. No doubt about it, this recipe belongs in the repertoire of every cabin baker. Certainly ever weekend baker. Next time we have company, I know what I'll be serving for breakfast.
Following true America's Test Kitchen form, author Diane Unger tinkered over successive batches until she reached this ideal formula. Find her recipe here.
Sometimes I find the ATK recipe format to be a bit confusing (Wait, who am I kidding? If I'd followed my own advice and read the recipe -- twice -- before I started, I probably wouldn't have screwed up and forced to start over). Partly for my own edification, I've re-written the recipe (below) to fit the format we use for Taste.
Three notes: I found that Unger's recipe yielded way too much glaze (although, really, can you ever have too much glaze?). Still, the next time I pull out this recipe, I'll probably cut the amount of glaze in half. One of the recipe's most endearing qualities is the buns' intense cinnamon bite. Rather than defaulting to cinnamon that has been lingering in a tiny plastic McCormick jar in the cupboard for the past two years, growing weaker by the day, I highly recommend going to the bulk spices department at your local natural foods co-op or Whole Foods Market, where the cinnamon will be fresher than its supermarket counterpart, with a far more intense flavor and scent. It's economical, too, allowing you to buy what you need and nothing more.
QUICKER CINNAMON BUNS
Makes 8 buns.
Note: From Cook's Country magazine, which offers the following tips. The recipe requires a total of 10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) melted butter, so it's easiest to melt it all at once. Unger suggests using a dark baking pan, which will yield a much more deeply golden brown roll. If using a light-colored baking pan, increase heat to 375 degrees and adjust the baking time to 29 to 32 minutes.
3/4 c. packed light brown sugar
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Butter for pan
1 1/4 c. whole milk, at room temperature, divided
4 tsp. instant or rapid-rise yeast
2 tbsp. (6 tsp.) granulated sugar, divided
2 3/4 c. flour, plus extra for kneading dough
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp, salt
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted, and divided
3 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 tbsp. whole milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
1 c. powdered sugar, sifted
To prepare filling: In a medium bowl, combine brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt. Stir in melted butter and vanilla extract until mixture resembles wet sand. Set aside.
To prepare dough: Grease a dark 9-inch round cake pan, line with parchment paper and grease parchment. Heat 1/4 cup milk in a small bowl in a microwave oven to 110 degrees (about 10 to 20 seconds). Stir in yeast and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and let sit until mixture is bubbly, about 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and remaining 5 teaspoons granulated sugar. Stir in 2 tablespoons melted butter, yeast mixture and remaining 1 cup milk until dough forms (dough will be sticky). Transfer dough to a well-floured work surface and knead until a smooth ball forms, about 2 minutes.
Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough into a 12x9-inch rectangle, with the long side parallel to the counter edge. Brush dough all over with 2 tablespoons butter, leaving a 1/2-inch border on the far long edge. Sprinkle dough evenly with filling, then press filling firmly into dough. Using a bench scraper or spatula, if necessary, loosen dough from the work surface. Roll dough away from you into a tight log and pinch seam to seal.
Roll log seam side down and cut into 8 equal pieces. Stand buns on end and gently re-form ends that were pinched during cutting. Place 1 bun in center of prepared pan and others around perimeter of pan, seams facing in. Brush tops of buns with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Cover buns loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Discard plastic and bake buns until edges are well browned, 23 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and, using a paring knife, loosen buns from side of pan. Transfer pan to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Invert a large plate over pan. Using potholders, flip plate and pan upside down; remove pan and parchment. Reinvert buns onto a wire rack, set wire rack inside a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and let cool for 5 minutes.
To prepare glaze: In a large bowl, whisk together cream cheese, butter, milk, vanilla extract and salt until smooth. Whisk in powdered sugar until smooth. Using a spatula, spread glaze evenly over tops of buns. Serve warm.