January 31, 2016

Last flight out of Seattle

Anybody else have a shitty week last week? Are you in need of an enormous distraction, a xanax, a martini the size of your head?

Great. Let’s look at a photo of maple sticky buns together.

That’s a little better. 

But maybe we need to really get in there.

I could swim in these. I would, too, if it was proper and decent, and I could get away with it without compromising my impending marriage. 

Here was my Friday, in summary: 

- Two trips to the pet hospital 
- One emergency procedure
- Two important meetings at work
- One last-minute flight
- Buckets of rain
- Four protective collars purchased for the cat (to avoid reversing said procedure and to find one that would not choke, gag, or cause him to go completely insane)
- One mention of a possible tail amputation (ONE TOO MANY)
- One vial of pain medication (sadly, not for me)
- One order of Chinese takeout (at 10 pm—first and only meal of the day)
- Two spontaneous bursts of tears (yep)

By 5 pm, when I was en route to the pet hospital for the second time, I called Rob and asked him to come home. (At least I know when to ask for help.) He managed to make the last flight out of Seattle and by the time he arrived, Girard and I were passed out on the couch—him, looking like some kind of cat-astronaut, high on pain meds, translucent cone around his tiny head; and me, looking like a trucker after a harrowing ride through the Siskiyou pass. Shower-deprived, hungry, bedraggled, a bit insane.

I’ve never been happier to see anyone, ever.

In these crisis moments, I look frantically around me for something that will calm me down. I find it hard to focus on anything—put on a record, take a bath, read a book. My mind is too distracted. It was only later, two whole mornings later, that I sat down with Samantha Seneviratne’s book The New Sugar & Spice and tried to locate comfort among its pages. 

And let me tell you, this book is a dream. 

It reads like a poem to your spice rack, but is about so much more than the chapter headings (Peppercorn & Chili, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove & Cardamom) would disclose. It’s about baking for a sibling (and then losing a sibling). It’s about taste and scent and those fleeting olfactory and gastronomic moments that tie us to people and events forevermore.

She writes about the cinnamon groves of Sri Lanka, where her parents grew up, and tells stories of vanilla orchids hand-pollinated with the humble straw of a household broom. Did you know that vanilla comes from a downcast, elegant white orchid? (I didn’t.) The book does not exoticize these places or flavor-memories, though, because the recipes are simple and familiar: brownie cookies, fruit galettes, spice cakes, a s’mores pie, coffee custard. They offer whispers of the unfamiliar, but are perfectly achievable in a western kitchen with spices that most people will already have. In some cases, they also use less sugar than comparable recipes would, because they get their lift from generous and transportive spice mixtures instead. 

When I first got the book, I was absorbed by the image of these maple sticky buns. Deep crevasses of caramelized sugar and maple syrup, vertiginous peaks of walnuts and raisins, a pillowy, yeasted dough twisted around pockets of cinnamon. Warm, comforting, sticky-sweet heaven. Somehow autumnal, perhaps, with their ode to maple syrup, but a perfectly legit choice for the late winter, too.

Reserve the better part of an entire morning for these beauties. Yeasted dough demands time and attention and a warm nook in your home. But this is just the thing for a distracted mind and a wounded spirit—time away from oneself, in service to the sticky buns.

Samantha Seneviratne's Maple Sticky Buns 
from The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking

Sweet Yeast Dough
6 tablespoons sweet butter (cut in small pieces), plus more for greasing bowl
2/3 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
2 1/2 cups bread flour
3 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 3/4 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Raisin and Nut Topping
6 tablespoons sweet butter, plus more for cake pan
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup maple syrup (medium or dark)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/3 cup (scant) raisins

Cinnamon Filling
1/4 dark brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sweet butter, softened

Grease a large bowl with butter and set aside.

First, prepare the dough: Place the milk in a small saucepan and bring it just to a boil over medium-heat. Remove from heat and add the butter to the pot. Give it a stir or a swirl and allow it to melt. Once the butter has melted, allow it to cool for about 10 minutes, or until it's warm but not hot to the touch.

While the milk mixture is cooling, stir together the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl).

Return to the warm milk mixture, and stir the beaten egg into it. Add this to the dry ingredients, and mix with a spoon or the paddle attachment of the stand mixer until just combined. Put the dough hook on the stand mixer and knead the dough for 6 minutes on low speed. Alternately, knead by hand for double the time. The dough is ready when it's smooth and elastic. Gently form it into a ball and place it in the bowl. Allow it to double in size. As Samantha writes: "Keep an eye on the dough rather than the clock." This first rise can take between 30 minutes and 2 hours depending on your yeast and how warm your room is.

While the dough rises, make the topping. Butter a 9 by 2-inch round cake pan. In a small to medium saucepan, stir together the maple syrup, brown sugar, and salt. Heat over medium and allow the mixture to become hot enough to reach a full boil. It's ready when the whole thing looks foamy and large bubbles begin to break on the surface. Pour into the cake pan. Sprinkle the nuts and raisins evenly over the caramel.

Now, prepare the filling. In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt together. Set aside.

When the dough has doubled in size, flour a work surface. Knead the dough once or twice, then roll it out using a rolling pan to a square about 10 by 10 inches. Spread the softened butter over the dough and sprinkle the filling over it. Roll the dough tightly to form a log, pinching the seam along the top of the log. Slice the log into 8 or 9 pieces, then place the pieces in the pan and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the buns to proof for 1 hour. At the end of the hour, they'll have doubled in size and will be touching.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Uncover the buns and bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. To test doneness, try to wiggle the center bun—if it feels soft, bake for 5 minutes more; if it's set in place, the buns are ready.

Allow them to cool on a wire rack for five minutes before inverting. To invert, run a butter knife along the edge of the pan. Then, place a serving dish or plate on top of the pan, and flip in one assured motion. Remove the cake pan. The caramelized side will now face up.

Serve warm. You may reheat these in the microwave or regular oven over the next day or two, if you have leftovers.

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