With frigid temperatures outside, one of the coziest places to be is in a warm, sweet-smelling kitchen baking, baking, baking. Especially on Sundays, when the game-of-the-week is on. I’m much too fidgety to couch-sit for hours, so I half-listen to the television and bake.
I like working with yeast doughs to make breads and coffeecakes, and no, they aren’t hard at all. They do take time, start to finish, but most of that time is unattended.
Over the years, I’ve made dozens of sweet-roll dough recipes, all variations on a theme. I finally settled on one favorite recipe. My go-to dough makes three coffeecakes and requires no kneading. None. A hand-held electric mixer does the work. After the first rise, I shape the dough into twists, pan rolls, sticky buns, tea rings or monkey bread. Fillings are anything I have on hand.
If you are new to baking sweet yeast breads, here’s a quick once-over of basic ingredients and what they do.
• Yeast. This is the beneficial living one-celled organism that leavens the dough and lends its flavor. Find packets of dry, granulated yeast in the baking aisle of the grocery. Of the several ways to incorporate yeast into a dough, I favor the traditional method. Run a large bowl under warm water and dry it. Add a small quantity (usually 1/4 cup) of warm water, scatter the yeast granules over the surface of the water and then sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar over the yeast to feed it. The yeast cells eat the sugar and excrete carbon dioxide and alcohol. That’s why the yeast soon begins to bubble and foam. This is called “proofing the yeast” because you have just “proved” that the yeast is alive and ready to work its magic. Be aware that yeasts can be killed by heat, and the ingredients used in making dough should never be warmer than lukewarm.
• Flour. Either all-purpose or bread flour can be used. Working, or kneading, the dough develops the protein called gluten, which gives elasticity to the dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape and structure. Because flours vary in their abilities to absorb moisture and develop gluten, bakers give measurements on a relative scale, rather than in exact amounts. While heavy doughs are kneaded by hand on a floured surface, rich soft doughs are beaten in the bowl by hand or electric mixer.
• Milk, sugar, eggs, butter, flavorings and salt give color, richness, flavor and texture.
After a dough is made, it is allowed to rest in a warm place, where it will double in size thanks to the action of the yeast. It has risen enough when it is no longer springy when you poke two fingers into the center. Then you punch the dough down and lightly work it to remove all air bubbles before shaping. Or, if time is an issue, after punching down the dough, cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator. The dough can be kept there up to two days. It should be punched down each time it rises and brought to room temperature for shaping. I have to say that punching dough is a very satisfying act.
Most filled and shaped coffeecakes should be permitted to rise again on a parchment-covered baking sheet or in greased pans until they have risen to almost double their original bulk.
Fillings and Toppings
Filling choices are unlimited. Butter, cinnamon sugar, and rum-soaked currants can hardly be improved upon, but some, though not all, prepared fillings are excellent, especially the Love’n Bake brand, if you can find it. I especially like their cinnamon and chocolate Schmears.
A rule of thumb for filling pinwheel rolls is: 2 tablespoons soft butter, 1/3 cup brown or cinnamon sugar and 1/3 cup rum-soaked currants or finely chopped walnuts.
• Canned cherry pie filling can be used, but almost all of the thickening goop has to be spooned off and discarded. Buy the best brand you can find.
• Poppy seed and prune lekvar fillings are easily found in better grocery stores.
• Ground-nut fillings such as those used in potica and other Eastern European sweet doughs are excellent, and the food processor makes fast work of the grinding.
Coffeecakes need a finishing touch. Try a simple vanilla icing, drizzle or glaze. For each coffeecake, place about 11/3 cups confectioners’ sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla in a soup plate. Add water just a few drops at a time to make a spreading (thick), drizzling (flowing) or glazing (slow runny) consistency. Add maple flavoring for a flavor punch.
The baked goods get a bit of drama when drizzled with vanilla icing and topped with sliced toasted almonds. Streusel topping is a good change-up on cinnamon-sugar pan rolls.
When I bake a batch of dough, I use different fillings and toppings, depending on what’s on hand. I might make two almond twists and one pan of cinnamon buns. Or two streusel-topped and one maple icing-topped cinnamon buns. Or a loaf, a twist and a pan of buns.
I often bake in disposable pans because I still hold to my mother’s generous Rule of Coffeecakes: Make one, freeze one, give one away. Share the sweetness with a friend.
Sweet Roll Dough
Makes enough for 3 coffee cakes.
If you are new to yeast baking, this recipe is a good place to start.
1/4 cup lukewarm water
2 packages dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten
2 teaspoons cardamom
4 cups flour, plus 1/3 cup flour for dusting
Add lukewarm water to a bowl, sprinkle with dry yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar. Melt butter over low heat. Remove from heat and add milk, vanilla, 1/3 cup sugar and salt. When the mixture is lukewarm, add to bubbled yeast mixture along with the beaten eggs.
Stir the cardamom into 4 cups flour. Add 21/2 cups of flour to the yeast mixture. Using a hand-held electric mixer, beat for 4 minutes. Use a timer. It will make a sticky, heavy batter.
Remove the beaters, scrape them and set aside. Add 11/2 cups more flour to the bowl and mix very well with a wooden spoon until the flour is thoroughly blended into dough.
Cover the dough with greased waxed paper and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and flop it around to coat with flour. Knead lightly, adding just enough flour (about 1/3 cup or less) to keep dough from sticking.
Divide the dough into 3 equal portions, about 13 ounces each. Roll each third of the dough into a rectangle about 12-by-10 inches. Proceed to shape the dough.
Makes 12 buns.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan.
Roll 1/3 recipe sweet roll dough into a rectangle 12 by 10 inches. Smear with 2 tablespoons soft butter. Sprinkle evenly with 1/3 cup cinnamon sugar. Scatter the surface with 1/3 cup currants, soaked in 2 tablespoons warm rum. Starting at the long end, roll up jellyroll style, pinching the end seam. Cut roll into 12 pieces.
Place 3 pieces in the center of the pan. Place the remaining pieces around the sides. Let rise until dough has almost doubled in bulk. Bake for 25 minutes or until nicely browned.
2 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cinnamon
Mix together. Store in a covered jar. Store leftover sugar to sprinkle on toast. Keeps indefinitely. Makes about 2 cups.
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
Put the flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a food processor and pulse several times to mix. Scatter the butter over the top and pulse until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Empty the crumbs into a medium-size bowl and rub between your fingers to make large, buttery crumbs. Set aside until ready to use.
After dough has risen in the pans, gently distribute streusel over the surface. Makes enough topping for 2 8-inch round pans of cinnamon buns.
Lemon Sugar Sticky Buns
This makes enough to fill 2 portions of basic coffeecake dough.
For the filling:
2/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lemon zest (from about 3 large lemons)
4 tablespoons very soft butter, divided
For the glaze:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
11/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, or enough to make a glazed consistency
Mix together the sugar and lemon zest and set aside. Grease 2 8-inch round cake pans. After the dough has risen, roll one portion (one third) of the dough into a rectangle about 12-by-10 inches. Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons butter, then sprinkle it evenly with 1/3 cup sugar-zest mixture. Roll the rectangle up lengthwise into a long jelly roll. Cut it into 12 slices.
Place 3 pieces in the center of the cake pan. Place the remaining pieces around the sides, leaving a little space for them to rise. Let rise in a warm place until dough has almost doubled in bulk. Repeat for a second portion of dough.
While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the rolls until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Allow them to cool on a rack.
Drizzle with lemon glaze. To make the glaze, whisk together the lemon juice with confectioners’ sugar until it reaches a consistency that is neither too thick nor too thin. Dip the tines of a fork into the mixture, and using a zigzag motion, ice the tops of the buns.
Frangipane is a favorite filling for twists. Almond paste is mixed with butter, sugar, egg and flour in a food processor. Then a strip of that mixture is spread down the center third of a rectangle of dough, the side thirds are cut into strips and criss-crossed over the filling.
This recipe will fill 2 portions of sweet coffeecake dough. If you have leftover almond paste, make marzipan shapes: Pinch off portions of almond paste and roll them into large marble shapes, then dip into melted semi-sweet chocolate. Set them on wax paper to firm up.
4 tablespoon butter, softened
1 cup almond paste, separated into small pieces
1 large egg
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons flour
Few drops almond extract, optional
Egg wash, made from 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 teaspoons milk, optional
Place butter, small pieces of almond paste, egg, sugar and flour into the bowl of a food processor. Whirl until smooth. Taste. If you like a more pronounced almond flavor, add almond extract one drop at a time. Scrape the mixture into a bowl.
Place the portion of dough on a piece of parchment paper. Roll into a rectangle about 12-by-10 inches. Place 1/2 the almond filling in a thick strip down the center third of the dough.
Using a knife, make 7 cuts on each side of the dough to make 8 strips of dough. Alternating sides, cross strips over the filling starting at the top and alternating side to side. Tuck the last strip under the dough to seal. Gently transfer the parchment paper holding the filled dough to a baking sheet. Repeat for a second portion of dough.
While the dough is rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When ready for the oven, lightly brush the twists with egg wash. Bake the twists until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Allow them to cool on a rack.
Makes 1 loaf.
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/3 cup cinnamon sugar
1/3 cup currants
2 tablespoons warm rum
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-by-3 loaf pan.
Roll 1/3 recipe sweet roll dough into a rectangle 12 by 10 inches. Smear with 2 tablespoons soft/melted butter. Sprinkle evenly with 1/3 cup cinnamon sugar. Scatter the surface with 1/3 cup currants soaked in 2 tablespoons warm rum.
Starting at the long end, roll up jellyroll style. Cut roll into 3 thick, even pieces. Fit the pieces, cut sides flat, into the pan. Press slices down into pan so that, in rising, they will grow together.
Let rise until dough has almost doubled in bulk. Bake about 45 minutes, or loaf is puffed and lightly browned. Cut into thick slices to serve.