When my grandpa died five years ago, the day before Remembrance Day, one of the pressing concerns for my family was: Who will make his cinnamon buns for Christmas morning?
My family wasn't being cruel or making light of the fact that Jim (or as we grandkids called him, "Grumpy Gramps") was dead, but we take Christmas baking, and in particular, his incredible cinnamon buns, very seriously.
Gramps was very proud of his buns, and he had every right to be. They weren't drizzled with icing like those heart attacks-at-every-bite Cinnabuns you can get at Union and Eglinton stations. Instead, they were layered with cinnamon and pecans and brown sugar, and when they melted over the buns in the oven, they created an almost caramel-like fort that encased them and made you feel as if you were tasting heaven for the first time.
So when it came time to choose who was going to continue Gramps' legacy, I immediately volunteered. Back then, I was 24 and wasn't into baking as much as I am now, so I'm not sure why I was so keen to take it on, knowing that there were high expectations for these buns. It may have been a way to pay tribute to my Gramps every year, to feel his presence through baking. It may have been guilt that I didn't spend as much time with him as I should have. It may have been that I just really loved cinnamon buns and wanted to make sure that no one else would fuck them up.
Whatever the reason, I was entrusted to making them, and have been doing so every year since. Every Dec. 23, I head to my mom's in Mississauga, bun ingredients and his handwritten recipe stashed in my bag, and spend about five hours making them while I listen to old audio tapes I loved as a kid like The Nylons' Christmas or a Mary Higgins Clark mystery ("Let Me Call You Sweetheart" is my favourite) or Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express."
This past Christmas, my grandma swore that these were the best cinnamon buns yet. I was pleased and I hoped that Gramps, wherever he was, didn't mind too much that my buns were better than his.
Note: Please excuse the crappy photos. I used my cell phone camera as I couldn't fit my regular camera into my luggage.
Cinnamon Buns (Makes about a dozen buns)
- 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 4 cups (approx, sometimes you don't need as much) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup butter
- 1-1/2 packed brown sugar
- 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
Dissolve 1 tsp. of the white sugar in warm water, sprinkle in yeast. Let stand for 10 minutes or until frothy. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat milk, remaining sugar, butter and salt until butter as melted; let cool to lukewarm. In a large bowl, combine eggs, milk mixture and yeast mixture.
Using an electric mixer, gradually beat in 1-1/2 cups of the flour; beat for 2 minutes or until smooth. With a wooden spoon, gradually stir in enough of the remaining flour to make soft, slightly sticky dough that comes away from the side of the bowl (sometimes you don't need to use all the flour, so don't use all of it if you don't have to). On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough for 7 to 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic.
Place in large greased bowl, turning to grease all over; cover with plastic wrap (or greased waxed paper and tea towel). Let rise in warm place for 1 to 1-1/2 hours (or in fridge for 8 hours overnight) or until doubled in bulk and impression remains when fingertips are pressed into dough. Punch down dough.
Filling: Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium heat, melt 3/4 cups of the butter with 3/4 cups of the brown sugar, whisking until smooth. Pour into greased 13 x 9 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the pecans, set aside. Melt remaining butter, set aside. Combine remaining sugar, pecans and cinnamon, set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 18 x 14 inch rectangle. Brush with all but 2 tbsps melted butter, leaving a 1/2 inch border uncovered; sprinkle with sugar mixture. Starting at the long side, tightly roll up, pinching seam to seal. Brush with remaining butter. Cut into 12 to 15 pieces; place cut sides down in pan. Cover and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.
Step 6. Bake in 375 F oven for 25-30 minutes or until crusts are golden and tops sound hollow when tapped. Let stand in pan for 3 minutes. Invert onto serving platter, scraping off any remaining filling in pan to drizzle over buns.