This winter I gave myself a challenge.
I love the brown buns my mom and my sister make. When I go home to visit and they serve fresh buns I can’t help but eat like 6 of them.
I helped make these buns all the time when I was a kid. When I moved away from home I tried to replicate them, but didn’t have much success. I made a few batches and have a collection of versions of the recipe but gave up on the whole thing years ago. Put it in the bucket of “can’t do that”.
But this winter I had a thought. What if I just practiced. What if I made buns every weekend until I got the result that I wanted. I can afford to waste a bit of yeast, flour, and milk if the first few batches are a bust. What if I took the attitude of “fail fast and move on” that I apply to my work life, and applied that to the kitchen. What would I wind up with?
I learned so much. But not necessarily what I thought I would.
Saturday’s will never be the same
I wanted to be as authentic as possible, so I dug out the recipes I gathered from my mom over the years. It turns out she’s evolved this over the years. When I was a kid we used powered milk. I gave up on keeping powdered milk in the house, I can’t keep it fresh enough and I always have access to standard milk from the grocery store two blocks from my house.
I thought about this. Why does mom’s recipe call for powdered milk? Well, when mom was growing up they lived on a farm but they didn’t have milk cows. They had canned and powdered milk. So that’s what grandma used for her recipe. She didn’t pick that because it was the best option overall, she picked that because it was the best option for her circumstances. My circumstances are different. I pulled out a version of the recipe that uses scalded milk.
I tried a few versions of yeast over the first few weeks, but did some reading and eventually settled on using Active Dry Yeast. I didn’t just want the buns, I wanted that experience of my youth. The two stages of rising, and nice air filled buns.
The first weeks were middling results. Most were edible to an extent, but none of the first batches were the kind of thing where you eat more than one bun, let alone 6.
But I loved the process… love the process now. Saturday morning has become the highlight of my week. Instead of lingering in bed thinking through a to-do list, I jump out of bed and go through a version of my morning routine.
- I warm up the oven just a little bit to give an optimum environment for the first rise of dough.
- I have a little dish I use everyday to proof the yeast, adding water and just a sprinkling of sugar to make sure I make the most of it.
- I place the Kitchen Aid bowl over the vent on the stove to melt the lard just a little bit while I scald the milk
- I add cold water to the scalded milk so its just the right temperature when I add the yeast
- I have fresh ingredients since I’m baking every weekend. This is incredibly important. The first few weeks I was using up some very very old molasses from the cupboard. It gets thicker over time. The fresh molasses is a breeze to work with by comparison!
- I boil water for coffee while I kneed the dough.
Finally, while the dough rises for 2 hours I tidy the kitchen, then sit and drink 2 cups of lovely coffee, in a quiet living room while my family sleeps. I craft or read or watch some documentary on youtube or netflix.
The effort involved in making buns is really very small. It does in fact take 4 hours from the time I pour out the yeast until the time I’m buttering a lovely soft brown bun. But most of that time is waiting. The waiting can truly be a joy. It also means that Saturday is really the only feasible day for doing this. But maybe that’s for the best. Something lovely and productive, and just for me, to look forward to every week.
I took 6 weeks for me to get to the perfect pan of buns. I couldn’t stop talking about it over the Christmas holiday. After another 6 weeks of consistent results, I’ve returned to experimenting. This weekend I changed around some of the ingredients. I added multigrain flower and oats, and increased the molasses amount (by accident) and they turned out very nicely. But honestly , I wouldn’t have minded if this verison was a flop. I still would have learned something and the process has made all my weekends more productive.
More about that to come…