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 coffee cakes 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 ¼ 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 2 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 coffee cakes 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.
Coffee cakes need a finishing touch. Try a simple vanilla icing, drizzle or glaze. For each coffee cake, place about 1 1/3 cups confectioners’ sugar, ½ 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 Coffee Cakes: make one, freeze one, give one away. Share the sweetness with a friend.
SWEET ROLL DOUGH
If you are new to yeast baking, this recipe is a good place to start.
¼ cup lukewarm water
2 packages dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup butter, melted
¾ 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 2 1/2 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 1 1/2 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 enough for 3 coffee cakes.