This week: what sadness. Walking down the street on Friday night after watching the news, everything appeared out of place. Even my neighborhood looked strange. I felt disoriented and unmoored. When news like this hits, the abstract things you rely on—safety, order, logic—aren’t there when you reach out for them.
In these moments, it feels inappropriate to seek out joy. Reveling in the taste of buttercream frosting on moist cake, taking a photo of a warm loaf of bread, or discussing a recipe seems frivolous, unbefitting of the solemnity of the world.
But at the same time, what do we have but those little things? Aren’t these, in a way, the most important days to search for small, solid bits of happiness? If we can’t celebrate in the daily things, what is there? As Annie Dillard says, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Each minute and hour gathers into a fabric that becomes our life.
Sad news arrives, and we’re plunged into the depths of the real world, slapped with perspective, and reminded that huge and scary things happen. A fight with a friend, someone gossiping at work, how your jeans fit. Those things don’t matter. I can feel all the small pettiness falling away, and instead my heart wants to burst open and embrace everything – to be the happiest, the most loving, the kindest. To try and build a tiny sphere of peace around me as I move through my days.
This past weekend I visited Washington DC to see some friends, stopping at the farm on my way back. I drove home on Sunday, leaving a quiet placid morning in Georgetown behind me. I sped north on the highway, skirting Baltimore on the left.
I skipped the fastest route in favor of using the exit I used to take driving home from school every day. As soon as I made the turn, the road changed. No longer just a street, suddenly every building and stoplight and road sign is infused with meaning. My heart swells.
I hugged my parents. Walked around the farm. Felt the sun on my face. Fed the pigs. Ate my mother’s very good butternut squash soup. Admired her latest shop project: a polished Danish-style wooden baby rattle. Every minute was like a fresh infusion of calm to carry forth with me.
I don’t know what we can do to fix the broken world. But I don’t want to sit and wait for sad things to happen. I want to gather small good things and turn them into a fortress of happiness, so that when the world feels like it’s in pieces, I have some armor.
And so, I suppose, talk of oven temperatures and yeast breads and icing is an act of peace in its own way. Baking is my way of building up my fortress. Adding little bits of happiness to my armor.
Try it. Start with this recipe. It’s a loose riff on a cinnamon bun. The filling is a sweet cream cheese paste and the dough is buttery and soft. Toasted almonds add crunch to the top, and there’s a little icing drizzled over it because why not.
Almond Coconut Sweet Rolls
Adapted from Shutterbean
For the dough:
1/4 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
For the filling:
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
pinch of salt
¼ cup shredded sweetened coconut
¼ cup flaked unsweetened coconut
¼ cup sliced almonds
For the glaze:
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
4-6 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Add the yeast to the warm water in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. Let sit for 5 minutes to proof.
Melt the butter. Add the buttermilk to the melted butter and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg and the sugar. Add the butter and buttermilk and mix well, then add the yeast and whisk to combine.
Separately, add the salt to the flour and whisk together. Add the flour to the liquid ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together.
Use your hands (or a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook) to knead the dough until it comes together into a soft, smooth ball. The dough is on the soft side, so don’t worry if it doesn’t feel as firm and elastic as other yeast bread doughs.
Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl and cover it with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel. Let it rise in a warm place for about 1 ½ hours, or until it has nearly doubled in size.
While the dough rises, mix together the filling by beating the cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, almond extract, salt, and sweetened shredded coconut together in a large bowl.
Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out into a rectangle (about 13” by 9”). It’s okay if it’s more like an oval.
Using a spoon, spread the filling over the dough, making sure to go almost to the edges. Sprinkle the flaked coconut over the filling.
Starting with the long edge closest to you, roll the rectangle into a long log. Using a serrated knife or dental floss (dental floss is the best here), slice the dough into 2-inch rounds (or a little thinner).
Place the rolls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet (or you can use a greased 9-inch round cake pan or 9” x 13” baking pan). Make sure to smoosh them up next to each other! They like to spoon. Sprinkle the sliced almonds over the top.
Cover the rolls with plastic wrap and let rise for about 20 to 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Bake the rolls for 20-30 minutes (less time if your rolls are thinner, more if they are thicker). Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes before frosting (if you want to frost them).
To make the frosting, mix together the milk, almond extract, and sugar, adding more milk or more sugar to get the consistency you like. Add some vanilla extract if you want some flavor. Drizzle over the rolls. I like to add some more flaked unsweetened coconut (toasted).