Warm bread is one of the nicest small comforts. I like everything about baking bread, from the yeasty smell as you mix it all together to the soft suppleness of the dough after its first rise. I like the way the surface is taut and elastic, and how it yields to your fingertips as you press it into a rectangle, pulling and pushing and prodding.
I like thinking about when we were little and my mom would pull off generous pieces of dough whenever she made batches of white sandwich bread on the weekends. She'd give us each one (me and my three sisters), and let us fill our little dough balls with bittersweet chocolate and raisins and a sprinkling of the frozen pecan pieces she reserved for cookie dough. She'd show us how to fold the dough into miniature loaves, pinching the seams closed with our tiny fingers.
Carefully, we'd place our loaves onto a worn, battered baking sheet. Wonkily-shaped and leaking rivulets of molten chocolate, they'd puff up and turn golden alongside my mom's sleek, uniform loaves in their metal pans. She'd know when they were done by sight and smell; she'd pull them out and we'd each get to tear into our own.
Nothing tastes as nice as when you make it yourself. If you're skeptical of that, try this recipe. Even if you're a novice baker, or a complete beginner, it's quite forgiving. The dough is soft and pliable and easy to roll and shape without sticking. It doesn't require any flouring of your work surface or any of that fussy business.
If you aren't a big fan of citrus and chocolate (I am normally not), you could easily leave out the orange zest. You could add a little cardamom or cinnamon to the filling if you want some extra spice. The dough is a wonderful base for any filling actually, from a basic cinnamon roll to creative ones. I use it for sweet rolls and even savory ones -- keep the sugar though regardless! It doesn't make it too sweet for savory fillings (like cheese), but it keeps the dough soft and moist. If you do want to switch it up, here are a few ideas I love for other fillings. For each, you'll want to brush the dough with melted butter first to get the filling to adhere. I usually just eyeball the amounts, but if you want specific measurements, leave a comment and I can finesse a recipe for you!:
- Classic Cinnamon: cinnamon + nutmeg + sugar
- Almond Joy: almond paste + chopped toasted almonds + shredded coconut
- Pizza Night: sundried tomatoes + Parmesan + fresh mozzarella + basil + oregano
- Summer in Provence: garlic + rosemary + oregano + thyme + basil + lavender + sea salt
- Nutella: nutella. full stop. (buy two jars, and eat the second one with a spoon while baking!)
- Triple Berry: raspberry jam + fresh raspberries + crushed freeze-dried raspberries (this gives good crunch!)
- Chai Latte: chai spices + dried buttermilk powder
- Malted Milkshake: malted milk powder + vanilla paste + chopped chocolate
- Monkeying Around: banana + chopped milk chocolate + peanut butter powder
- Everything Bagel: melted butter + poppy seeds + garlic + sesame seeds + dried onion + pretzel salt + black pepper
- Spanakopita: spinach + feta
- Breakfast Sandie: crispy bacon + cheddar + Gruyere + Sriracha
- Monday Night Football: mustard powder + grainy mustard + cheddar + beer + bacon
- Snack Attack: dried ranch powder + chopped chives + provolone
- Strawberry Cheesecake: strawberry preserves + graham cracker crumbs + chopped white chocolate
Chocolate, Pistachio + Orange Buns
7 ounces milk (2% or whole)
2 1/2 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast
3 cups (360 grams) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
zest of one orange (optional)
3/4 cup chopped pistachios (I like to toast mine lightly first!)
4 ounces dark or semisweet chocolate, chopped roughly
To make the dough, heat the milk until just lukewarm. Stir in the yeast and let sit for 5-10 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or by hand in a large bowl, mix together the milk/yeast mixture, flour, butter, sugar, egg yolk, and salt. Mix until the dough comes together, and then knead until the dough is very smooth and elastic -- don't skimp on this step. It should take about 10 minutes in a stand mixer. If the dough is still pretty sticky, carry on kneading until it feels quite smooth.
Lightly grease a large bowl and place the dough in it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until puffy and almost doubled.
Gently punch down the dough (um okay honestly this is not a crucial step but I love doing it! You can just press it softly to deflate it), and turn it out onto a counter. The dough is buttery enough that you shouldn't need extra flour -- it shouldn't stick.
Press/roll/stretch the dough out into a large rectangle, about 12" x 18" in size.
Brush the melted butter evenly over the dough, leaving a little space around all the edges (about 1/2"). If you're using orange zest, rub the zest into the sugar using your fingers (this is the easiest way to disperse the zest). Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the butter, then sprinkle the nuts and chocolate evenly over the surface.
Starting with the long edge closest to you, roll the rectangle into a long log. Pinch the seam closed firmly. Using a serrated knife or a piece of unflavored dental floss, slice the dough into 2-inch rounds (or a little thinner).
Place the rolls into a greased 9-inch round cake pan. (I like to grease the pan, then line it with parchment, and then grease it again because then the rolls pop out easily). Cover the pan with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise until puffy, about 20 minutes. Towards the end of the rise, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the rolls for about 25 minutes (start checking after 20, and then may take as long as 30 -- just take them out when they are golden brown on top). Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes.