Have you heard about the famous Marian Burros plum torte recipe? For 6 years starting in 1983, the New York Times ran the cake recipe before deciding it was enough exposure and putting a stop to the nonsense…or so they thought, until people rioted (kidding, but actually it sounds like they sort of did) and demanded its return. I’m with that crowd, because the cake is really and truly a keeper. Not only is it fantastic as is but it can handle just about any tweaking you can come up with. No plums? Use berries! Don’t feel like cinnamon? Try pear and cardamom. Want a sandier texture? Add a little cornmeal.
Anyway, that’s really neither here nor there, except to say that you can find the original recipe on the NYT site here. I tell you about it because I baked it recently for a local bake sale. It emerged from the oven all gorgeously browned on top with a light dusting of cinnamon.
The plums had slumped gently into the surface of the cake, hidden slightly by the sugary crust, and the entire cake was giving off an alluring scent of spice and fruit and butter. A man walking by stopped to look more closely. He was nice-looking, handsome and gray-haired, in his late 40s. He wore gym clothes, but the very nice sort that told me he probably exercised at Equinox and never wore mismatched socks and only drank small tidy cups of espresso rather than oversized lattes. You know the type.
“What is that?” he asked. “Oh!” I said. “You need to know about this cake,” I continued. I told him about the simplicity of it, the popularity of it, and how good it is warm from the oven. He bought a slice.
I went to put it into a bag, but he stopped me. “I’ll just eat it right now,” he said enthusiastically. I promised him that he wouldn’t regret that choice and handed him a fork. He took a bite as he walked away. I turned to talk to some other passersby, and a minute later he was back. He stood in front of me and said (in what was, frankly, a rather accusatory tone), “that was perfect.”
“Thank you?” I ventured anxiously. Did he like it? Was he mad? Why did he sound mad?
“I need another slice. Actually…well…can I just buy the entire cake?”
Reader, he did! He had taken the first slice, so I just wrapped up the entire thing, took his cash, and watched him walk away grinning. He confided that he had a dinner party to go that night and was planning on bringing the cake.
The point of this story is not to wow you with my baking prowess (but look, if it happens to, SO BE IT), but firstly to heap more compliments on the original recipe and urge you to try it.
And secondly, it’s to remind you all of how nice it is to make something and watch someone enjoy it. I like having recipes that are guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Sometimes these fall into the category of things that I love (like that cake) and sometimes they are things that aren’t my cup of tea but which I know others will be thrilled to eat . It’s also important to have a set of recipes that make you happy—things you’ll look forward to sitting down and savoring, but those will be a story for another day.
This brings me to today’s cinnamon bun recipe. Because if there were ever a recipe that qualified as a Guaranteed Crowd-pleaser (capital G, capital C mandatory)…this is it.
These are serious cinnamon buns. I am not usually in the camp of people who like their cinnamon buns frosted (although I think icing is a better phrase than frosting here—I’ve been watching the Great British Bake-Off and I can just hear Paul Hollywood saying in his clipped accent that he “loves a good iced bun”, pronouncing loves as loofs). I like my cinnamon buns smaller and more compact; my mother’s version is the Platonic ideal of a cinnamon bun in my mind. The coils of dough are tightly wound around a sugary spiced ribbon of filling, heavily fragrant with cinnamon. The buns aren’t fluffy or light, but denser almost and more moist.
That being said, I’m always tempted by the wafting scent of a Cinnabon anytime I walk through an airport. I mean I’m not a monster here guys. I can appreciate a jumbo baked anything.
And if you’re baking a pan of cinnamon buns to share, it’s rather exciting to place the warm pan down with a flourish and watch people’s eyes light up as they spot the swoopy swirls of frosting melting slightly into the warm buns. Listen, people like icing. It’s just a fact.
Because this style of cinnamon bun can be a little over-the-top, it’s key to up the spices so that they don’t end up feeling like empty sugar bombs. With the right amount of salt and spice, they’re incredibly flavorful and you taste much more than just icing.
You can also dress them up a bit if you like; the addition of citrus zest is not at all a bad idea, and you can easily give them more of a festive holiday flavor profile if you add in some allspice and nutmeg to the filling.
Jumbo Cinnamon Buns
Makes 12 buns
For the dough
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast or instant yeast
1 cup whole milk, warmed slightly
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp salt
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
4 cups (17 ounces) all-purpose flour
For the filling
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon (Vietnamese if you can find it)
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
pinch of salt
1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened
For the frosting
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
To make the dough, whisk together the yeast and warm milk in a small bowl and set aside to proof for 5 minutes. It should bubble slightly.
Add the sugar, butter, salt, egg, egg yolk, and flour to the bowl of a stand mixer and mix to combine. Add the milk/yeast mixture and milk until it all comes together using the dough hook. The dough should be slightly sticky but not too sticky—add a little flour if it is really wet.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic or a damp tea towel. Set it aside in a warm-ish spot to rise for about 1 1/2 hours. It should just about double in size.
When risen, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and take the dough out and roll it out on a lightly floured surface to a rectangle about 17” x 13”. Spread the softened butter evenly over the surface of the dough—I find a small rubber spatula or offset spatula is useful here.
In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, and salt. (If you don’t want as much spice, you can omit the allspice and cardamom.) Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the softened butter.
Butter a 9” x 13” baking dish (ceramic, glass, or metal are all fine—I like using one with square edges to get nice, neat buns HA!).
Starting with the long edge closest to you, roll the dough into a log and pinch the seam tightly together. Cut the dough into 12 even pieces—TIP: you can use a serrated knife but the easiest and tidiest way to do this is to use dental floss (not mint! unscented!). Just wrap the floss around the bottom of the log and pull together to slice.
Nestle the buns in the prepared pan, cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel, and let them rise for about 20 minutes. They should be puffy. While they rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Bake the buns for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Sometimes it takes longer so just start checking at 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool.
While they cool, make the icing. Combine all the ingredients and beat until smooth and fluffy. Spread a generous layer over the buns (I like to do this while the buns are slightly warm still).