Burnt Butter and Salted Maple Cinnamon Buns

Get over your fear of baking with yeast with this easy recipe for cinnamon buns.

I’ve always been a quick bread kind of girl. You know, of the pumpkin bread or banana bread variety and all those loaves that rely on baking powder or baking soda to rise. And it isn’t because of the word “quick” as speed has nothing to do with it. Nope, I don’t necessarily mind involved recipes if the payoff is worth it. My preference is out of fear. Yes, fear. I fear yeast. There. I said it. Yeast scares me. I can count on one hand the number of recipes I’ve baked with it. And I’m turning 53 years young this month. That’s about once a decade since I was old enough to bake unsupervised. Pretty sad, really.

But see, here’s my dilemma: I love yeasty treats once in a while.

So I decided it was time to get over it already.

Fear be gone!

This recipe helped. A lot. It’s adapted from Donna Hay’s “Modern Baking” which published last year. The dough? Heavenly. So supple and easy to work with. I’m in love with it.

Almost enough to vanquish the memories of my yeasty baking fails. Like the time I “made" French bread and the first loaf never rose. And the second rose long enough for me to get a half way decent photo for the newspaper so long as I shot it top down because straight on? Ooof! No hero shots there cuz, really … Not so pretty.

Every time out, I either killed the dang yeast with water too warm. Or used water not warm enough. Or the house was just too cold to get much of a rise. At least, that’s the story I’m sticking with.

But this recipe. Well, this one is so easy and easily adaptable to other tasty yeasty treats!

Originally, the recipe was called Burnt Butter and Salted Maple Sticky Buns as it made a boatload of super sweet burnt butter maple sauce that is supposed to line the baking sheet and then you drizzle more on top and that’s how I made it initially, following the recipe exactly. But it was a sticky, sweet, saturated mess that as soon as it cooled down, became hard like candy. Ultimately the yeasty goodness of the bread was overpowered by the overly sweet maple syrup.

Since I don't like soggy, overly sweat treats, I made some changes including adding some cinnamon and voilĂ ! Cinnamon buns. Mmmm.

This is the dough before the first rise.
The dough doubled in size after proofing in my hacked oven for 1 hour.

Tips for working with yeast

So, how does yeast work? While the bread is baking, the yeast feeds on the sugar and starches in your dough. This activity produces CO2 which causes the dough to rise. Now, on with the pointers:

  1. There are two kinds of yeast for baking: active dry yeast and instant – or rapid rise – yeast. The first must be bloomed in water first (called “proofing,” a process that activates the yeast) while the second can be added directly into the dry ingredients. I’ve used both. I prefer the first because that way I can be sure that the yeast is alive and all my hard work (and ingredients) won’t go to waste. But I know just as many bakers who prefer the speed of the instant yeast. 
  2. Don’t kill the yeast with water that is too hot. Many tips say room temperature water will do but truth be told, that is unreliable because depending on where you live and what time of year it is, that water could be too cold or too warm. I’m speaking from experience here! One time I waited 40 minutes on a cold rainy day for the yeast to activate only to have wasted 40 minutes. I now warm my water in the microwave for about 15 seconds and then use a thermometer to make sure the water is between 105 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (I usually aim for 108 to make sure it isn’t too hot). Yes, yeast can multiple at 95 degrees, but it needs a few more degrees to get active yeast to actually proof and dissolve fully.
  3. Check your yeast. If you aren’t sure if your yeast is still good, you can use a pinch of sugar to make sure it’s still alive as yeast feeds on sugar. Add the yeast and a pinch of sugar to the proper temperature water and stir. Let it stand for two minutes. If the yeast is alive, it will have completely dissolved and start bubbling by the end of those two minutes. Then you’ll know you’re golden.
  4. Salt kills yeast. Don’t let it come into direct contact with yeast before or during the proofing. Salt in recipes should be added in with the dry ingredients, which is just fine and won't harm the yeast if the yeast is added with wet ingredients first before coming into contact with the salted flour.
  5. Store unused yeast in the freezer. If you buy more yeast than you need, store extra yeast in the freezer. Doing so basically puts the yeast into suspended animation and the best part is, you’ll never have to worry about your yeast not being good. Plus, it can go directly from the freezer to the proofing step, no need to have it “come up to room temp."

Butter, sugar, cinnamon and allspice filling. Mmmm. 
Before the second rise. Ignore the glaze in the pan. My final recipe omits it. It was too gooey!

Ready to get our bake on! Look how they rose. Using the steam bath in my cold oven worked like a charm, creating the best environment for these buns to rise. See the tips below.

Create the perfect proofing environment

Ok, so you’ve made this beautiful, soft, supple dough. And it’s cold and raining out and there is not one warm place in your house for your dough to rise. Now what? All the times I experimented with this recipe, San Diego was in the midsts of a rain storm that lasted on and off for a few weeks. We live in an early 1900s built 2-story Craftsman house with no central air. We bundle up rather than rely on the one old floor heater in the dining room for heat. I really didn’t think I’d be able to get the dough to rise properly. Then I did a little research and found a hack that could turn my oven into a proofing oven much like professional bakeries use, but totally low-tech.

You can do it too:

  • Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. 
  • Pour the water into a 13x9x2-inch baking pan or equivalent (I used my Pyrex lasagna pan). 
  • Place pan on the bottom floor of your oven. 
  • Place your dough in it’s oiled and towel covered bowl on the middle rack of your oven, close the door and pat yourself on the back. You just created a proofing oven. Trust me. It works like a dream!

OK, ready to give it a go and conquer YOUR fear of working with yeast? Let’s get baking!

Burnt Butter and Salted Maple Cinnamon Buns

Adapted from Donna Hay’s “Modern Baking”
Makes 12 buns

For the dough:

1 (4-ounce) packet of active dry yeast (or 2 ¼ teaspoons)
⅔ cup lukewarm whole milk
¼ cup maple syrup, divided
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 room temperature eggs, lightly beaten
4 ounces (or 5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, to grease the proofing bowl

For the filling:

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
¾ cup light brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons ground allspice
¼ cup ground cinnamon

For the glaze:

⅓ cup maple syrup
⅓ cup light brown sugar, packed
4 ounces (or 5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cubed

To finish:

black sea salt flakes, or flor de sal

Make the dough: Stir the yeast, milk and just 2 teaspoons of the maple syrup in a small bowl. Set the bowl in a warm place until the yeast is foamy, about five minutes. Attach the dough hook to a stand mixer. To the mixer's bowl, add the flour, salt, eggs, butter, remaining maple syrup and yeast and beat on low speed until the dough is smooth, about five minutes. Lightly grease the inside of a large bowl. Add the dough and cover with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Place in a warm spot to rise for 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in size. (Use that proofing oven hack! It’s great!)

Make the filling: Add the butter to a small nonstick pan and whisk continuously until melted. Then simmer until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, swirling the pan occasionally. Remove to a medium-sized bowl along with the sugar and spices, stirring to combine well. Set aside.

Roll out the dough: On a lightly floored surface, roll the dough out to a rectangle approximately 23 ½ inches long by 9 ½ inches wide. Spread the filling evenly across the surface, leaving ¼-inch free on one of the long ends. The other three ends you can take the filling to the edge. Starting from the long edge with filling to the edge, begin rolling the dough tightly. I found it easiest when starting the rolling process to work from the center out, guiding the dough into a tight, even roll. Slice the rolled dough in half. Then slice one of the pieces in half again. Slice each of these new halves into thirds. Repeat the process until you have 12 even slices. Lightly grease a quarter sheet rimmed baking pan (also called a brownie pan or jelly roll pan, approximately 9x13-inches). Evenly arrange the buns on the pan. Place the pan in a warm spot to rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

Bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the buns for 25-30 minutes or until the buns are just starting to turn golden brown (about 188 degrees Fahrenheit when a center bun is probed with an instant read thermometer).

Make the glaze and serve: Add the glaze ingredients to a small saucepan over low heat and stir until smooth and glossy. Pour the glaze over the buns. Sprinkle the buns with the black salt flakes or flor de sal, if using. Best served immediately. Let leftovers cool completely before covering tightly (I placed mine under the dome of my glass cake stand). Eat within 2 days, reheating in a toaster oven for a few minutes, if desired.

See? Fear of yeast? Gone. 

Until next time, friends … xo, ani