Our second May recipe for Tuesdays with Dorie is one with which I am very familiar. Growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, sticky buns were an almost ubiquitous morning treat. After leaving PA Dutch country, I tried so-called sticky buns literally from coast to coast. None of them could hold a candle to any that I had growing up. And of the sticky buns in Lancaster County, none could compare to the ones made by Melinda Fisher.
I was close friends with the Fisher boys growing up — John, Jake, and David — and was lucky enough to spend many nights at their house. Dan and Melinda grew up Amish, and although they no longer lived on a farm, they still breakfasted like farmers. So breakfast at their house was always a treat. But never more so than when Melinda made sticky buns.
I’m not sure what made her sticky buns so much better than all others. Dan raised bees, so she naturally used honey in her recipe. But it was more than that. And I wish I had her recipe. They were, as the Dutch would say, am beschde (the best).
So, when Dorie claims that Nancy Silverton’s recipe is the ne plus ultra of sticky buns, she has a high bar to clear in my book. This, then, is a battle of superlatives: the ne plus ultra versus am beschde. And as much as I love Melinda’s sticky buns, I was pulling for Nancy’s recipe to come out on top. After all, I have her recipe available to me in my copy of Baking with Julia.
Nancy Silverton’s sticky buns recipe begins with a batch of her brioche dough. I made the dough the day before baking the sticky buns, and because it is a completely separate recipe, I gave it its own blog post.
The first step in making the sticky buns (once you’ve made your brioche dough) is laminating the dough. No, this doesn’t mean putting through a machine to encase it in plastic. In this context, laminating refers to folding (or turning) layers of butter into the dough. To do this, I divided the dough in half, and rolled one piece out to a large rectangle. Then I spread softened butter over the dough.
When I made the brioche dough, I found it much easier to work with the butter if I spread it with an offset spatula. So even though the sticky buns recipe said to dot the dough with butter, I used my spatula to spread it evenly over the entire surface of the dough. I folded the dough in thirds. letter-style, then rolled it out to roughly the same size it had been before. I folded the dough again, then wrapped it and put it in the fridge while I worked with the other half.
When the dough was chilled, I rolled one piece out again, then brushed it with an egg wash and sprinkled it with cinnamon-sugar and chopped pecans. The recipe said to roll the pecans and sugar mixture into the dough with a rolling pin, which just sounded like a mess waiting to happen. So I covered the dough with wax paper before rolling it. That kept my rolling pin clean and ready for the other half of the dough.
I rolled the dough into a tight log, which I then wrapped in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for about an hour.
This recipe makes 14 sticky buns, but as there are only four of us, I decided I didn’t want to make all the buns at once. After the initial chill, I double-wrapped one log and put it in the freezer for another day.
One of the unique things about sticky buns is that they are baked upside down and inverted onto a plate as soon as they come out of the oven. The “sticky” is a caramel sauce in the bottom of the pan that, when inverted, covers the tops of the buns and oozes down the sides, covering the entire sticky bun with ooey-gooey goodness.
Most recipes for sticky buns that I’ve seen use a caramel sauce that is cooked and then poured into the bottom of the pan. This recipe, however, makes the caramel sauce directly in the pan while the buns are baking. To do this, you use your fingers to smear a stick of butter on the bottom of the pan (at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I found this much easier to do with an offset spatula).
Then you top the butter with brown sugar.
In my final major departure from the recipe, I arranged pecans on top of the brown sugar. The recipe says to press the pecans into the top of the buns, then try to hold them in place while you invert the buns into the pan. Why not just put the pecans in the pan to begin with?
To form the buns, I cut the dough into even-sized pieces (yes, I measured them).
I flattened each roll slightly, then arranged them in the pan.
Looking at the formed rolls, I saw the results of laminating the dough.
I set the rolls aside to rise, which I knew would take a few hours, as the dough was still quite cold. After about two hours, the rolls had risen and were touching, so it was time to bake them.
I baked the sticky buns at 350°F for about 40 minutes, until they were well-risen and golden brown.
As soon as they came out of the oven, I inverted the sticky buns onto a plate.
They were beautifully layered, and the caramel flowed over and around them as if on cue. I waited for the buns to cool a bit (no sense scorching myself with hot caramel after all that work), then dug into them.
The sticky buns were rich, buttery, and pull-apart flaky. The caramel was sweet and creamy, and the pecans gave the buns a nice crunch. As far as the flavor goes, both the buns and caramel were a bit flat and tasted like they needed some salt. And the buns overall were just so-so. Better than many I have eaten around the country. But not as good as the ones I used to get in PA. And nothing like Melinda Fisher’s.
I had such high hopes for these sticky buns, especially since they used an insane amount of butter and were two days in the making. Unfortunately, they didn’t live up to the hype. And while I will continue to search for a sticky buns recipe that can live up to the ones made by Melinda Fisher, I definitely won’t be making this recipe again.