When I invited my friend Erika to help me make caramel buns, she was very excited. It seems she had a dream that I never knew about, which was to become an expert in making sticky buns, so that people would talk about Erika's Fabulous Caramel Rolls. That was before she found out how much work was involved.
When Erika arrived around 9:00 a.m., the dough was ready to start rolling out after resting in t he refrigerator all night. She said, "Oh, you've already made the dough! Won't I ever get a chance to make bread?" I asked her if she wanted to plan a sleepover, but she changed the subject.
She volunteered to roll out the dough.
"This dough is awfully sticky," she complained. "How can you 'lightly flour the counter' when it still sticks?" she asked rhetorically. "Was it hard to make?" "No," I said. "Yes," Jim said. I looked at him. "Well," he said, "It's true. You were up all night with that dough." "Only if you consider 10:30 all night." "Stop squabbling, you two," said Referee Erika.
Erika was distressed that her rectangle was only vaguely rectangular. "Don't worry," I assured her, "No one will ever know." (Unless they look at this picture. Hee hee.)
Erika was very impressed with my large selection of sugars, none of which was light brown Muscovado. I had dark Muscovado, light Demerara, golden caster, superfine, and regular light brown and dark brown sugars. The dark brown was pretty solid, but I softened it up in the microwave and it was fine. Erika was also impressed that I knew a remedy for softening brown sugar; she said she always just throws hers away. I'm happy when Erika is impressed, because, although in theory she's learning from me, she usually tells me that I'm not reading the directions clearly or points out some shortcoming. To be fair, she doesn't have to search that hard for a shortcoming.
I used currants instead of raisins because my selection of dried grapes was limited to golden raisins and currants. I'm so glad I chose the currants. They were fabulous once they were plumped in rum, and they're so small that there was a rum-raisin flavor in every bite, whereas raisins would be more dominant in bites they were in. Erika said the rummy currants reminded her of Haroset.
After we got the dough rectangle filled and rolled up, it was easy to shape in in more or less the correct size.
I appreciated the advice about the dental wax, but everything I could find in my medicine cabinet was mint-flavored. The serrated bread knife worked fine.
Here is one pan of rolls after they rose in my proofing box. I obviously didn't have a Ball jar. (But at least I know what it is, in part because I grew up in Indiana, home of Ball State University, or Ball State, which was a "normal school" purchased by the Ball Brothers after Indiana Normal went out of business. We thought it was hysterical to say Ball State. I wonder if they tied up the diplomas and put them in a Ball jar. If they didn't, they should start doing it right now.) The only problem with the little ramekins is that they were hard to remove. Erika suggested using thongs. "I mean tongs," she said. Of course, we also thought that was very funny. Ball State and thongs--that is the unfortunate level of my humor some days.
And now I'd yelled at Erika a second time. I never yell at her in real life. So when she asked to taste the caramel, I didn't tell her to wait until it was on the roll. I said, "Absolutely."
Erika is placing the four pecan halves on the buns after I'd covered them with a little caramel. "You know," she said, "decorators hate even numbers. They always have odd numbers. I think we should either have 3 or 5 pecan halves on each roll." I told her 3 wasn't enough and I hadn't toasted enough for 5. But I didn't yell.
At last! We all had one and all loved them. The roll itself was soft and tender, and imbued with the tastes of brown sugar, rum raisins, and chopped nuts: lots of flavor, lots of texture. The caramel was first-rate--dark, but not burned, soft and sticky, not gummy or too hard to chew. I asked for Erika's verdict. "They're really, really good, but I don't think I'd ever spend this much time making a dozens buns when I could buy some really good ones at a bakery. And you can buy perfectly good caramel sauce at Whole Foods. I guess I don't quite get why it's worth it."
That's not a question that has a rational answer. Why is it worth it to knit a sweater when you can buy a beautiful sweater? To me, that's answered easily with "it's not," because I don't like knitting. But I like baking. I like the smells, the touch, the transformations, and the precision. I get into a zen-like state that's calming and comforting. Even when things go wrong, I don't get completely out of that state. And there are days when I'd rather just go to a bakery and pick up something wonderful. But I'm so glad that I now have a recipe for perfect caramel rolls that I can make at a moment's notice (actually, with a day's notice if you insist on getting picky.)