Welcome back to Spring Bake, our annual collection of delicious pastries, cakes, breads, and cookies-and tips for becoming a better home baker.
I've always had a soft spot for the honey buns that you so often find at bodegas or corner stores, which is why I decided to develop a recipe for honey buns that could shine front and center in any professional bakery's pastry case. Unlike their close cousin, the cinnamon roll, these honey buns don't just offer soft, ooey-gooey vibes. They're more complex in flavor, with deeply caramelized nooks and crannies, floral notes of honey, and the chew of a well-developed yeast bread.
This recipe might look tricky at first, but I promise that it's well within the grasp of most home bakers. A few tips, however, will help you to achieve the very best honey buns, with a flavor and texture that a cinnamon roll simply can't match.
The first step for these buns is making a tanghzong, which is quite easy. A staple of most milk bread recipes, tangzhong is a roux-a cooked mixture of flour and water-that's incorporated into the dough and helps to improve a bread's shelf life. After heating the flour and water in a saucepan, simply stir it until it takes on the consistency of a runny paste. Make sure to cool the tangzhong completely before mixing it into your dough.
Have you ever made a bread recipe, being extra careful to follow instructions from start to finish, only to end up with a dough that's nothing but a wet, sticky mess? In all likelihood it's not that you added too much water or didn't add enough flour. Instead, I believe many people undermix their doughs-in other words, they're not building the proper gluten structure necessary for good bread or pastries. I had been baking at home for years before I ever encountered a recipe that mentioned gluten development.
I will admit, this bun dough is very sticky, and it can definitely be a pain in the butt if you fail to mix it for what may seem like forever. (In reality, it should take somewhere around 20 to 25 minutes in the stand mixer.) Whatever you do, don't pile in tons of unnecessary flour, which will ultimately make your buns dense and dry instead of light and fluffy. When mixing, if you notice the dough is no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl and begins to gather into a mass around the hook, it's a good sign the gluten in your dough is close to becoming properly developed.
Putting a yeast dough into the fridge may seem strange if you're accustomed to only proofing dough at room temperature, but once you taste the flavor that develops in a cold-fermented dough, there's no turning back. When you chill your dough, you slow down the activity of the yeast's sugar binge, allowing it to produce the compounds that give good bread its delicious aroma and flavor. When dough is left out to proof and ferment at room temperature alone, the yeast feasts on the sugar in the dough rapidly, and after a few hours the yeast may become spent before much flavor has had a chance to develop.
All you need to do is plan ahead: Make your dough during your down time, refrigerate it, and shape your buns the following day.
Unlike cinnamon rolls, which are usually made from one giant log of dough that's sliced into rolls before baking, these honey buns are shaped individually, producing a contrast of textures in your baked bun. You'll roll each of them into domed, beehive-shaped buns, which exposes more of the dough to the high temperature of the oven and creates more caramelization on the surface of the buns.
Here are a few tips for shaping the buns:
My favorite part of this recipe is its complexity of flavor. In my opinion most pastries are cooked at too low of a temperature to give you a nutty, brown-buttery flavor profile. Some honey bun recipes make up for this by calling for deep-frying, and I'm definitely a fan of that move. But there's another way to achieve all the richness you would get from frying, without dealing with a big pot of oil: Brushing the buns in heavy cream and then baking them at 450º F creates deliciously caramelized edges and a deeply satisfying flavor.
The high oven temperature, coupled with the unique shape of this honey bun, create a flavor-texture combo that brings together the softness of a classic honey bun with the complexity we expect from dark, crusty loaves of bread. (On that note, make sure to check for a light brown crust on the bottom of your buns before deeming them done.)
There aren't many things that beat swinging by the corner bodega for a quick bite of my favorite childhood bun. The satisfaction (and amazing yeasty scent) of making these buns in the comfort of my own home, however, is definitely one of them.