For the past 20 years or so I’ve spent my Christmas morning with Julia Child and David Sedaris. Julia and I started spending a lot of time together after I bought her Baking With Julia cookbook in the late 90s and discovered her amazing recipe for Pecan Sticky Buns. These are a three day affair that she calls the “ne plus ultra of sticky bundom.” I’m not sure if sticky bundom is an actual place or just a state of mind but these gooey caramel treats are worth every second of work and worry that goes into them. This year, I was missing my old next door neighbors Sara and Michael Baxter. We spent so many great holidays together and I often baked them a set of sticky buns on Christmas morning. It’s 2020 so we phoned it in this year via Zoom.
I’m not exaggerating one bit about the three day prep time. The brioche dough that you start with is easy to make but takes several long rise periods and it just can’t be rushed. We had our first Zoom baking session on Wednesday afternoon to start the magic together. It begins with a yeast sponge that is gently brought alive with warm milk. The dough making is the most stressful part for me. It requires a professional heavy duty mixer and no less than 20 minutes of medium to high mixing. I worry about how hot the mixer gets and spend the entire time dancing around the countertop to make sure the mixer doesn’t vibrate itself off the counter. Then comes the butter. Lots and lots of butter. This is the kind of recipe that you really don’t want to make yourself because you just can’t forget the fact that you crammed 5 sticks of butter into these innocent looking breakfast rolls.
The dough rises overnight and you have some down time to plan the next step. The Baxters dialed in the next day for the best part – log rolling day. The dough comes out of the refrigerator a little bigger than what you started with and it is pliable and fun to work with on a lightly floured surface. This is the only recipe that I use that requires a tape measure. We carefully rolled out our dough in 11 x 13 rectangles. They were a little jagged on the ends but it is fun to roll it out carefully. After incorporating a few more sticks of butter, we brushed the dough gently with egg and sprinkled it with crushed pecans, sugar and cinnamon. After rolling it into logs, we placed them in the freezer for another overnight resting session.
It’s Christmas morning and we are up at 4:30 to pull the logs out of the freezer and line the pan with more butter and sugar. Here is where David Sadaris joins the party. I put on his recording of Santaland Diaries and laugh at his sardonic tale of working as an elf at Macy’s Santaland. His stories of dealing with demanding New Yorkers as one of Santa’s helpers is even funnier to me now that I live here. I especially love his descriptions of all of the different long lines at Santaland. There are lines for everything in New York and you just have to accept it. Lines for the bagel shop, the hardware store and the post office routinely snake outside and around the building. I think that is why so many New Yorkers get everything delivered to their apartments. I don’t mind the lines actually. It’s fresh air and good chance to people watch. Plus, I am getting over 30,000 steps a day moving from line to line. This is especially important when you bake with five sticks of butter.
The final step for the sticky buns is actually quite dangerous. After baking for 40 minutes, they turn golden brown and are sitting in a lava hot mix of butter and sugar. The trick is to flip them over onto a plate without burning yourself or dumping them on the floor. It takes a swift decisive move – any hesitation and you are covered in hot caramel. I warned Sara and Michael about the plate trick and they did a beautiful job. Their sticky buns looked like the ones featured in the cookbook. Well done Baxters! Well – mostly Sara. Michael was up with her at the crack of dawn on Christmas so he deserves the credit. Bryan stayed in bed but was up just in time for the buns to come out of the oven. Well played Bryan!
It’s been tough spending this first holiday away from our friends and family but sticking to this tradition really helped. I sat peacefully this morning with Bryan in our new apartment and savored the warm caramel and sugary center of these beautiful treats. Santaland cheered me up while I baked and it was great to spend time with Sara and Michael over Zoom. Next year we will be able to bake and laugh together but in the meantime we have all of this. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.