Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Big Sur Bakery House-made Buns

Anticipation is a funny thing.  You can spend a lot of time and energy waiting for a certain something to happen- thinking about it, wondering what it will be like, getting excited about the experience, worrying about what may happen.  Sometimes the event you're anticipating instills fear in you and when it's over, you find that all of the worry and dread were far worse than the thing itself actually was.  Kind of like the first day at a new school.  Then there's a night like New Year's Eve- we get all excited about how much fun we'll have and how great the party will be and then we're exhausted and want to go home by 10:30 (at least, that's how I always feel).  In the end, there's nothing but disappointment.  It's the rare occasion, I find, when your experience actually matches the expectation, even rarer still when it exceeds those expectations.

This is one of those rare occasions.  Years ago, I checked a cookbook out of my local library hoping to find a recipe or two in it that I might like.  But mostly hoping for a good read.  It's one of my favorite things to do- pour through cookbooks reading about the author's intention behind the recipes.  I find the personal stories fascinating and the motivation for creating the food described within those books often more interesting than the recipes themselves.  In this case, the cookbook was The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.  I had never heard of the restaurant, I just thought it seemed like an interesting read and honestly, it was one of the few cookbooks in that small library that I hadn't read yet.
By the time I reached the back cover, I had fallen in love with a place I had never been to.  The setting seemed magical: a little bakery tucked into a damp hillside on a lonely stretch of road along the rocky coast.  And I loved the stories of how the bakery started from humble beginnings and of the tradition of Thanksgiving dinners for the locals.  And darn it if every single one of those recipes didn't sound fabulous to me.  I promised myself that someday I would go there and try it for myself.

That day came this past fall.  On our trip up the California coast at Thanksgiving, we purposefully drove through Big Sur to view the spectacular scenery.  I made sure that my intention to stop at the Big Sur Bakery was known to my husband and thankfully we made a plan to stop for lunch.  Here's where the anticipation comes to play.  Because, really, what did I know about this place?  All I had to go on were my instincts, a few stories in a cookbook, and the reviews on my Urbanspoon app.  It's not a whole lot to go by and I hoped and prayed that I wouldn't be let down. 
Thank goodness this was one of the exceptions to the anticipation rule.  Everyone loved their food (my oldest was over the moon at the size of the meatball slices on his pizza!).  As for me, I was truly happy that I was able to enjoy the tiny bakery tucked behind a gas station on a rainy Sunday afternoon with my family.  We scrambled through the rain to find a warm and welcoming place filled with the smells of freshly baked bread and brewing coffee.  Heaven on Earth to me.  I have to confess that the best part of the experience was the bun that my lunch came on- I honestly don't even remember what was in the sandwich, the bun was that good.  It fell somewhere between a brioche and challah, but with a lightness that was perfect. 

Two months later (while cleaning out my pantry) I found a sheet of paper on which I had written out the recipe for the "house-made buns" taken from that cook book all those years ago.  Some things are just meant to be.
Big Sur Bakery House-made Buns
Makes 8 buns.  Recipe from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant.
For a printable recipe, click here.

These buns are the perfect place to sandwich a burger or some grilled steak or chicken.  They have a bit of substance to them so they stand up to the meat and the juices, but no so much that you can't get your mouth around the sandwich.  When I made them at home I grilled a skirt steak and topped it with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and a pesto mayonnaise.  My only compliant is that my poppy seeds didn't stick.  Perhaps an egg wash would have been more useful than the butter I used to brush over the buns.  If you try it, will you let me know?

1 cup plus 2 tbs milk
1 1/2 tbs yeast
2 tbs butter, room temperature
3 1/4 cup flour
2 1/2 tbs sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 large egg

1 tbs poppy or sesame seeds for the tops (optional)
1 tbs melted butter

Place the milk in a small saucepan and heat until lukewarm.  Do not boil the milk, you're just getting it warm enough to help bring the yeast back to life, so barely warm to the tough is what you're aiming for.  Add the yeast to the warm milk, stir and set aside for 5 minutes.

In a mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the milk and yeast mixture with half of the flour and mix on low speed.  Add the softened butter, egg, salt and sugar one at a time and mix until well incorporated.  Slowly add the remaining flour while mixing on low speed.  You may need up to 1/4 cup additional flour to get all of the ingredients to come together.  You are looking for a soft, smooth dough that is not sticky.  Raise the speed of the mixer to medium and knead the dough for two minutes.  Raise the speed up to medium high and mix for another 2 minutes.

Transfer the dough to a buttered bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm spot on the counter for 45 minutes-1 hour, or until doubled in volume.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide it into 8 equal pieces and gently roll each piece into a ball about 3 1/2 to 4 inches in diameter.  Place the buns onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let the buns rise until nearly doubled in size, 30-45 minutes.

Brush the risen buns with the melted butter and, if using, sprinkle with the poppy or sesame seeds.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are golden brown.  Cool on a wire rack.  You can keep the buns in an airtight container for a day or two, but they don't stay fresh for too long.  You can also freeze them, wrapped well, for up to three months.  Any leftovers make lovely french toast or croutons.

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