About six years after I opened my first Flour bakery, we were featured on a popular Food Network show called Throwdown With Bobby Flay in which chef Bobby Flay challenged me and Flour in a competition to see who could make better sticky buns. (I’m proud to say we won.) Today we make about 220,000 sticky buns a year — that’s about 600 daily. When something is that popular, is there any reason to tweak or improve it? Well, in New England, we can’t help but get pretty excited about apple season every fall. I myself eat at least an apple a day (I have one in my bag now) and when the idea to switch out the pecans for apples came up, I couldn’t wait to try it. I love how the tart cider and the fresh spiced apples bring our sticky bun to a whole new level. These are insanely good and I have to admit that I actually love them better than the original.
Apple Cider Sticky Buns
Makes 8 buns
You will need at least 2 days to make these but I promise they’re worth the time.
½ recipe (21 ounces/600 grams) Master Brioche Dough (see accompanying recipe)
1 cup (240 grams) apple cider
¼ teaspoon grated orange zest
Big pinch of ground cloves
Big pinch of ground ginger
Big pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Big pinch of ground allspice
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into ½-inch pieces (about 2 1/3 cups)
1½ sticks (170 grams) unsalted butter
1½ cups (330 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar, divided
¼ cup (85 grams) honey
¼ cup (60 grams) heavy cream
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup (50 grams) superfine sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Mix the brioche dough and let it proof for 6 hours, or up to overnight, in the refrigerator.
In a small saucepan, heat the cider, orange zest, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice to just under a boil. Let the cider simmer for about 10 minutes, until it reduces to about ½ cup. Turn the heat off and add the apples to the reduced cider, then let cool to room temperature. Set a sieve over a bowl and drain the apples; set the apples and cider aside separately.
Place the butter in a medium saucepan and add 1¼ cups (275 grams) of the brown sugar. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar melts and starts to boil, about 3 minutes (it will look a bit like lava). Whisk in the cider, honey, cream, and salt until thoroughly combined. Remove the mixture from the heat and let cool to room temperature. (At this point, it can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.)
Generously flour the work surface. Remove the brioche dough from the fridge, unwrap it, and place it on the work surface. Roll out the dough into a 12-by-12-inch square. It will have the consistency of cold, damp Play-Doh and should be fairly easy to roll. In a small bowl, stir together the remaining ¼ cup (55 grams) brown sugar, superfine sugar, and cinnamon. Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the entire surface of the brioche dough square. Scatter the apples evenly on top of the cinnamon sugar.
Starting from the top of the square and working your way down, roll the brioche dough toward you like a jelly roll until the entire sheet is rolled up. Roll tightly so you have a nice round spiral. Trim off about ¼ inch from both ends of the roll to even it out.
Using a sharp chef’s knife, cut the roll crosswise into 8 equal pieces, each about 1½ inches wide. (Note: At this point the unbaked buns can be transferred to a baking sheet or flat plate and frozen, then transferred to a plastic freezer bag and kept frozen for up to a week. When you’re ready to bake the buns, place them on a flat plate, cover with plastic, and let them thaw in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours; then proceed as directed.)
Pour the apple cider mixture into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Place the buns in the pan, evenly spaced. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the buns proof at room temperature for about 2 hours, until the dough is puffy, pillowy, and soft, and the buns are touching.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the middle. Bake the buns for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the baking pan midway, until golden brown on the tops and sides; I lift a middle bun partway and give it a poke to make sure the dough is baked through. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 20 to 30 minutes.
Invert the buns one at a time onto a serving platter and spoon any extra goo left in the pan on top. Serve warm.
Sticky buns are best served right away, or within 4 hours of baking, but can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for a day. Warm them in a 300 degree oven for 6 to 8 minutes before serving.
Master Brioche Dough
Makes about 2½ pounds
1¾ cups (245 grams) all-purpose flour
2 cups (300 grams) high-gluten bread flour
1¼-ounce packet (7 grams) active dry yeast
1/3 cup (65 grams) sugar
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
4 large eggs (about 200 grams), at room temperature
2¼ sticks (255 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 10 to 12 pieces, at room temperature
In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment, combine the all-purpose flour, bread flour, yeast, sugar, salt, ½ cup (120 grams) cold water, and the eggs. Mix on low speed until the ingredients have come together, about 3 to 4 minutes. Scrape the bowl as necessary to make sure all the flour is incorporated into the wet ingredients. Mix on low for another 3 to 4 minutes once the dough has come together. It will be very stiff.
Add the butter to the dough piece by piece and continue mixing on low for about 10 minutes. The butter needs to mix completely into the dough, so stop the mixer occasionally to scrape the sides of the bowl and, if necessary, break up the dough with your hands to help the butter mix in.
Once the butter is completely incorporated, mix on medium for another 15 minutes, until the dough becomes sticky and soft and somewhat shiny. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and mix for about 1 minute — you should hear a slap-slap-slap sound as the dough hits the sides of the bowl. Test the dough by pulling at it — it should stretch a bit and have a little give. If it seems wet and loose and more like a batter than a dough, add a few tablespoons of either all-purpose or bread flour and mix until it comes together. If it breaks off into pieces when you pull at it, continue to mix it on medium for another 2 to 3 minutes, until it develops more strength and stretches when you grab it. When it’s ready you should be able to gather it all together and pick it up all as one piece.
Place the dough in a large bowl or plastic container and cover the top with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the dough to prevent a skin from forming. Let the dough proof in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or up to overnight, then it will be ready to use.
Sticky Bun Popcorn
Makes 16-18 cups
Our sticky buns are made with buttery, soft brioche dough and baked in a butter-cream-brown sugar-honey concoction that we call goo. I’m convinced you could pour this goo on pretty much anything and it would make it shine. This recipe tests my theory: We mix popcorn with toasted pecans and a light goo coating, then bake it all together to make it extra crispy and caramelized. Sharing a big bowl of this with my husband, Christopher, while watching TV is the best way I know to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
3 tablespoons (45 grams) vegetable oil (such as canola)
¾ cup (165 grams) unpopped popcorn kernels
2 cups (200 grams) pecan halves, toasted
¾ cup firmly packed (165 grams) light brown sugar
1½ sticks (170 grams) unsalted butter
¾ cup (255 grams) honey
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place racks in the center and bottom third. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.
In a very large pot with a lid, heat the oil over high heat until hot. Add the popcorn kernels, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium-high. Shake the pot every few seconds until you start to hear the popping. As soon as you hear it popping, shake the pot constantly. When the popping slows down to one pop every few seconds, turn off the heat but keep shaking. When you hear one pop every 5 or 6 seconds, remove the pot from the stove and dump the popcorn into a large bowl. Remove and discard any unpopped kernels. Add the pecan halves to the popcorn.
These next few steps go quickly, so be sure to have all the ingredients and equipment at hand. Return the pot to the stove and add the brown sugar and butter. Heat over high heat until the butter melts. The mixture will get foamy and start to color. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, for 3 minutes — the color will deepen a shade and it will smell rich and delicious. Add the honey and bring back to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon. (The caramel goo will bubble up and foam a bit from the reaction of the baking soda with the sugar.)
Drizzle the caramel goo over the popcorn-pecan mixture and toss to distribute well, until the popcorn is evenly colored. Spread on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheets and switching their positions midway through the baking time, until the nuts are deeply toasted and the popcorn smells fragrant.
Remove from the oven and let cool on the baking sheets on a wire rack. When the popcorn cools, it will be crunchy and crispy. Break the popcorn into bite-size clusters after it cools.
Sticky bun popcorn can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.