It took much negotiation within my family to share this recipe with you, and I repeatedly went over the details with my mother. Because what’s below isn’t just a list of ingredients and directions. I am sharing the essence of happiness, the taste of love. You see, this is the recipe for my grandmother’s buns. But even calling her “my grandmother” implies some sense of formality that was never there. Sure, my grandmother had a name. It was Dena. But Dena reveled in being a grandmother and she met all the storybook requirements: she had the short stature, the fluffy white hair, the knitting/baking/cooking/card playing expertise, a garden of fresh veggies for chicken soup and fruit trees for making pies and jam, a deep understanding of ritual (i.e., a trip to the five-and-dime toy store on every grandchild’s visit) and the ability to tell fascinating stories of the olden days as we sat around the kitchen table. Pretty much everyone –adults, kids, neighbors – called her Nanny. It made sense. She looked after all of us.
The recipe here, known as Nannybuns to all who eat them, capture everything that is wonderful about comfort food: they have a touch of sweetness, a fluffiness, a magical deliciousness that immediately brings a sense of well-being to the eater. And comfort food is all about feeling good.
Certainly that’s what I wanted from my novel Comfort Food: a lighthearted, upbeat story that looks at family, friendship, and the food that brings us all together. My goal is to make you laugh a little, smile a little, and just enjoy a bit of an escape. When I write stories, I essentially aim to do what Nanny did in her kitchen: To create a fun world where you can put your cares at the door. Getting to know Augusta “Gus” Simpson, the main character in Comfort Food, was a joy for me: Gus is the host of a cooking show – I always feel so good watching food television! – who has focused much of her life on being a nurturer of others. She’s that little bit too perfect, if you know what I mean. But it’s really how she copes with all the stress of her life. And, in the story of Comfort Food, Gus finds herself on a journey of personal discovery and redefinition, spurred on by the arrival of her milestone fiftieth birthday, two twentysomething daughters who keep insisting they’re all grown up, and an ambitious colleague who unexpectedly challenges Gus’s assumptions about her approach to career and self-fulfillment. And throughout Comfort Food, which is set against the backdrop of a reality-television-style live cooking show called Eat Drink and Be, is a celebration of food, of tastes new and familiar, of dishes that that make our mouths happy and our hearts full. At one point, Gus reveals that her favorite comfort food (just like mine!) is her grandmother’s homemade buns, something she’ll never be able to recreate exactly. But a recipe and sweet memories still taste mighty good indeed. And so I give you the never-before-been-shared-outside-the-family Nannybuns. Enjoy!
Nanny Buns (Homemade Buns)
My grandmother’s recipe as explained by my mother.
For the yeast proofing:
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water (100-115°F – if the water is too hot it will kill the yeast)
1 packet dry yeast
For the buns:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup shortening or unsalted butter
5 cups warm water
8-10 cups all purpose white flour (or a mixture of 1:3 wheat to white flour)
1/3 cup canola oil
For the glaze:
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1. To proof the yeast: Whisk sugar and water together in a bowl, then sprinkle yeast over the mixture. Stir to combine. Allow mixture to sit for approximately 7 minutes until frothy.
2. To make the buns: In a large bowl of an electric mixer with beaters, cream sugar and shortening or butter together, on medium speed. Add eggs and mix until incorporated.Remove beaters and place dough hook on mixer. Add 2 cups of the warm water and 2 cups of the flour, and mix until thoroughly combined. Add proofed yeast and mix thoroughly.
3. Add one cup flour and one cup water, and mix at medium speed. Add another cup of flour and one cup of water, mixing again at medium. Add a third cup of flour and cup of water and mix. You will use up all the water but should have flour left over.The dough is ready if it goes around in a circle around the dough hook – it should be fairly stiff and thick but not dry. If it does not circle around the dough hook, then add more flour.
4. Place approximately 1 cup of flour in bottom of large bowl. (You’ll need a big bowl because the dough will double in size). Place dough in the bowl and add 1/2 cup of flour on top of the dough. Knead the dough, adding more flour if necessary so that you can knead without all the dough sticking to your hands. Keep kneading until all flour is incorporated. Form the dough into a ball (it will be slightly sticky).Wash your hands, coat them with a little oil, and oil the ball of dough so that it doesn’t stick to the sides of bowl as it rises.
5. Place the bowl with the oiled ball in an unheated oven (but you can leave the light on). Make sure there are no drafts in the room (because drafts will make the ball collapse.) Let dough sit until it doubles in size, approximately one hour to one hour and twenty minutes.
6. Grease several cookie sheets or 9×13 pans. Remove dough and punch down for a few minutes until all the air is popped out and the dough returns to its original size (knead in a little more flour if the ball is too sticky).Place canola oil in a soup bowl. Shape dough into tennis ball-sized buns and dip into a little oil. Arrange balls on cookie sheets approximately three across and four lengthwise; about a dozen on a full-size cookie sheet. (If you want to make soft-sided buns, let the balls touch in a 9×13 pan.) Place sheets or pans in unheated oven and allow to rise for an hour to an hour and twenty minutes. Remove dough from oven, again making sure there are no drafts in the kitchen.
7. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake for 20 minutes, or until buns are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.
8. For the glaze: Mix heavy cream with sugar. Lightly brush mixture on top of the warm buns to give them a nice shine and a little sweetness!
Yield: 2 dozen buns