The secret to great buns has finally been demystified in the lighthearted (and uber-delicious) "The Book of Buns" by Jane Mason, the author of All You Knead Is Bread: Over 50 Recipes from Around the World to Bake & Share. Hint: it's not the gym. From page 9: "If you want firm buns, go to the gym. The joy of buns is the fluffy, soft squishiness of them." And the book's dedication: "To Enrique who loves my buns."
Containing over 50 recipes for various types of sweet and savory buns from (virtually) every corner of the globe, you'll be sure to make several tasty new discoveries that will make their way into your regular baking rotation. Not surprisingly, many of the recipes are European; hot cross buns, saffron buns, Chelsea buns and Lincolnshire plum buns from the UK, numerous sweet buns from Switzerland, Norway, Hungary, and Armenia, pirozhki and bublik from Eastern Europe, and plenty of crusty German rolls to round things out. Latin America is also well represented, with recipes from Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and El Salvador. The Middle East/ Africa offers numerous buns such as ka'ak (Syria), khubza bil ashab (Libya), khubz mahala and bun muska (Iran), khubz mbassis (Tunisia), meloui (Morocco), and shubbak el-habayeb (Iraq). You'll also find Montreal-style bagels and monkey bread from North America. There is truly something for everyone represented here!
Ingredients (both metric and volume) and instructions are very clearly laid out, and a helpful guide to ingredients, working with dough, and basic shaping and filling techniques will get you started on the right foot. Each recipe is illustrated with a photo of the finished bun, and many feature numbered step-by-step photos as well, which are tremendously helpful for the more involved recipes. All of these recipes freeze well and can be reheated quickly in the microwave or oven.
The first recipe I tried was the Lebanese sfoof, a beautiful yellow bun twisted into elegant rings and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. The addition of mahlab, anise seeds, and orange blossom water give these a delicate spice; due to the 30 minutes of hand kneading, they are moist and fluffy and go excellently with Turkish coffee.
The second recipe I tried was the bastounakia (literally "salt sticks,") a sourdough-ish Greek
breadstick made with plenty of chopped fresh rosemary. I also brushed mine with Amoretti Premium Organic Extra Virgin finishing Olive Oil Infused with the Natural Flavor & Aroma of Kalamata Olives - 500ml Bottle and Cornish sea salt that took these over the top. These would pair well with any salad or soup.
The third recipe I tried as the dolce Milanese, a sweet layered bun filled with a pound of raisins (I threw together the remnants of my dried fruit, so mine was a mix of currants, golden raisins, and regular raisins). I should have done a better job draining the raisins (including patting them off with paper towels), because I found the dough unpleasantly wet to work with during the several rounds of folding in the fruit. However, the final bread was moist and flaky (if a little heavy from all the fruit!) and froze well.
I also made several of the Asian-inspired recipes including the coconut buns from China (you will also find several variations on Chinese steamed dumplings) and Japanese anpan. Having lived in Japan, I am addicted to anpan and other sweet buns (red beans, green tea, and red bean paste are frequent ingredients in Japanese pastry), and enjoyed making my own at home. I have bookmarked numerous other recipes to try, including the amazing Bulgarian layered cheese bread tootmanik s gotovo testo, masala buns from India, Moroccan krachel, and South African chocolate sticks.
Some general observations: I baked all my buns on a Silpat, and I turned down the heat quite a bit from what was recommended (I tend to bake most of my breads at 350, and perhaps a few minutes at 375 to brown; many of the buns here call for temps as high as 400-425). Also, the author tends to use a lot of salt; I am sensitive to salt, so I cut the recommended amount in half. The bastounakia calls for 2 - 2.5 tsp. for only 16 breadsticks, for example. There is no salt in the dough for this particular recipe, so I went with a light hand when sprinkling the breadsticks. You can also use sourdough in place of yeast; the author gives detailed recommendations for substituting rye- and wheat-based starters for the yeast.
One great bonus is the fact that you will develop the arms of a stevedore after hand-kneading all these doughs; I'm a firm believer in hand-kneading over a stand mixer as it gives you a much better "feel" for when the dough is ready. It is also a great workout for your arms!
Overall, "The Book of Buns" is a great way to try out sweet and savory bread recipes from around the world in a portable (and freezable!) format. There is plenty of variety to keep you baking happily for many weeks / months to come; if you try one bun recipe a week, you can pretty much get a year's worth of bakes! The clear lists of ingredients, instructions, and directions (and the helpful step-by-step photos) make this approachable by any level of baker, and there are very little specialty flours / ingredients required (with the exception of mahlab and orange blossom water), so you should be able to locate ingredients at your local supermarket. I strongly suggest purchasing a Silpat if you do not already own own; it has revolutionized my bread baking and makes cleanup a snap, plus it is reusable for hundreds of uses.
Good luck and happy baking!
(Review copy courtesy of Ryland Peters and Small)