I’m not a baker.
At least that’s what I keep telling my clients. As a personal chef, I get asked to make a lot of baked goods. The problem is, I’m more of a “this and that” chef. I prefer to make my culinary masterpieces by throwing in whatever strikes my fancy.
There’s just something intuitive about it: I don’t know why I started to put cumin and lime zest in my black bean hummus. It just makes sense in my head. And don’t try to get me to write down the recipe — I just know how it should taste, and I keep adding ingredients until I get it there.
Needless to say, these are not good habits in my line of work. And they are anathema to baking, which requires precision. Baking is the ultimate paint-by-numbers approach to cooking. You paint the sky blue (or use this amount of that ingredient) because it is a necessary component to the finished work.
Don’t tell me what to do, stupid recipe!
So when the request comes in for a galette, cake or cookie, I’ll admit I get a little nervous. I trust me in the kitchen, but can I really trust a recipe? It’s not like I can say no, which means I’ve begun to bake almost weekly.
Now, about eight months after embarking on this new career track, I’ve made every kind of muffin imaginable (with every kind of flour on the face of the planet for a most awesome, and, sadly, gluten-intolerant client), ganache-filled cupcakes, crumbles, tortes, cookies and cakes … including Marie Helene’s Apple Cake from Dorie Greenspan (thank you to Cori for making that at our last dinner get-together — I am smitten!)
The funny thing is, I’ve discovered as I’ve gained baking confidence that I can actually change the color I paint with when the mood strikes … adding or changing recipe ingredients without screwing anything up. For example, I’ve tweaked that gluten-free client’s new favorite flour-free oatmeal muffin by adding brown sugar and ginger. And I’ve added zucchini to the Ritz Carlton’s famous Lemon Cake.
And then there were the sweet potato cinnamon rolls I discovered on Half Baked Harvest. I was looking for something that would tide the family over Thanksgiving morning before the main event scheduled for later in the day. I made some changes there, too, with resounding success, adding ginger — which is apparently a theme with me — to the filling. My stepmom said they were the best cinnamon rolls she’s ever had, and she’s kind of an expert on baked goods.
I’d have thought she was just being nice — holidays and all — but when I was chatting up another client about that delectable Dorie Greenspan cake I made for her family recently, she had a similar reaction. When I told her I wasn’t much of a baker, she looked at me and laughed.
“You could have fooled me,” she said.
Sweet Potato Pie Cinnamon Rolls
Inspired by Half Baked Harvest. Don’t forget to roast your sweet potato in advance. I made a big batch for another favorite, Sweet Potato Corn Cakes. Simply coat the sweet potato lightly with coconut oil, seal in aluminum foil and roast in oven until soft. Allow to cool, remove from foil. You can also use canned sweet potato puree, but, well, I am a from-scratch sort of girl.
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 cup sweet potato, roasted and mashed
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (up to 1/2 cup more if needed)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, for brushing tops before baking
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped (for topping)
3/4 cup salted butter (1 1/2 sticks), very soft
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger
2 eggs whites
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ginger
pinch of salt
Let’s start by making the dough. Mix yeast and sugar in your stand mixer or a small bowl. Add warm water (not too hot!) and stir gently. Allow to sit until yeast has doubled and appears slightly puffy or foamy on top, about 10 minutes.
While the yeast activates, brown the butter in a small saucepan. Cut into chunks and melt over low heat. Once melted, you can raise the temperature to medium (or medium-high, if you are more experienced), swirling constantly. It will go from opaque, to foamy in about five minutes. Once the butter clears, watch the solids in the bottom of the pan closely. They’ll start to brown and smell slightly nutty. Once this happens, remove it from the heat immediately and transfer to a small, glass bowl and allow to cool for a few minutes.
Add the browned butter, warm milk, sweet potato puree and egg. Stir to combine, then add the flour, nutmeg and salt. Attach the dough hook, or use hands, then knead until the dough is smooth and forms a ball, about 5 minutes. Coat glass bowl with coconut oil, transfer dough and cover with plastic wrap. Place in a warm area and allow to rise for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.
Now, let’s work on the filling. Place softened, salted butter into a bowl and add the sugars, cinnamon and ginger. Mix well. Yes, this part was really that easy — don’t let it go to your head! The meringue is a pain.
Generously grease a 9×13 inch baking dish with butter. You can use a smaller pan, but it is so much smarter to make more, smaller buns in this larger pan. I made the mistake of using a 9-inch square pan and they pretty much spilled over to the bottom of the stove. It was a mess. Not my idea of a good time on Thanksgiving morning with the turkey waiting in line.
Lightly dust a clean surface with flour. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 9×24 inches. Spread the filling evenly over the surface. Working from the long edge, carefully roll the dough into a log, keeping it fairly tight as you go. When you reach the edge, pinch along the edge to seal.
Here comes the super fun part: Place dental floss under the roll where you want to cut (about 3/4 to 1 inch thick for about 10-12 rolls, about 1 1/2 inch for about 6-8 rolls). Take the ends of the floss in each hand and scoot under the roll. Pull them together in one motion over the top and through the roll to slice. Using a knife will crimp the edges together too much. Place the rolls in the prepared pan. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Just before baking, brush the tops of rolls with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Now comes the tricky part … making the frosting.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In the bowl of your stand mixer, or using beaters, whisk the egg whites and sugar together. You can also do this by hand in a glass bowl if you want big, big muscles. Place the bowl over the pot of boiling water and cook, stirring often, until the egg whites are warm to the touch and the sugar has dissolved. Remove the bowl from the heat. Whip the egg whites on high until stiff peaks form. Allow to cool slightly before the next step (which made me want to cry.)
Once cool, add the butter, vanilla and salt. Beat until combined and fluffy, making sure not to overbeat. When I did this on my first try, my meringue broke, which means a watery, coagulated mess that looks nothing like frosting. I used it anyway, and it still tasted amazing. Hopefully yours — and my next attempt — will turn out better.
Spread the frosting on warm rolls, sprinkle with toasted pecans and enjoy. You won’t be able to help yourselves when it comes to that last part: These are so yummy!