I think it's safe to say that autumn is creeping up slowly but surely. I know this because I'm sitting on my back porch in a sweatshirt as I write this and I'm remembering the drippy, rainy, chilly temps of this past Friday night and the wicked craving for warm soup it produced. As we all well know - I put up enough resistance to stop a jellybean from rolling across a tabletop when it comes to my cravings. As it happened, I had plenty of time to find a means to fill my empty belly since I had nearly two hours until show time at Frederick Cellars. Which reminds me, you are probably wondering who this strapping young man in the photo below is - so if his stunning good looks and schoolboyish charm are seeping through your screen as much as they are through mine, I won't keep you waiting any longer. That man is one Nick Castro who just so happens to be an incredibly talented musician in addition to his knack for creating giggle-worthy graphic art and photos that make me wish we could make the world monochrome for moments at a time. I've never met a person who can make a Bruce Springsteen song sound like the most delicious lullaby you've ever heard until his version of Hungry Heart floated through the room with honey-laden notes and then I'm suddenly feeling like a fallen chocolate soufflé from the toes up (which might've been the Sangria, but I'm fairly confident it was the music).
But before the music came the soup. I think most people are terrified to eat alone. We're afraid that other people will feel sorry for us, that they'll stare at that "poor (wo)man" who's eating by his/herself, and then we punish ourselves on top of it by eating as quick as we can just to get the heck out of there and end up with Grade A indigestion and heartburn. Let me tell you something: eating alone is bliss. It allows absolute concentration on the meal at hand without a distraction of side conversation and then I can think about what I'm eating instead of chewing and swallowing and forgetting. I suppose in a way this is quite selfish, but I think we should all treat ourselves to the very indulgent act of eating a full packet of whipped butter on each bite of bread because there's no one there to frown at us.
And so I hovered over a bowl of creamy tomato soup topped with crunchy, buttery croutons alongside a salad tossed with crispy apple slices and blue cheese (and about ten packets of whipped butter but who's counting?). I slipped a spoonful of tomato soup between my lips and let it coat the insides of my cheeks and the back of my throat before swallowing and deciding how I felt about it: delicious. If autumn is promising to be this quiet and calm, a season of quiet jazz music in the background against the gentle tinkering of dishes against bowls and soft slurping sounds of hazelnut coffee, then I'm ready for summer to end.
Ripping my baguette in half, I listened to the soft shattering sounds of the crust splintering across my plate and the gentle pop of the soft crumby inside when I remembered why I don't make my own bread: I'm terrified of yeast. I'm not exaggerating; you can find me cowering in the corner at the very mention of it. I certainly adore it enough, especially warm honey oat bread on winter mornings with lots of apple butter and lemon tea. I love the smell of it, the hominess of kneading out the dough, the way it makes the house smell and the immense satisfaction that comes with feeding myself the most basic of all foods. But I've had more flops than successes - at least without the aid of my handy bread machine, which sort of defeats the whole purpose of making bread on your own. But I felt suddenly inspired, to stop cowering behind Oster and roll my sleeves up, strap on the apron, and get down to business.
During the course of Nick's delicious show, the conversation started with me trying to convince Eli and Mike to sit still long enough for me to take their picture and ended with six people being invited to my house the next morning for brunch. As it happened, "brunch" lasted twelve hours and included a mid-afternoon snack and a dinner of parmesan chicken, burst tomatoes, roasted broccoli, crash hot potatoes and a late night dark chocolate pudding cake that Emily (of banana pudding fame) brought into existence just in time to curb our cravings. But before the chocolate pudding came Mike's guacamole, smooth and spicy and perfect in every way...but then again, Mike is smooth and spicy and perfect in every way so it was only appropriate that those avocados be turned into the same. So for twelve hours it was eat-eat-eat and then it's easy to remember why I love them so much.
As for me, I ripped open the yeast packets against my better judgment and vowed to make the sweet rolls I can't stop thinking about: caramel apple sticky buns, actually. I know, I know... the very words induce chills and tingles and other fever-like symptoms that can easily be cured by eating one or seven of these chubby sweet things. But nothing is too good for the company that was coming to breakfast, and I wasn't about to cop out on something potentially mind blowing just to save face in the event of another yeasty disaster.
So I mixed and kneaded and smacked the dough around with a rolling pin until it begged for mercy and finally complied to work with me or the beatings would continue. Now let me tell you, if you can avoid cursing lightly under your breath and work on your patience in the meantime, you'll find that a little warm milk, sugar, flour and yeast will come together to make a soft, pliable sweet dough that's perfect for filling with cinnamon sugar to make swirly little snails. But for the Breakfast Club, I thought it would be better to take that a step further and welcome autumn the proper way with sticky sweet caramel and tart green apples.
An easy-breezy caramel of brown sugar, a bit of dark corn syrup, salted butter and cream is poured into a buttered pan and topped with bits of crunchy tart apples before the sweet rolls are nestled right on top. Once in the oven, the rolls soak up the caramel like cinnamon sponges and the apples turn tender and sweet and delicious. Then you flip the whole pan upside down (and you all know how fond I am of flipping my food upside down) and endure the hot caramel that singes your fingertips because you couldn't bear to wait another moment to eat one.
These are incredibly indulgent and completely appropriate for the Breakfast Club (that's Zach, Colleen, Emily, Mark, Mike and those dear ones who were with us in spirit but heck - spirit doesn't get you a cinnamon roll). The dough is surprisingly easy to work with so if you have an irrational fear of yeast that sends you running for the hills at the very thought of it, you could start with this and I can nearly guarantee you success and happiness and wealth...or at least breakfast, I can promise you that much. So needless to say, we all groaned and rubbed our swollen bellies and laid around the living room praying it would start to digest in the very near future before returning to church on Sunday only to discover that we were all still stuffed to our gills. That is an amazing feeling. I love you all and I am so grateful for who you are.
Caramel Apple Cinnamon Rolls
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
4 cups flour
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
Scant 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Heaping 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 stick regular/salted butter
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon dark brown corn syrup
2 tablespoons cream
2 tablespoons apple brandy OR apple juice (optional)
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and finely diced.
To make the dough: heat milk, oil, and sugar until warm (do not boil.) Allow to cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle in yeast and 4 cups flour. Stir gently and cover with a tea towel, allowing it to rise for 1 hour. After 1 hour, add remaining flour and dry ingredients. Set aside.
To make the caramel topping: add 1 stick butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, cream, and optional apple brandy or apple juice. Allow to melt over low heat until totally combined. Allow to boil for a few seconds, then remove from heat. Set aside.
Roll the dough out into a large rectangle, it should be thin but not so thin that it threatens to rip. Pour on the melted butter, cinnamon and sugar. Roll into a long roll, tucking it under as you go and pinching the ends to seal it before slicing it into 1 inch slices.
To assemble: Grease 2 9-inch cake pans with butter or cooking spray. Divide the caramel evenly between the two pans and sprinkle half the diced apple over top the caramel in each pan and then arrange the sliced rolls over the caramel and apples. Allow to rise for 20 to 30 minutes and then bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, covered in foil for the first 25 minutes.
Invert on a cake pedestal or serving plate. Rolls will be very hot at first; allow to cool slightly before serving.