When it comes to the kitchen, there's nothing better than being armed with some basics -- knowing how to roast a chicken (crispy skin, juicy meat) and to whip up a savory vegetable soup, or toss together a fresh salad just lightly kissed with tangy vinaigrette -- for throw-together dinners or simple weeknight dining. And when it comes to breakfast or brunch or after-school snacks, a good, sticky sweet roll -- a soft yeast-risen bun -- laced with vanilla or cinnamon makes people swoon with nostalgia (or gluttony).
When I first moved to Anchorage, I searched for good coffee like a heat-seeking missile and quickly found my target -- SteamDot Café, a perfect spot to watch the roasters in action between errands and meetings. I soon discovered plump, sweet rolls, flecked with vanilla bean and drizzled with lemon sugar, and wasn't surprised to find out that they were baked lovingly by a fellow Southerner who, like me, had recently moved to Alaska for love.
Anna bakes everything from maple-bacon biscuits to dark chocolate cherry scones, and she generously shared her recipe with me.
"Whenever my mom made sweet rolls for me," she told me, "I always felt like a million bucks. Not only is this recipe foolproof and no-knead, but it only messes up one pot, and the result is a delicate balance of airy dough and tart deliciousness."
I invited Anna into my kitchen, where she showed me how to make her rolls, based on a dough recipe by Ree Drummond for cinnamon rolls. For a light, tart spring treat, we added fresh lemon juice and zest and raspberries, but experiment with your favorite flavors. I've made these before with a lemon-cream cheese glaze, with orange zest and ginger, and in the fall, an apple cider glaze.
Lemon-raspberry sweet rolls
1 quart whole milk
3/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 1/2 cups vanilla sugar*, divided
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
9 1/2 cups unbleached white flour, preferably Bob's Red Mill
1 teaspoon homemade baking powder (2 parts cream of tartar and 1 part baking soda)
2 teaspoons fine salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
Zest of 1 lemon (plus more for glaze)
3 pints fresh raspberries
*To make vanilla sugar, scrape 1 to 2 large vanilla beans into sugar and mix to combine.
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 (2-pound) bag powdered sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
Prepare 1 large sheet pan (approximately 12 by 17 inches) with parchment. Butter the top of the parchment and sprinkle with sugar (this helps create a crunchy, caramelized bottom); set aside. Combine milk, oil and 1 cup vanilla sugar in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir to combine. Heat until steam starts to rise from the surface and starts to foam on top, being careful not to boil (about eight to 10 minutes). Remove pot from heat. Let cool for about 45 minutes or until mixture reduces to 110 degrees. Sprinkle yeast over mixture and let sit for a few minutes or until it begins to froth.
Add 8 1/2 cups of flour to the pot. Stir, using a wooden spoon, to combine. The dough will be sticky. Cover with lid or plastic wrap and let rest in a warm, draft-free spot for 45 minutes. It should almost double in size.
Add another cup flour, the salt and baking powder, and stir to combine. Use your hands to thoroughly incorporate flour, salt and baking powder, turning dough over in pot. NOTE: Dough can be made to this point; cover and refrigerate overnight. Roll out and let rise 45 minutes in pan before baking.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently shape into a rectangle. Roll out with a rolling pin. It should be about 1/8-inch thick and 41/2 feet by 1 foot. Yes, it's big!
To make sugar filling, combine remaining 1 1/2 cups vanilla with zest of 1 lemon. Melt butter over low heat; let cool slightly and then drizzle evenly over dough, spreading as needed with a spatula. Sprinkle vanilla-lemon sugar evenly over melted butter.
Tear raspberries gently with fingers and scatter them evenly over the sugared dough. Roll lengthwise, toward you, in a jelly-roll fashion, pinching with fingers to seal dough along the length of the dough. Cut, using a sharp knife, into 1 3/4-inch rolls. Place on prepared sheet pans and let rise about 15 minutes.
While rolls are rising, preheat oven to 385 degrees and make lemon glaze by whisking juice and zest of 1 lemon with powdered sugar and a few tablespoons of milk until it resembles pancake batter. You can also add a tablespoon or two of melted butter to the glaze. Bake rolls 15 to 20 minutes or until golden-brown. Drizzle while warm with lemon glaze.
Kim Sunée has been the food editor for Southern Living magazine and Cottage Living magazine and her writing has appeared in Food & Wine, The Oxford American and Asian American Poetry and Writing. She is currently based in Anchorage. Her cookbook, "A Mouthful of Stars," is published by Andrews McMeel. Learn more at kimsunee.com.