Editor’s note: Centering the theme of matriarchy in our first issue of 2018 invited us to examine the places where the personal and creative intersect in our own lives. In conjunction with our Recipes for Comfort and Celebration post, I am excited to share this piece written by one of the most important matriarchs in my life, my mom, Elizabeth. The annual tradition of making sticky buns or, as my grandfather calls them, cinnamon rolls, is a ritual that has brought us together and created joy during many a long Midwestern winter. May it also bring the same for you. –Rebecca Bacon Ehlers, Culturework‘s founder and editor
Grandma Belle’s Philadelphia Sticky Buns
February 21 is the unofficial National Sticky Bun Day! The Sticky Bun is a particular type of warm cinnamon bun enjoyed by generations in Philadelphia where they are simply called “cinnamon buns.”
According to various sources, the original cinnamon bun evolved out of schnecken (German “snail” pastry) and was brought to Philadelphia by German and English immigrants in the 18th century. Dr. Ronald Wirtz of the American Institute of Baking has done extensive research on sticky buns (lucky guy!) and writes that the buns “combine the size and make-up of the English Chelsea bun with the fillings and coatings of the rich German Schnecken type roll.” I want that job but I digress….
It’s not the simplest of recipes so one must embrace the Zen of all the mixing, kneading, sprinkling, rolling, cutting and placing. The dough has to rise twice and the whole process can take close to four hours start to finish. Although the bun cannot be rushed, the result is a brioche style cinnamon roll, tender on the inside, slightly crispy on the outside, and coated in a rich simple caramel. Traditional flavors include plain, raisin, pecan, or raisin and pecan.
But I didn’t know all of that as a child. I am sure I enjoyed my very first bun ensconced in a high chair but after that, I simply remember them as the sweet buttery fragrance and taste of Christmas morning.
My Dad’s mom, Isabelle Blair Bradley Bacon, made and served them every year on Christmas Day. The first generation child of immigrants, she was raised in Philadelphia, met and married her husband Leslie Bacon while working at the Philadelphia Quartz Company, and gave birth to my dad and his brother there in the 1930’s.
Frankly, as a kid, I had no idea how much time and effort she put into every batch. It didn’t occur to me that she would have to get up extra early Christmas morning (on top of everything else she had to do to put dinner on the table) so there was enough time to let the dough rise twice or that she had to time the bake just right to serve them warm and syrupy after the family opened gifts.
While my grandfather unceremoniously collected the wrapping paper strewn all over the living room into a trash can from the garage, Grandma Belle would quietly bring the warm rolls flipped caramel side up out from the kitchen into the dining room. She’d put the big plate on the table with a carafe of cold OJ available nearby to cut the sweet. There was always coffee too and lots of napkins.
All I cared about at that point was claiming a thickly coated bun from the middle while it was still warm but not still a handful of molten sugar. It was way too easy to burn your mouth if you weren’t patient but glue your teeth together if you waited too long.
I also remember realizing early on the paper napkins were not too effective against the cooling caramel. They just stuck to your already sticky fingers. Grandma Belle often made some batches with raisins and I loved to sneak back into her kitchen later while the adults were talking and steal the loose sticky pieces from the empty plate up on the counter.
After her death, we went a few Christmases without. But when I was expecting my first baby in 1990, I decided to give it a go and revive the tradition she carried for so many years. I had her ancient recipe card but parts were missing so I had to wing it and did so for many years until it seemed about right.
As anyone who has attempted to recreate an old family recipe knows, you often have to adapt the original ingredient list for what is actually available now. Every year, I question that and my other adaptations all over again but for the most part the sticky buns have not disappointed. Just don’t knead the dough with iron hands. It should be handled with care and literally tender in the mouth.
That baking dish, bubbling with caramel infused, velvety brioche was the essence of Christmas—a grandmother’s love and family history baked into a child’s enduring fragrant memories.
Thank you Grandma Belle. You gave more to the future generations of our family through hot fresh Philadelphia Sticky buns than you could ever have imagined.
Here’s the recipe:
For the Slightly Sweet/Slightly Tangy Yeast Dough:
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 (.25 ounce) fresh package of active dry yeast
½ cup warm water (110 º F/45 º C)
½ cup milk
¼ cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon lemon juice
4 cups all-purpose flour (to be divided as described below)
For the All Important Sticky Caramel Goo:
1½ cup butter (and maybe more)
2½ cups brown sugar (maybe more)
For the Cinnamon Insides:
1-2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (maybe more)
¼ cup melted butter (maybe more)
1 cup raisins or pecans (optional, as desired)
(Read through once before starting!)
- In a small bowl, dissolve 1 teaspoon sugar and yeast in warm water. Let stand until proofing, about 10 minutes.
- Warm the milk in a small saucepan until it bubbles (a light scalding), remove from heat. Mix in ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup butter and salt; stir until melted. Let cool until only lukewarm.
- In a large bowl, combine the yeast mixture, milk mixture, eggs, lemon juice and 1 ½ cups of flour; stir well to combine. Stir in the remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, beating well after each addition
- When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it gently until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes. The dough should feel light and soft, almost puffy.
- Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1-2 hours. The longer the rise, the softer the buns!
- While dough is rising, melt 1½ cups butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in 1½ cups brown sugar, whisking until smooth. Bring to a light boil to caramelize and remove from heat. Pour into greased 9×13 inch baking pan, set aside but don’t refrigerate.
- Melt remaining butter; set aside. Combine remaining 1 cup brown sugar and cinnamon; set aside.
- Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, roll into an 18×14 inch rectangle. Brush with 2 tablespoons melted butter, leaving 1/2 inch border uncovered; sprinkle with brown sugar cinnamon mixture (and raisins/pecans if you are adding them). Do not skimp on the butter or brown sugar and cinnamon. Make more if necessary!
- Starting at long side, tightly roll up jelly roll style, pinching the seam to seal. Brush with remaining 2 tablespoons butter (again, no skimping!). With serrated knife or fishing line, cut into 1” pieces; place cut side down, in your prepared pan. Let rise again until doubled.
- Place the baking dish on a cookie sheet to catch any overflow. Bake in 375 º F (190 º C) preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool in pan for 3 minutes, then CAREFULLY invert the rolls from the dish onto serving platter. Scrape any remaining filling and goo from the pan onto the rolls. Get some napkins and enjoy with love!
My grandmother, Isabelle Blair Bradley Bacon;
“PHILLY MADE: Beiler’s Sticky Buns,” August 1, 2007 post submitted by Elisa Ludwig: http://www.uwishunu.com/2007/08/philly-made-beilers-sticky-buns/;
“Recipe Finder: Philadelphia-style sticky buns,” Julie Rothman for The Baltimore Sun: http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/dining/bs-fo-recipe-finder-sticky-buns-20151103-story.html;
“Traditional sticky buns are a sweet homemade treat,” by Marilynn Ann Yates – Special to the Star-Telegram. February 20, 2013, updated March 14, 2013: http://www.star-telegram.com/living/family/moms/article3833976.html;
“Ooey-Gooey Cinnamon Buns,” allrecipes ™; http://allrecipes.com/recipe/21461/ooey-gooey-cinnamon-buns/;
“PHILADELPHIA STICKY BUNS,” GENIUS KITCHEN™
Elizabeth Bacon is an attorney and privacy law specialist living in Chicago, IL.