Cook your book: cinnamon buns and ‘The Goldfinch’ on a rainy afternoon

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I don’t remember every detail of The Goldfinch since I first read it seven years ago, but I do remember exactly how I felt as I was reading it. The Goldfinch isn’t the type of novel you can ever shake off: Donna Tartt’s prose is both visceral and indulgent. The details envelop you in an unforgettable haze: you cannot help but feel the rain of New York on your shoulders, you cannot escape the simultaneous (and contradictory) sensations of fear and calm, of rootlessness and stability. 

Days after reading it, when I excitedly raved about The Goldfinch to my classmates, I was embarrassed to find that however I described it, I couldn’t do the novel any justice. Back then, there was no way I could express the ineffable and implacable power of The Goldfinch in words.  

Then, on one rainy day, I was desperately craving cinnamon rolls. I came across this recipe by The Little Library Café inspired by this passage from The Goldfinch

‘I hadn’t even known I was hungry until I’d stepped into the hallway, but at that moment, standing there with a rough stomach and a bad taste in my mouth and the prospect of what would be my last freely chosen meal, it seemed to me that I’d never smelled anything quite so delicious as that sugary warmth: coffee and cinnamon, plain buttered rolls from the Continental breakfast.’

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Oscillating between suspense and nostalgia, fear and tranquility, this passage embodied how I felt about the novel. Donna Tartt’s work is one of a kind, and the cinnamon buns I made were nearly as full-bodied, flavourful, and indulgent as this novel. I followed this recipe very closely – the only thing I omitted was the glaze, because I felt the buns were sweet enough as is.   

Cinnamon Buns by The Little Library Café

(Makes 8) 

Ingredients

Dough

  • 1.5tsp ground cardamom  
  • 300mL milk
  • 50g butter
  • 425g plain flour
  • 7g fast action yeast
  • 60g caster sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • Oil, for greasing

Filling

  • 80g butter
  • 2tsp cinnamon
  • 50g dark brown sugar

Equipment

  • Mixing bowls
  • Dough scraper or knife
  • Cling film
  • Rolling pin
  • Spatula or whisk
  • Knife
  • 23cm springform cake tin or baking tray

1.  Place ground cardamom in the saucepan with milk, and bring it to a simmer over a low heat. Take the milk off the heat, add the butter and allow to infuse until the mixture is lukewarm – you need it to be warm to activate the yeast. A good test is to pop your finger into the milk; if you can’t tell whether it’s hot or not, it’s just right.

2. Mix the flour, yeast, sugar and salt together in a bowl. When the milk has reached the right temperature, add a lightly beaten egg to the dry ingredients and mix, then start adding the milk. Bring the dough together with your hands; it will be very sticky, but should come away from the edge of the bowl once you have added all the milk. Don’t be tempted to add more flour – some kneading will make this right.

3. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for around eight minutes, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. 

4. Put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover it with cling film. Leave it in a moderately warm draught-free place for around an hour, or until it has doubled in size.

Tip: Before making the filling, I recommend leaving the butter out to sit until it reaches room temperature. 

5. While it is rising, beat together the butter, cinnamon and brown sugar until smooth, light and easily spreadable. Set aside, ready to fill the buns.

6. Once the dough has proved, carefully tip it back out onto a lightly floured surface. Gently roll it out to a rectangle about 30cm across and 25cm wide. Spread the spiced butter over your dough. Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up tightly. Slice into eight even rolls (cut the length in half, then each half in half, then in half again).

7. Place the rolls in your tin or on your tray. You’ve just added a huge amount of butter to your dough, so it won’t rise a lot, but leave it for another half hour to prove, covered and in the same place as before, until the dough bounces back when touched. As the end of the half hour approaches, heat the oven to 200C.

Tip: if you’re using a tin, make sure it is big enough for the rolls, because they expand while proofing. My baking tins were too small for the rolls so I had to move everything onto a tray later! 

The rolls before they go in the oven – as you can see, they could have been rolled better, so make sure to roll them tightly. Photograph:

Note: my oven’s temperature at home isn’t always consistent, so I burnt the bottoms of my buns. If you have an unreliable oven, I would recommend lowering the baking temperature to 190C. 

8. Place the buns in the oven and bake until they are golden brown on top, which should take around twenty five minutes.

9. Enjoy! 

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