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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

The Cinnamon Scent of Christmas

December 1, 2003

Boy, it’s late, and do I feel like the last rose of summer!  Well, maybe not summer, after all, it is smack in the middle of December and it’s minus 18 flippin’ degrees and the drive way needs scraping again and…

Anyway, I have this intense feeling of impending doom and if I was given a guess, I’d have to say it’s because I‘ve only half my Christmas shopping finished and none of the decorations up.  The bit of baking that had been done has already been eaten; I still haven’t put a holiday shine on the piano; and I’m only now getting around to this and it was due yesterday!  I can’t remember ever being so far behind in Christmas preparations although I think that both you and I can recall many such holiday columns filled to the brim with bitching and complaining of a similar nature.  Also, with uncountable years of experience informing my every instinct, I take great…well, perhaps not great, but certainly, a modicum of comfort in the knowledge that Christmas will happen wonderfully well, not because of me, but in spite of me.  And that gives me the impetus to rise each morning and slog on.

Actually, I lied when I said I had no decorations up.  In fact, the other day I bought a little table-top tree and plopped it down on the coffee table cheek by jowl with a jar of marbles, a box of matches, several catalogues and my trusty tin full of  tweezers, files, clippers, and earrings, which I keep close to hand that I may tweeze, file, clip, and/or decorate myself without ever having to leave the comfort my recliner.  The small tree was already embellished with bows and bits of swag, needing only a bit of help to reflect my personal style: a sequence of lights, not quite symmetrically strung, a few ancient gewgaws, and a handful of tinsel flung from a distance and allowed to fall, willy-nilly, tree-trimming never having been one of my strong suits.  Looking at that sad little Christmas symbol makes me realize how far down the lonely road of convenience we have come.

First, it was a trip to the woods along with a lot of tra-la-la-ing  (me) and &%#@-ing (Phil) to find a perfect little spruce.  Next, we eschewed the perfect spruce from the forest and bought a perfect little fir from the Garden Center at Canadian Tire.  From there we went to a perfect 6-foot imitation pine that looked fake no matter how many lights and Danish flags we hung on it. And now, it’s come down to an eighteen-inch decoration that I have modified with our tiniest lights and ornaments and the requisite clump of tinsel, and when Christmas is over, I will bring home a box from Mac’s receiving area to plunk it into, standing up and still decorated, so that I will never have to do it ever again.  And that’s perfect!

So now that I’ve dragged all of you with me into a Bah, Humbug! mood, I’m going to turn right around and help you get right back into the spirit of the season.  And to do that, I’m going reach way back, to our years at Johnson’s Crossing, when we wore the perfume of cinnamon in our hair and on our clothes, when the scent of cinnamon permeated our very lives, and I’m going to give you the gift of the JC Cinnamon Bun, for Christmas.

It always amazed me that everyone found those buns so great or unique.  In actual fact, the original recipe came from my tattered old Better Homes and Garden cookbook, a pretty ordinary formula for a pretty ordinary dough.  The instructions for forming the rolls were included and believe me, it did not take years of studying rocket science to learn the craft.  I will say, however, that it did take a while, and several hundred batches to produce the bun that some of you remember with nostalgia.  In fact, the mixing, proofing, shaping and baking of, roughly estimated, some twenty thousand dozen cinnamon buns over a period of fifteen years, helped me hone the final product.  I hope the following will help you cut down on the time and effort.

Ellen's Buns

The dough:  In a large bowl, whisk together 2 cups very warm water, 3 tablespoons margarine, 2 eggs, 2 teaspoons salt, 3 tablespoons sugar.  Add 2 cups white flour and 2 teaspoons instant dry yeast.  Beat well.  Work in 2 more cups of flour, then turn out on a floured table and knead in 1-2 cups more flour a little at a time until you have a soft, satiny dough that doesn’t stick to you or the table.

This kneading process will take up to 15 minutes but is a gentle and mindless operation that will leave you relaxed and pleasantly housewife-y.  If, rather than relaxed, you are left feeling tense and uneasy, I’ll bet that your dough is still a little bit wet.  Sticky dough is not very therapeutic.  Add more flour, a small amount at a time until you feel the prickles under your skin subside and you start humming Christmas carols.  The dough should now be silky smooth with tiny flat blisters all over.

Rinse and dry your mixing bowl and grease it well with cooking spray or margarine.  Place your dough in the bowl, turning it over once or twice to grease it well, then cover with Saran and put in a warm place to rise.  At JC, I used the shelf above my grill as a proofing place.  Now, lacking both grill and shelf, I turn my oven on 300 degrees F for about 3 minutes, then turn it off and put the bowl into the warm chamber, close the door and wander off to clean the bathroom or read a book, depending on just how deep that housewife-y thing goes.  No matter what it is you find to occupy your time, leave your dough to proof for about an hour.  When next you see it, it should have risen to about double in size and if you stick a finger into it, the hole should not fill in.  When in doubt, let it rise another 15-20 minutes.

Before removing the dough from the oven, take a bit of time now to prepare for the next step, it’s just easier to do it all before you’re up to your armpits in ooey-gooey goodness. 

Prepare two 9 x 13” pans with cooking spray.  Take out golden brown sugar, seedless raisins, margarine (or  butter) and cinnamon, rub a bit of margarine on your counter, thinly coating an area about 16x20” and as easy as that, you’re good to go.

Now comes the fun part.

Turn your dough out in the middle of the greased counter and just look at it, a lovely, creamy-white, amorphous mass - warm, willing and awaiting your every pleasure.  Humming as you go, gently pat out the soft mass to measure about 14x18”, give or take, no worries if it is not perfectly rectangular but if it is well and truly risen, it should easily take direction.  Of course, the success of your rolls largely depends on the amount of the filling you have put into them and I should tell you: Don’t be stingy!

Cover the entire surface with an even and liberal layer of soft butter or margarine.  Cover the butter with an even and liberal layer of soft brown sugar. Scatter raisins thickly and artistically over the brown sugar, sprinkle on ground cinnamon with, yep, a liberal hand, and, beginning at the top, begin rolling down towards the bottom.

Now, that sounds pretty simple but at the risk of making you tense and nervous again, the rolling and cutting are almost as important as getting enough filling onto the dough.  Working along the top edge of the dough, roll down about an inch to start and then work back and forth, rolling as tightly as you can, the more layers, the better the bun.  That first inch makes the delectable “eye” of the roll so make sure the filling is spread right to the top edge of the rectangle.  When you have rolled the dough all the way to the bottom, pinch the bottom seam and roll it under.  You should now have a long even length of dough with no filling showing.  It might be a tad lumpy so you should arrange your hands over the middle of the roll, thumbs in front, fingertips at the back, and moving your hands from the middle to each end, gently squeeze the dough to make the whole length even in size and shape. 

With a large knife, pushing straight down - no sawing - across the roll, cut it in half.  Cut each half in half, then cut each half into thirds (are you still with me?) giving you twelve beautiful big buns, six to the pan.  When you pick up each bun to place it in the pan, cup it slightly up into the palm of your hand to make the center “pook” up just a bit for that distinctive loft to the “eye”.

Cover the pans lightly with Saran and let rise again in a warm place until doubled in size and Doughboy-y in appearance.  Bake at 375 degrees F for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.  Let cool for 10 minutes.  Mix 1 cup of icing sugar with 1 teaspoon vanilla and enough water to make a runny icing.  Drizzle generously over the warm buns.

Serve with lots of butter, a cup of good rich coffee on the side.

And so, my friends, Merry Christmas and bon appetit!  Even if you never get around to making these, I hope just reading the recipe and method brings back as many fond memories to you as it did to me.  I feel so good I may just go back and have another go at that sorry little tree.

Love and kisses, Ellen

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