A year ago, just days before stay-at-home orders went into place, I received the latest print issue of Bon Appetit, which was almost wholly dedicated to baking. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Over the next few weeks, my family and I made focaccia, camouflage brownies, cardamom-pistachio carrot cake and more. We baked the whole damn book — except for the cinnamon buns that graced the issue’s cover.
My new relationship with baking had, in a way, supplanted the lost interpersonal relationships that make life so interesting. I know I’m not alone here, and the sourdough loaves that took over all of our social media channels are proof. But I wasn’t ready for cinnamon buns, a fling I had been through before.
As it goes with romance, you never forget your first. Mine kindled on a riverbank in New Zealand, a few days into the whitewater canoeing portion of a season-long wilderness course with the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS. The NOLS curriculum includes proper glacier climbing techniques as well as how to live well in the wilderness, and the syllabus for that course includes making cinnamon buns from scratch. (With a tiny, single-burner camp stove instead of an oven.)
I watched from my seat in the river sediment as my instructor demonstrated how to combine yeast with sugar and salt in warm water until frothy before mixing in flour to create what was, unmistakably, dough. After letting it rise in a plastic bag tucked into his down jacket while we discussed other topics, he brought it out again and spread it into a rectangle. When he lathered it with a mixture of butter, sugar and cinnamon, rolled it up and cut it into discs, thus revealing his true intentions — cinnamon buns — it blew my 18-year-old, Pillsbury-accustomed mind.
Cooking in the backcountry can be a pain, but the satisfaction of a tasty meal or dessert multiplies exponentially after a long day on the trail or river. Just-add-water bags of dehydrated food offer more easy options than ever, but they’ll never stand up to something made with raw ingredients (and probably a little accidental dirt) from scratch. You don’t have to take a NOLS course to learn how to do it either; the school offers up all its recipes, including one for cinnamon buns, in Claudia Pearson’s NOLS Cookery.
A few days after we learned how to make dough, it snowed. We reveled and made snow people, but after the sun left us without its heat, our moods turned dark. We huddled beneath our tarp after dinner, sipping tea and trying not to think about how we’d have to thaw our socks before putting them on in the morning.
“I’m making cinnamon buns,” one of my tentmates declared. We each ate two, one before bed, hot, and the other in the morning with our daily oatmeal. They were the best I’ve ever had.
NOLS Cinnamon Rolls
Ingredients for Yeast Dough
1 tablespoon yeast
1 ½ cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons butter or oil (optional)
3-3 ½ cups flour
Ingredients for Filling
4 tablespoons butter
½-1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoons cinnamon
½ cup nuts (optional)
½ cup dried fruit (optional)
1. Dissolve yeast in a small bowl/cup in lukewarm water with sugar and salt.
2. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes in a warm spot until it froths.
3. Add yeast mixture to a bowl with half of the flour.
4. Beat vigorously for 2-3 minutes.
5. Add butter and the remaining flour to form a thick dough.
6. Knead the dough on a floured surface (putting flour on your hands will make them less sticky, too). You’ll know the dough’s ready when it’s silky and springy.
7. Shape dough into a loaf, then place in an oiled pot or frying pan.
8. Cover and let rise for about an hour or until dough doubles in size.
9. While the dough is rising, prepare your filling: Mix butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until creamy.
10. After the dough’s risen, punch it down, and roll it out into a large rectangle ½ inch thick.
11. Spread filling on the dough and sprinkle with nuts and dried fruit, if desired.
12.Roll up the rectangle “jelly-roll” style, pinching dough closed so the filling doesn’t fall out.
13. Slice roll into 1-inch slices and place the slices in a greased pan (dental floss works well for slicing).
14. Cover and bake with a twiggy fire for 25-30 minutes OR cook on one side for a few minutes, then flip and cook the other side.