I want to tell you about my mom-in-law Deborah’s orange buns. They’re deluxe. Pillowy soft, swirly, orange-scented dream rolls. Deborah doesn’t glaze them and I think that’s right on because they’re really perfect just how they are. Simple, orange-zested magic. They live in that land somewhere between breakfast and dessert and they rule the kingdom. Just decadent enough to feel like a treat but not so out of control that the indulgence becomes uncomfortable.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself at Deborah and John’s house in December you’ll see little tin plates of sweet rolled dough rising in all the warm spots of the house. They rest and puff in the kitchen, by the fire in the living room, and near the fire stove in the den. And they smell like Christmas. Not just the citrusy aroma of the filling but a mouthwatering yeasty one too. The sight of them getting poofy is one of my favorite things in the world. But back in the day, when Gus and I had just started to date, those rolls were the source of some anxiety for me. Seems impossible now but it’s true. Let me back up.
Do you remember the first time you had to meet the parents? It’s a huge deal. I know it. You know it. Ben Stiller knows it. I met Gus’ parents long before we were together. That definitely took the edge of our first official meeting some five years later, but when I met them the second time around it meant so much more. I was beyond smitten with their son and I wanted them to like me. Well, let’s be honest. I wanted them to think I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Thankfully Deborah and John are two of the kindest, least scary parents you could ever meet and the first official rendez-vous went just fine. I didn’t do anything too embarrassing. I only started to show my true colors once I was invited to spend Christmas with the family.
Christmas up in Maine is ideal. Freezing cold, snowy Maine December feels absolutely perfect around the holidays. Deborah and John make the house extra cozy with a handsome, well-lit tree, balsam garlands strung up around the windows, paperwhites blooming at every turn, and dried apple wreaths adorning the doors. Spending an entire day sitting on the couch with a book and a cup of tea is considered perfectly acceptable and Flash the dog serves as a constant cozy companion. It brings new meaning to the words “comfort zone”. But sometimes I can get too comfortable.
On that first Christmas up in Maine, I was concerned with making a good impression. I just wanted to be smart, funny, sweet, charming, helpful, not too much trouble, dainty, and lovely. Not too hard, right? So you’d think. My plan flew quickly out the window. One of the first nights I was there I decided to warm myself by the fireplace stove. Unfortunately when I pressed my chilled feet up against the window of the stove, I melted my acrylic socks to the glass. That's right. Melted socks. Smooth move. I think poor John had to scrape the plastic off with a razor blade. I still feel badly about that one.
Ok. I could still try to be clever, right? Unfortunately, no one thought it was at all clever when I suggested that Deborah add a branch to the traditional Bûche de Noël dessert, a sacrilege that certain fans of the branchless log thought was tantamount to ruining Christmas that year. Tradition is not to be messed with.
Maybe all I could hope was that they thought I was lovely and delicate. A real lady. The problem is that when faced with delicious food I find it nearly impossible to restrain myself. Deborah’s orange buns became my Christmas nemesis. A classy lady would eat one bun, feign fullness, and then proclaim that she couldn’t eat another bite. I, on the other hand, wanted to binge on at least 3 buns, wash them down with a big cup of tea, take a little break, and then come back for more. So warm, so soft, and so so good. Be myself or be a lady? Be myself or be a lady? Do other women ask themselves this question on a regular basis? I can’t remember which side of me won over in the end. I probably ate extra buns in secret. Oh the agony.
It’s been some time since that Christmas and that means I’m way past acting coy at the table. What a relief! Gus and his family are well aware of my appetite by now and they love me just the way that I am. That means that on Christmas morning I can happily eat Deborah’s orange buns until I bust. And I do.
The fluffy babies you see here are my version of Deborah’s buns. She gave me her recipe a few years ago but I could never replicate her masterpiece. Isn't that always the way? So I decided to make my own recipe inspired by hers. More orange buns floating around the universe could never be a bad thing, right? I threw some nuts in there because pistachios and orange are a perfect pairing and I like the crunch they add. These guys would be pretty great with hazelnuts or pecans too. You know we Seneviratnes love our nuts. Just be sure to make extra buns. Make two pans if you've got the counter space. Your guests may be too shy to request seconds, but I assure you, they’ll be grateful (as they eat them in secret in the bathroom).
Orange Pistachio Buns
I like these guy as they are but if you’d like a little drizzle I’ve included a recipe for a simple orange glaze.
For the dough:
1/2 cup whole milk
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for pan
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 large egg plus 3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled, divided, plus more for the work surface
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the filling:
2/3 cup shelled pistachios, very finely chopped (the food processor works well)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons finely grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
For the glaze (optional):
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1-2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1. Make the dough: Pour milk into a small pot. Add butter and melt over medium heat. Watch closely to ensure milk doesn’t boil over. Let mixture cool to 105° to 110°. It should be warm to the touch.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine milk mixture, sugar, yeast, and egg and yolks. With mixer on low, add 2 cups flour then salt.
3. Switch to the dough hook and add 1 cup flour with mixer on low. Slowly add up to 1/4 cup more flour if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is smooth and just pulls away from the sides of the bowl. The dough should still be a little wet and you may not need the entire 1/4 cup flour. Continue to let the mixer do its job for about 10 minutes.
4. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and form it into a ball. Transfer it to a large, lightly buttered bowl, and cover with plastic. Leave it in a cozy, draft-free spot until it has doubled in size, 11/2 to 2 hours in a warm house. (It could take longer if your house is chilly.)
5. Make the filling: In a food processor, pulse pistachios until finely ground (but not paste) and transfer to a bowl. In another bowl, combine butter, orange zest, and salt.
6. Turn the dough onto a very lightly floured surface. Roll it into a 16-by-12-inch rectangle. The dough should feel like heaven in your hands - soft and supple and it should be easy to work with. Spread butter mixture evenly over the surface and then sprinkle evenly with nuts and sugar. Tightly roll the dough starting at the short end, and pinch the seam closed. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Cut roll crosswise into 9 equal pieces. Transfer to prepared dish, cut side down, cover with plastic, and let rest until dough is pillowy and slices are touching, about 2 hours.
7. Preheat oven to 350°F. Uncover buns and bake until golden brown, 22 to 25 minutes. Invert rolls onto a wire rack and let cool about 10 minutes, then flip onto a serving plate.
8. Make the glaze: Whisk together confectioners’ sugar, milk, and orange zest. Drizzle over warm buns hon.