Every spring, when Easter is over, baking grabs me again. Having fallen asleep for a long time since the winter holidays, I feel ready again to approach dough, cakes and other sweet things with enthusiasm. I always pick a new baking project to mark this shift, preferably something completely new to me. This year, my partner expressed a desire for a homemade version of one of his favorite snacks: Texas-sized honey buns. They’re the kind you used to get during break time at a gas station or a vending machine in your school cafeteria. That definitely fit the criteria for my project.
Although I didn’t grow up in the Lone Star State, I know these honey buns well. Whether called “Big” or “Jumbo”, they are characterized by an even light brown color and a flattened, elongated spiral of dough that is infused with a powdery cinnamon filling. They’re a mass-produced version of what a Swedish Kanelbull might have been – what we call a cinnamon roll – when it first came to the US with Scandinavian immigrants. Along the way, cinnamon rolls became more of a crunchy mound of dough covered in white icing.
In contrast, although made from more or less similar ingredients, the honey bun has a surprisingly thin and delicately applied frosting and a less sticky filling than the cinnamon roll. However, like most nostalgic post-war baked goods, honey buns are loaded with unspeakable chemicals, stabilizers, and artificial ingredients, which means they’re ready for a makeover.
Before I started developing my own honey bun, I read the ingredients list on the back of their packaging to find out what’s actually inside the cellophane-wrapped treats. While I’ve never noticed a strong honey flavor in the buns of the same name, turns out there is some — in powdered form. There’s also cocoa powder in the filling, which brought back my memory of eating the slightly bitter, powdery filling that barely laces the spiral of dough.
Making a pillowy dough is the easy part as I have made countless cinnamon rolls in my life. My favorite cinnamon bun batter uses butter, but here I swapped it out for vegetable oil, which keeps batters and cakes moister than butter. I also added an egg yolk to the milky batter for a little color. But to really ensure the exact pillowy texture I wanted, I turned to an Asian bread technique called tangzhong, in which you cook a small amount of flour and liquid together before mixing it with the rest of the dough ingredients. This not only keeps the white bread dough soft, but also keeps the buns fresh for days. At a time when crispy, crunchy sourdough is considered the best dough texture, it’s refreshing to know that the same principles can be applied to a satisfyingly soft bread dough.
With the dough figured out, I turned to the filling, which just had to play around with the ratio of butter, cinnamon, and cocoa powder until I got that signature flavor. But I also wanted these buns to be more purposefully “honeyed,” so I added indeed Honey for the filling too – some fixes hide in plain sight, you know?
The biggest challenge would be to recreate the honey bun’s distinct oblong, fat spiral shape. To help with this I use something, shall we say, “creative shaping”. First, while for cinnamon rolls you would roll a sheet of dough into a round spiral, I instead fold the dough into a flat stem, much like a piece of paper for an envelope.
Next, I arrange the cut rectangles on a baking sheet in a slightly crowded fashion so that they’ll squash against each other as they rise and bake, further enhancing their football shape. Finally, I place a piece of parchment paper and a baking sheet over the buns while they rise. This may sound strange, but it provides the perfect weight to keep the buns flat while still allowing them to rise and expand as they bake.
For the final step in the process, I use a common cake technique to provide moisture and a smooth crumb: soaking the buns in syrup. Instead of just frosting the buns with an icing sugar glaze, I make a thin syrup that is poured over the buns as soon as they come out of the oven. The syrup will soak in and help prevent any part of the buns from becoming “bready” in any way. Then, once cool, a thicker opaque glaze is drizzled over and allowed to set, giving the buns their iconic look.
Surprisingly, making my homemade honey bun required about as much engineering as the industry scientists likely needed to create their boxed version. But it was enlightening and exciting to find out that with just a few playful maneuvers you can recreate a childhood favorite and make it even better than before. And now that my homemade honey buns are finding my partner’s approval, I look forward to seeing less cellophane wrappers in the car and more used paper towels with that famous swirl.
Get the recipe:
time1 hour 10 minutes plus 3 hours fermentation
incomeMakes 8 buns