Boston: For the Ultimate Sticky Bun, Head to Flour Bakery and Cafe
I've never actually mailed a sticky bun to anyone before, but with this one I came close.
Let's just say that sticky buns are pretty much the holy grail of breakfast pastries in my family, and my Monty Python-esque quest to find the ultimate version came to a glorious end at Joanne Chang's Flour Bakery and Café.
Unlike most renditions where the dough is too lean, the caramel is not caramelized enough, or the buns have simply been baked so far in advance that they've dried out and lost their glossy finish, Chang's adaptation ($2.95 each) gets everything right—as evidenced by her trouncing victory on Bobby Flay's sticky bun Throwdown!, the numerous media outlets that have featured the recipe (including a very informative how2heroes.com video), and the fact that, on a weekend especially, you'd better call ahead to reserve your order, or risk the disappointment of seeing the empty platter with just a few puddles of gooey caramel left in their wake.
Which brings me back to the shipping thing. My dad comes to visit Boston fairly frequently, and when the timing permits, he'll make a trip to the South End (the original of Flour's now-three location empire in the city) specifically for the sticky buns: one to eat right then, and three or four to take back home with him. (I imagine if airlines weren't charging baggage fees, there'd be a suitcase dedicated exclusively for sticky bun transport.) Of course, the supply doesn't last long, and there have been times when he's called to ask if they could be shipped. When I inquired at the bakery, it turns out he wasn't the first to ask; in fact, Flour used to ship them, but stopped when they decided that the quality of the pastry suffered too much in transit.
I figured they were right. When possible, I get to the bakery as early as I can to make sure I get one that's warm from the oven. In that just-baked stage, they're seriously a different species of pastry: soft and just a little stretchy, puffed up with all that warm air still circulating, and literally dripping in dark, buttery "goo." (Chang's technical term for the caramel.)
Fortunately, the recipe itself just got a little more accessible. Just this fall, Chang released her first cookbook, Flour: Spectacular Recipes for Boston's Flour Bakery Café, in which the sticky buns are prominently mapped out (note the cover photo). They're actually not hard to make—I gave them a go a few months back—but they do require patience (it's a two-day process) and planning.
She starts by making traditional yeasted French brioche dough that's chockfull of eggs and butter—the source of all that rich flavor and tenderness. Once the dough ferments in the fridge overnight, she rolls it out, sprinkles the inside with cinnamon-sugar and toasted pecans, rolls it up like a jellyroll, and then cuts the log into eight pieces. Turned on their cut side, they reveal that hallmark swirl of dough and filling. Then she places the buns in a deep roasting pan filled with the "goo"—a mixture of butter, brown sugar, water, heavy cream, and honey, which she heats on the stovetop until the sugar dissolves and the mixture smoothes—and more pecans, lets them proof until they've expanded about twofold, and then bakes them off until the dough turns dark brown (even in the crevices, she explains, so that you know the dough is cooked through). Once they've cooled slightly but are still warm, she turns them out onto a serving platter and pours the still-liquid "goo" over the top.
Needless to say, they're a bit of project to put together, but if you can't get to the bakery, they're actually good make-ahead brunch material, and the results are well worth it—especially the "ooohs" and ahhhs" you get from friends and family (if you're willing to share).