Baking is not my forte, but when L. invited me over to partake in a little bun baking lesson with her visiting mother I couldn't resist. First of all, they would be the Mennonite zweiback I grew up with - chewy white buns slathered in butter and destined to be dunked in some sort of hearty borscht.
To start, we gathered our ingredients. Simple, for the most part. The one challenge we faced was finding a bowl big enough for the six-dozen bun batch L.'s mom is used to making. Who would've thought a large metal bowl could be so hard to find in Toronto? Instead, we settled on a large storage container. Problem solved, sort of. (It's hard mixing with corners.)
The recipe itself isn't all that difficult. But it's the experience that's invaluable - knowing how much flour to mix in, proper punching techniques (L.'s mom uses a bit of a twist) and timing.
First, four cups of warm water gets poured into the bowl (or storage container, as it were) with half a cup of white sugar. Stir, then sprinkle two tablespoons of yeast on top. Let it sit until the yeast has thickened (at least 10 minutes), then mix in a cup of oil. The oil is, L.'s mom says, what distinguishes the buns from bread.
In a bowl, lightly beat three eggs with a fork and then mix in a cup of warm water. Add to the big bowl. Toss in 3/4 tablespoon of salt.
Add about six cups of flour, mixing with a wooden spoon between every couple of cups you add. Then add flour as needed, but punch it in instead of using a spoon. We ended up adding another six cups. Flip a few times, but sparingly. See L.'s fierce punching technique below. She takes boxing classes. It shows.
It's hard to explain when you've added enough flour other than actually feeling it for yourself. The only thing I can think of to describe is suddenly my hand wasn't coated in a thin layer of hard-to-remove dough. Instead, it was only sticky enough to cause patches of clinging dough. That's not really helpful though, is it? Let's just go with the six extra cups then.
When it's done, smear a dab of butter all over its surface.
Now the waiting game begins. An hour or two. I can't even remember. You have to wait until the dough doubles in size. Punch it down. Then the wait starts all over again. Same height. About double the original size.
Once it's ready, pull the dough in a thick string and use a knife to cut off bun-sized pieces, keeping in mind they still have to rise a little bit more.
Then use your hand to roll each one into a pretty little ball. Using a bit of pressure, push down with your right hand while you roll it around on the table in a circular motion.
L.'s mom used her famous double-handed technique of rolling two buns at once. I'd advise you start with one.
You should also have a little bowl of oil sitting on the table. This is so you can dip the bottom of the bun in it before placing it on the cookie sheet or whatever flat surface it will be put on while it rises.
The neverending bun trays. Each one lovingly rolled and oiled and placed in neat little rows.
Cover your perfect little buns in tea towels, then on top of that lay plastic garbage bags to keep them extra moist and warm and happy.
Wait some more. Maybe an hour? I'm not sure. They're ready when they start to look a little too cozy on the baking sheets.
By this time, you'll notice the lighting has changed considerably. We're into dusk. The whole process takes hours but it didn't seem like it. We were too busy making soup, cleaning up and just chatting. It was ideal for a wintry day.
The final step: bake for 18 minutes - turning the cookie sheet around at the halfway point to ensure even browning.
Now the best part: Take a just-out-of-the-oven bun, tear it in half and smear a thick layer of butter all over it. Eat. Enjoy. Repeat.