Four months after my visit to the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, this season’s beautiful apricots influenced me to try my hand at cinnamon buns again, influenced by Vincent van Gogh’s loose, expressive night sky in his 1889 work, Starry Night. Van Gogh’s stellar (sorry, I couldn’t resist) picture is one of the most iconic paintings in the world, and has been a highlight at the Museum of Modern Art in New York since they acquired it in 1941.
Starry Night was completed in 1889, making it one of Van Gogh’s last works prior to his premature death in 1890. Painted during his stay at an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France, Starry Night seems to be a window into the mind of an extremely creative yet unstable artist. The subject of the painting is simple enough: the idealized view from Van Gogh’s hospital room in Saint-Rémy, with a small village nestled in the hills. A single church steeple pierces the sky to the right center and a large cypress tree rises up in the left foreground. Shown at night, the village is quiet and sleeping, juxtaposed against the active, swirling sky, with bright, painterly stars and a bright yellow moon.
When Van Gogh painted this work, he was torn between accepting the realism and observation of nature championed by traditional Impressionists, and the less realistic, more abstract and expressive genre embraced by some of his friends, such as Paul Gauguin. In his previous attempt at painting a star-scattered sky, Starry Night Over the Rhone, painted a year earlier, Van Gogh challenged himself by working directly from nature; he painted the work at night using a gas lamp to light his canvas. In his work of a year later, he decided to paint from memory during the daylight.
Since Van Gogh painted this from memory, he could have taken a few artistic licenses with the exact scene. Cypress trees were usually planted around graveyards in southern France, and Van Gogh’s inclusion of one could have been a nod towards his own death, a year later. Despite this depressing interpretation, the work is also harmonious and transcending. The glow of light from inside some of the village homes compliments the bright light of the swirling stars, and the sky itself suggests a tranquil, quiet night, probably a nod towards the kind of existence van Gogh dreamed of from his room in the crazy house. While Van Gogh certainly created a masterpiece with this work, I have not had a great track record with cinnamon rolls. The first and last time I tried to make what I imagined to be a standard and easy breakfast treat, I was disappointed by the lack of rise. Guess what? Figuring yeast out is tricky! Thanks to my handy The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion along with my trip to the King Arthur mecca in November*, I have finally started to get the hang of this whole bread thing.
For this recipe, you first need to make sure that you are using the correct type of yeast, and that you are treating it correctly. Most yeasted bread recipes call for either instant yeast or active dry yeast. You can pretty much use one in place for the other, and will use the same amounts, but the activation process is a bit different. Instant yeast (which is what I used here, and recommend) can be mixed in with the dry ingredients and added to the wet ingredients without changing your process. If you use active dry yeast, you first need to dissolve the yeast into lukewarm water, let it sit for a couple minutes, and then mix it in with your other ingredients. The kind of yeast you choose to use will impact your rising time—instant yeast will rise faster, so plan your rising time accordingly! The second thing that threw me off in my previous bread adventures is the actual kneading of the dough. I think that previously I was too timid with my kneading, and didn’t actually knead the dough as long as it needed to be done. I would work the dough for a minute or too, notice that it was getting dry and kind of rough, and leave it like that for the second rise. This time, I kneaded the dough for about 5 minutes by hand, working through the rough stage, until the dough transformed into a much smoother and softer mixture, and after I left if for the second rise, I was completely blown away by the result. Instead of a weak “half” rise, the dough actually did what the recipes told me it would—it doubled in size. Imagine that!
Overnight Apricot Pecan Cinnamon Rolls
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast
¼ cup instant potato flakes
2 tablespoons non-fat dry milk
3 tablespoons sugar
dash of salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup milk, room temperature
½ cup (you may need a few tablespoons more) lukewarm water
Apricot Pecan Filling:
1 ½ cup chopped pecans, toasted
1 ½ ripe apricots, finely diced (about 5)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 cup powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons milk
In a large bowl, mix together the dough ingredients with a wooden spoon. If needed, use your hand or stand mixer just to get the ingredients combined. On a lightly floured surface, gently knead the dough for about 5 minutes (you could also do this using the dough hook on your stand mixer), until the dough is soft and smooth. (If you find that your dough is a bit tough and gritty, let it rest for a couple minutes, and then come back and try again). Spray your bowl with cooking spray, put the dough back in, and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit in room temperature for about 90 minutes, until the dough has doubled in size.
At some point while the dough rises, mix together your toasted pecans and apricots in a medium-sized bowl, and set aside. You can also use this time to prep your pans: spray two 9-inch circular cake pans with cooking spray, and set aside as well. When the dough is ready, gently remove from the bowl and place on a lightly greased workspace (I sprayed my kitchen table with a tiny bit of cooking spray, and lightly floured as well). Carefully deflate the dough and roll (I sprayed my rolling pin with a bit of cooking spray too) out to a large rectangle, about 24 x 20 in. Sprinkle with cinnamon, either by using a sieve or just lightly dusting straight from the bottle. Distribute the apricot pecan filling evenly over the dough, making sure that you don’t have any spots that are too pecan-only or apricot-only heavy (which could make it not only tricky to roll, but also slightly disappointing to bite into an apricot-only filled roll when you were expecting both apricots AND pecans).
Starting on one of the longer sides, carefully roll the dough into a long cylinder, with a generous amount of filling within each fold. End the rolling on the seam, so that the filled dough can sit on the seam, sealing it. To cut the dough, King Arthur bakers recommend the best pro tip: use dental floss! Santa always includes plenty of dental floss in my stocking (thanks!), and finally, a real use for it! 🙂 Cut a long piece of floss, and lay it out over your workspace, under the roll of dough. Pull the floss around the dough where you want to make a cut, and pull the floss in opposite directions—voilà, perfect, non-squished slices! Cut the roll into 16 even pieces, and add to your baking pans—8 in each. Cover pans with plastic wrap and let rise in the fridge overnight, at least 8 hours.
In the morning, preheat your oven to 350°F and let the buns come to room temperature while the oven gets warm. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. While they are still hot, brush with melted butter and stir together the glaze ingredients. Brush on the glaze and enjoy—these are best when they are hot!
*I promise that this post is not in any way sponsored by King Arthur…I am just a huge fan!
Recipe adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion
Featured art: Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888, oil on canvas