I know some readers will want things spelled out more precisely than this recipe, but trust that you have a fair amount of leeway here–and because you can keep the dough chilled for several days, you can use it for various breads in whatever quantities you like. If you find yourself, after making a coffeecake or doughnuts, with just a little dough left over, use it to make a few butterhorn rolls, a few jam-filled tarts or a small pan of cinnamon buns–there’s always something you can bake! Note that I much prefer to work with this dough after it’s been chilled (you’ll use less flour this way, for a moister dough), but you can use it directly after rising.
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (if using straight from the refrigerator, heat butter in microwave on low power for about 20 seconds, or until butter feels softer but not close to melting)
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature (put in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes if using straight from the refrigerator)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional; use just a touch of another extract if desired, such as almond, orange or lemon)
1 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt
8 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
2 cups milk, lukewarm (heated to 110 degrees to 120 degrees)
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time until fully absorbed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Beat in vanilla and salt.
Add 3 cups flour and yeast; beat on low speed just until mixed. Beat in 1 cup milk; beat on high speed 2 minutes. Beat in 3 more cups flour, then remaining 1 cup milk. Beat in 1 1/2 cups flour and beat for 1 minute. Dough should be very moist and sticky; add the remaining 1/2 cup flour if it is, but if not, don’t add any more.
Scrape into a large greased container, cover with plastic wrap and a lid, and chill overnight or up to several days. (If you prefer, you can let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled and use it immediately, but the dough is much easier to work with when chilled.)
To use the dough: Pinch off whatever portion you like and use as below, keeping any remaining dough covered with plastic and chilled.
For doughnuts: Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thick; cut into rounds, squares or hearts. If you want a traditional doughnut shape and no filling, use a smaller cutter to cut a hole out of the center. Re-roll the scraps one time and cut out more doughnuts. In a deep pot or cast-iron pan or Dutch oven, heat about 2 inches of oil (I use canola) to 360 degrees. Gently add doughnuts to the oil without overcrowding the pan; cook until golden on the bottom, turn them, and cook again until golden–about 2 minutes total–adjusting the heat as needed to keep the oil above 350 degrees but not so hot that doughnuts turn brown almost instantly. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon to a cooling rack set over a baking sheet; as soon as they are cool enough to handle, roll in granulated or cinnamon sugar as desired. When fully cooled, if you want to fill them, use a pastry bag with a round tip to poke a hold in the doughnuts and pipe in some jam, Nutella, ganache, lemon curd, vanilla or chocolate pastry cream–whatever you can think of. For ganache, I heat 1/2 cup cream in the microwave until it almost boils and add 4 to 6 ounces chocolate (if I use chocolate chips, I use 1 cup chips; I often use 4 ounces dark chocolate and 2 ounces chips). Let stand a few minutes, then whisk until smooth. Cool until it has thickened, or chill. If chilled, you’ll need to heat it for a few seconds on low power in the microwave until soft enough to pipe.
For buns: Roll 2-inch balls of dough into smooth rounds by cupping your hand over the ball and rolling it under your palm on your work surface, gently pulling your fingers in and out to guide it. Place the balls in a lightly greased cake pan, spacing them about 1/2-inch apart, cover with greased plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled. Bake at 350 degrees until golden, about 15 to 20 minutes. You can add raisins, currants, dried cranberries or candied fruit to the dough before making balls; after they bake, glaze them if you like. You can mix milk with a little sugar and brush it over the buns, then bake a minute or two more, or brush them when just warm with a powdered sugar icing made by mixing powdered sugar with a little milk, softened butter and vanilla until barely pourable (I like to add a touch of cognac or rum). For hot cross buns, cut a cross with scissors or a sharp knife into the buns before baking, then use the powdered sugar icing to fill the cross after buns have cooled.
For butterhorn rolls: Roll out dough into circles about 6 to 8 inches across and 1/4-inch thick; brush with softened butter. If you like, top with a dollop of jam, almond paste beaten with a touch of milk and sugar until smooth, lingonberry preserves, or thick cranberry relish–put these at about a half-inch in from the edge of the dough. Cut the dough into 8 wedges and roll each wedge into a butterhorn shape starting with the edge and rolling to the point, tucking it under. Place on a greased or parchment-paper lined baking sheet; cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until puffy. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes, until golden.
For filled squares: Roll dough no thicker than 1/4 inch, and cut into 2- to 2 1/2-inch squares. Put a dollop of mincemeat (I use about 2 tablespoons), apple pie filling, jam, or chocolate chips in the center of each square, and bring corners up over the filling. Press the seams to seal; place on a greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet, cover with greased plastic wrap, and let rise until puffy. Brush each with a little cream, half-and-half, milk or beaten egg. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden.
For cinnamon rolls: Roll out dough into a rectangle no more than 1/4-inch thick. Brush with softened butter (optional) and sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar or with brown sugar mixed with cinnamon. Roll up, starting with a long edge. Cut into 1-inch slices and place slices , cut side down, in a greased cake pan, leaving a little space between each. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until puffy. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 to 22 minutes, until golden. Turn out onto a plate to cool. If you like, drizzle with the powdered sugar icing from the buns, above. For caramel rolls, spread a caramel glaze in the bottom of the cake pan before adding the dough slices: Melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter and mix in 1/4 cup brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, plus 1 tablespoon water. Add a few handfuls of chopped pecans if you like. As soon as these caramel-glazed buns come out of the oven, put a plate over the cake pan and, gripping firmly with oven mitts, flip over and slowly lift off the cake pan.
For a ring: Divide dough into three portions and roll each into a rope. Working on a greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet, braid the ropes and bend into a circle, pinching the ends together. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until doubled. Brush with cream, half-and-half, milk or beaten egg; sprinkle with sugar if desired (I like to use a coarse decorating sugar). Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden. You could also add finely chopped nuts or some dried fruit (raisins, currant, cranberries) to the dough before rolling into ropes, or, toward the end of baking, lightly brush the dough again and sprinkle with nuts.
For jam tarts: Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/2-inch thick; cut into rounds, squares or hearts. Place on a greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet, not too close together. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until puffy, then press a finger or two firmly in the middle to make a deep depression. Fill with a teaspoon or two of thick jam and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes, until golden.
For streusel coffeecake: Spread enough dough to make a 1/2-inch-thick layer on the bottom of a greased cake pan (round, square or rectangular). Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until doubled. Top with streusel made by rubbing together 1/3 cup flour to 3 tablespoons butter to 1/3 cup light brown sugar to 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, plus 1/3 cup chopped nuts if you like (multiply as desired to adequately cover your dough). Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden. Or, for a coffeecake with a Moravian sugar cake topping, after the dough has risen, gently dimple it with your fingertips, brush with a tablespoon of milk or cream, sprinkle with a mixture of 2/3 cup light brown sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and drizzle with 6 to 8 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted and cooled. Bake as above.
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