Buttery Coconut & Almond Morning Buns

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Batik . . . Issei . . . Caballero . . . Kuchen . . . Coffle . . . Lariat . . . Trepak . . . Twoling . . .

The spelling bee pronouncer carefully enunciated one word after another, round after round. The dwindling pool of contestants seethed: a child was always approaching the microphone timorously, bouncing back to their seats triumphantly, or moping over to their consoling families. I sat in the audience rigid with excitement, scribbling each word on the back of an old envelope I’d found in my cavernous purse.

Watching my student compete in the 72nd annual Winston-Salem Journal Regional Spelling Bee was already an ideal afternoon for a logophile like myself, but making the event even more wonderful was the fact that Mike was at my side. Since the Bee took place about halfway between our two cities, he agreed to meet me for a nerdy date! As I frantically attempted to spell each word before the contestant had a chance, he did math in his composition book. (We’re quite the exciting pair.)

My student did a phenomenal job. She got out (with only 5 contestants left!) on the word ringent. If you’re being honest, you’ll probably admit that you didn’t really know how to spell ringent, either, so that’s not bad at all for a 12-year-old. She was disappointed, but I was thrilled with her performance. She still has two full years of eligibility, and since we were so close this year, I fully expect to travel to D.C. eventually to watch her in the National Bee.

After she left with her family, Mike and I set out to explore Winston-Salem. We scanned every restaurant on the main thoroughfare (to appease me; Mike would’ve been happy just to choose one) before finally settling in for pizza and more nerd talk. Mike taught me about hyperbolic conservation laws. We then ambled down the street looking for dessert (or in my case, two desserts, ’cause that’s how I roll.)

ha ha, get it?

One of our dessert stops was at a little coffee shop and bakery where Mike ordered a coconut roll. The flaky pastry was reminiscent of a cinnamon roll, but stuffed instead with toasted coconut. We both enjoyed it, but as soon as I tasted it I told him, “I can do better. I’m going to make you one of these and it’s gonna be insane.” I tucked the mission down into my heart while he promptly forgot about it.

The afternoon was also filled with other lovely things. After buying me a coffee-flavored frozen custard cone, we ambled until we found ourselves seated on a rickety bench outside of a beautiful Moravian church. About a dozen cherry trees heavy with blossoms surrounded us and swayed in the breeze. The sky was a pretty slate blue that belied the sunshine and hinted at an impending spring shower. I think we talked about Moravian chicken pies and guinea hens (one sauntered by us nonchalantly while we were talking — maybe that’s normal in Winston-Salem?), but more important than the conversation was my hand in his, my head on his shoulder.

It was a perfect date. I’m sure Mike drove away thinking about partial differential equations or something in that vein, but I drove away thinking of coconut rolls (oh, okay, and love and hearts and romance and stuff).

It took me a couple of weeks to get around to experimenting, but when I finally did, these lovely Coconut & Almond Morning Buns were the result. They were even more phenomenal than I’d imagined: buttery, gooey, and delicate, with a gorgeous balance of sweet coconut and subtle almond. I proudly presented them to Mike, who had forgotten all about the Winston-Salem coconut roll but wholeheartedly enjoyed my revamped version nonetheless.

By the way, if you’re wondering: yes, these buns whipped the coffee shop’s coconut rolls right out of the mixing bowl. Not that I’m competitive or anything.

Everyone remembers the word they got out on in their childhood spelling bee. What was yours? (I got out on “eclipse” in 5th grade and “monotonous” in 6th.)

Buttery Coconut & Almond Morning Buns

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 24 buns

These morning buns could easily double as dessert. They are fluffy, gooey, buttery, and beyond delicious. There’s a lot of butter in this recipe, making it a special occasion treat, but I hope you’ll find a space for these rolls on your Easter brunch table. They definitely belong in the spotlight.

Roll Ingredients:
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (100-110 degrees F)
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 cups milk minus 2 tablespoons, room temperature
2/3 cup cold shortening (I use butter flavored Crisco)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 cups flour
2 tablespoons butter, melted, for after baking

Filling Ingredients:
1 1/2 cup (3 sticks) butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon coconut extract
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups sweetened coconut flakes
7 ounces almond paste, frozen until firm and then grated with hand grater

Glaze Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon coconut extract
2-3 tablespoons milk (to thin to drizzling consistency)

Note: I don’t recommend halving yeast recipes; instead, if you don’t want 24 rolls at once, consider freezing some for later. To freeze some of the unbaked rolls, just wrap them well before the second rise and freeze them. Once frozen, pop them out of the pan all together and store in the freezer, wrapped in plastic wrap and in a zip top bag or wrapped in foil. When you want to bake them, stick them back in a greased pan, thaw them in the fridge overnight, proof for the instructed amount of time, and bake like usual.

Mix the warm water and yeast in a medium bowl and let the yeast foam for about 10 minutes. Put 2 tablespoons white vinegar in a measuring cup and then add milk up to the 2 cup line. Set this aside. In a separate large bowl (or the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook), whisk together flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and baking powder and cut the shortening into the mixture with two knives or a pastry cutter until the shortening looks like small peas. Stir yeast mixture and milk mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well, kneading just a few turns. Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly sprayed with cooking spray, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and store in refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and lightly spray two 9 x 13-inch baking dishes with cooking spray. Turn the chilled dough out onto a floured surface and roll it into a large rectangle about 1/8-inch thick (I carefully cut the dough in half and worked with half at a time to make it more manageable; if you do this, just spread on half of the filling ingredients for each half you roll). Stir the coconut extract into the melted butter; then spread the melted butter all over the top of the dough. Sprinkle on the sugar, sweetened coconut, and almond paste flakes. Gently roll the dough up into a spiral and cut it into rolls, placing them close together in your prepared baking dishes (at this point, you could wrap and freeze the rolls for later if you wanted).

Cover the rolls with a clean dish cloth and let them rise in a warm spot until they’ve nearly doubled, about 1 1/2 – 2 hours. Bake them for about 15-20 minutes or until browned on top (if you take them out at just lightly golden brown, they may still be doughy in the center). Brush with 2 tablespoons melted butter and return to the oven for 1 more minute. Whisk together the glaze ingredients (adding milk to get it to drizzling consistency) and drizzle the glaze over the warm rolls. Serve immediately.

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