A Sticky Situation: Pecan Sticky Buns

I missed the IACP conference last week in Portland (for the uninitiated, it’s the International Association for Culinary Professionals, a funfest for foodies, food writers and the food-obsessed.) I had my bags packed, but a family emergency kept me on the ground. I don’t regret not going, family first and all that, but as a people-watching, people-listening opportunity, it’s hard to beat. Apparently there was at least one funny food fight that broke out at the conference, notably, Michael Ruhlman’s comment challenging the assumption that people are just too busy to cook. That notion is just plain b**l**t was the source of the fracas!  I would have loved to have been there!  I pretty much agree.  Elissa Altman, also on the Huff Post chimed in.  She echoed my own thoughts to a tee. “….the minute that a culture stops cooking for itself and ceases the basic act of nurturing, it starves. And every time we choose the quick-n-simple, pre-fabricated, synthetic, just-add-water route, we're one step closer to hunger, regardless of how much food comes out of the oven.” 

Are you too busy to cook? I’d love to know your answer and your whys and wherefores. Ruhlman’s rant might be a bit harsh for some people, but in defense of cooking, I have to say, he has a point. We are in control of how we spend our time, no matter how little of it we think we have. (Everyone has 24 hours in a day, by the way.) How we manage it is programmed through habit—and much of that habit creeps in when we are not really looking. Some people hate to cook because they’re not good at it because they don’t cook often enough to become good at it, so they don’t cook because they hate to cook because they’re not good at it. It’s like saying you hate to play tennis because you’re not good at it because you don’t know how to play well enough. Every time you get on the court you feel defeated. The learning curve is too daunting and uncomfortable.

You really need to make a conscious effort if you want to get beyond that curve. So why not cook one or two meals a week and build on that? Keep them simple and every once in a while, add something new or something absolutely irresistible. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. It’s more of a try-it-you’ll-like-it kind of thing. When you program it in, it becomes a habit.

If you are looking to be seduced into the kitchen, try making a batch of sticky buns. If these three teenagers can make them, so can you. Even if you’ve never made yeast dough in your life, just take it step by step. With all the effort comes a sweet reward. And nothing says homemade quite like sticky ooey gooey pecan rolls.

Pecan Sticky Buns

There are fancier ways to make these (with brioche dough, for example) but I love the old-fashioned granny feel to this recipe. I couldn’t find my old recipe when the girls requested these buns for a class, so I adapted a pillowy, golden buttermilk bread recipe. You could substitute plain milk if you don’t have buttermilk. You could even make these without their sticky topping, and ice them with a little glaze made with confectioner’s sugar, vanilla and enough milk to make the icing drizzle. (But why would you do that, you might ask?)

I tried making the dough the night before, and it works, but you need to bring it to room temperature for about 2 hours. After it warms up, shape it and let it rise again (another 1 1/2 hours.) It might be more efficient to just make the dough in the morning. Then again, another option would be to set your alarm, take the dough out of the fridge and go back to sleep for a couple of hours!

Makes 1 dozen sticky buns

For the Dough
4 cups bread flour, and a little for kneading the dough
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
2 eggs

For the Filling
4 tablespoons butter, softened, to spread on the dough
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Sticky Glaze
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut in pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons corn syrup
pinch salt
2 cups pecans, lightly toasted

Make the dough
1. Combine the flour, yeast, sugar and salt together in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the machine several times to fully mix the ingredients.

2. Combine the melted butter, buttermilk and eggs and beat with a fork until the mixture is combined.

3. With the machine on, rapidly pour the liquid through the feed tube (this should take no more than 6 seconds). Continue to process for a few more seconds, just until the dough starts to come together in a mass.

4. Turn the dough out of the work bowl onto a lightly floured countertop. If it is very sticky, cover it with plastic and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. The flour will absorb more of the liquid as the dough rests. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Resist the temptation to add too much flour; the dough may feel sticky but it will become less so as you knead it. It should be soft and slightly tacky, not stiff or dry.

5. Form the dough into a smooth ball by pulling and then pinching the edges together at the bottom. Pour about one teaspoon vegetable oil into a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl and twirl it around to coat it with oil on all sides. Place the bowl inside a plastic bag  (a clean trash bag or plastic grocery bag will do) and loosely tuck the open ends underneath the bowl. Puff up the top of the bag to form a tent. Leave the dough to rise at warm room temperature (75° to 80° is ideal) until it has doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Shape it as directed below. (Alternatively, after the dough has risen, punch it down and cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight. Let the dough come to room temperature and roll out as directed.)

Make the sticky glaze: Butter a 9 by 13-inch baking dish that is 3 inches deep. Stir all the glaze ingredients together (except the pecans) in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until smooth bubbly. Pour it while it is hot over the bottom of the baking dish. Distribute the pecans with the rounded side down over the bottom of the dish.

Make the filling: Reserve the butter for spreading on the dough. Mix the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt together in a small bowl.

Fill, assemble and bake the rolls:

1. Lightly flour the countertop. Invert the dough bowl and let the dough drop onto the counter, coaxing it gently at one of the edges if necessary. Flatten the dough and roll it with a rolling pin into a 16 by 12-inch rectangle, positioning it so that the long side of the rectangle is parallel to the edge of the counter. Spread the butter (see filling ingredients) over the dough and sprinkle it with the cinnamon sugar mixture, leaving a 1/2-inch border along the far edge. Brush the border with water. Starting at the edge nearest to you, roll the dough away from you into a cylinder. Seal and pinch the long edge. Lightly roll the cylinder back and forth if it is uneven. Cut the roll into 12 pieces and evenly distribute the pieces in the baking dish with the cut side up. The spaces between the rolls will fill in as the dough rises. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

2. When the dough is almost fully risen, set an oven rack in the middle position and heat the oven to 350°F.  Bake the buns until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. (An instant read thermometer should register 185 to 190 degrees.) Cool the buns in the pan for 5 minutes. Carefully invert the pan onto a serving plate and scrape out any lingering sticky sweetness over the buns with a rubber spatula. Cool for another 10 minutes before digging in.

To make the dough by hand: Whisk the flour, yeast and salt together in a large bowl.
Combine the melted butter, buttermilk and eggs and beat with a fork until the mixture is combined. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the liquid. Starting in the center, gradually stir in the flour with a wooden spoon or heavy-duty spatula.  When you can no longer stir easily, dump the dough (it may still be a shaggy mess) onto the countertop and knead until it comes together. If it is very sticky, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for about 10 minutes to allow some of the liquid to be absorbed into the dough. Knead for about 5 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Resist the temptation to add much more flour; the dough may be sticky but will become less so as you knead it. It should feel soft and tacky, not stiff or dry.


  1. Wow, these look so delicious. I can almost taste the stickiness through these pictures. And even though the recipe is intimidating, I guess you're right. If three teens can make these sticky buns, I can at least try! What do you think of these Sticky Rhubarb Buns? http://www.recipe4living.com/recipes/sticky_rhubarb_buns.htm

    Might try these as well. Thanks again for sharing the recipe and photos!


  2. Oooh I looove stickly pecan buns!

    These look fantastic! I would eat them all in one go! :)

  3. Sophia, Yes, these are kind of a project, but they are sooo rewarding. If you just go step by step you CAN do these! The rhubarb buns look like muffins/cake--could be good, but there is something extremely seductive about the sweet yeast dough. Try them both!

    A Bowl of Mush
    I made the girls take them away with them. Saved one for the photo (I ate it) and one for hubby...I hope you try them!