On a recent very short trip to London, I went to a bakery called the Dusty Knuckle in Dalston — twice. I had already gone there with my friend Dom on a Monday, but had neglected to order one of their massive sticky buns and regretted it until I made it back on a Wednesday. That day, I corrected my mistake and brought the sticky bun back to my friend Ray’s house and devoured it. It was soft but not dry. It was laced with cinnamon but not bitter. The raisins were perfectly plump. As if I predicted that I couldn’t fly home without ever seeing this sticky bun again, I also bought the Dusty Knuckle cookbook, which had serendipitously come out only a week prior. I couldn’t get enough.
Within days of landing back in the U.S., I baked the sticky buns myself, marveling at two tricks the bakery uses to make them so good. The first is browning the butter — most always, an excellent choice. The second: After plumping the raisins, you put the leftover raisin water to good use by reducing it with sugar for the glaze. Back home, my family and I ate them ravenously for dessert after a several-course pizza dinner, which probably sounds indulgent and filling because it was. Something about these sticky buns simply hit the spot and for a little bit, I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Cliche as it may now be, there is a reason why Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing” is often quoted in dreary times. In the story, a boy dies shortly after his eighth birthday, a fact that the baker of his birthday cake is unaware of. He calls and calls to get the parents to pick up the cake, and eventually they angrily relent, visiting the baker in the middle of the night. They confide in him that their son has died, and the baker immediately softens. They sit through the night drinking coffee with the baker while he works. “You probably need to eat something,” he says to the family. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”
When I came back from London, I noticed myself talking ceaselessly about the delicious sticky bun I’d had at the Dusty Knuckle and the ones that I’d made at home, giving the impression that eating one sticky bun was the only thing I had done while in the U.K. Back home at the time, there were multiple shootings and threats to fundamental rights, both of which knocked an ongoing global pandemic and war from the headlines. It occurred to me that I was focusing on this small, good thing as a way to find lightness and optimism in what I would describe — both personally and collectively, individually and internationally — as “a time like this.”
I’m not saying that this sticky bun changed either my life or the world, but it momentarily made a bitter time a little sweeter. Maybe, if you’ve been feeling that way, too, this sticky bun, which is excellent in about 100 ways, could do the same for you.
The Dusty Knuckle’s Sticky Bun Recipe
Makes 8 buns
For the dough:
7 ounces (200 grams) raisins, soaked in 1 ⅔ cup (400 grams) warm water for at least 3 hours, or overnight
1 ⅔ cup (410 grams) milk
¼ ounce (8 grams) dried yeast
4 ¼ cups (600 grams) bread flour
⅓ cup (70 grams) caster (superfine) sugar
½ ounce (15 grams) salt
2 ounces (55 grams) unsalted brown butter at room temperature (To make brown butter, use a pan with a wide surface area and heat the butter over a medium heat until it bubbles, then foams, then turns dark brown and smells nutty and delicious)
For the filling:
½ cup minus 2 teaspoons (105 grams) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) dark muscovado sugar
¾ ounce (20 grams) ground cinnamon
Big pinch fine sea salt
For the glaze:
scant 1 cup (200 grams) raisin soaking juice (see above)
½ cup (100 grams) caster (superfine) sugar
½ cup (100 grams) dark muscovado sugar
Step 1: Soak the raisins in warm water for at least 3 hours or overnight. Once they are plumped up and soggy, drain them but save the soaking water for the glaze.
Step 2: Heat the milk up gently in a pan and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and leave until cool enough that you can hold your finger in it comfortably. Pour into a bowl (or the bowl of a mixer) and add the yeast, then the flour and sugar. If using a mixer, mix on a slow(ish) speed for about 4 minutes. If mixing by hand in a bowl, use just one hand to mix everything in as well as you can until you have a coherent, shaggy dough, scrape your bowl down, and leave this to rest for 20 minutes.
Step 3: Sprinkle the salt on top of your dough, add a little of the brown butter, and begin to fold the dough in on itself, rotating the bowl with each turn so you work your way around the dough. Once each addition of butter has disappeared into the dough, add a little more and continue until the butter has all gone.
Step 4: Continue folding (or mixing if using a machine) until your dough is silky and elastic. By hand this is likely to take about 10 minutes. In a mixer, more like 6 minutes.
Step 5: At the bakery, we now put this in the fridge to slowly proof overnight as this fits with our schedule, but you can also proof it at room temperature for 1 to 1½ hours. You have so much delicious sugar and butter in this yeasted dough, the overnight fridge is more to help our timings than to add flavor. It is easier to roll out neatly when shaped from the fridge, but they get covered in glaze so you don’t need to worry about aesthetics too much. Tip the dough into a large rectangular Tupperware (very lightly oiled) and cover; it will fill the shape and make rolling out much easier than from a bowl. The dough should double in size.
Step 6: Mix your filling ingredients together.
Step 7: Turn the Tupperware tub upside down and let the dough gently fall out, short side closest to you; you should already have a rough rectangle shape so no pre-shapes or faffing needed.
Step 8: Using a rolling pin and confident strokes, roll the dough, starting in the middle and working upward. Then come back to the middle and roll toward you. The temptation is to go too thin here and overwork the dough — this would mean your bun becoming less soft when baked and it will prevent the dough from proofing as nicely so you also lose some fluffiness. Use as few rolls as possible to get the dough to about the same thickness as your finger and so that the width is about the same as the short side of a piece of paper. Carefully turn this 90 degrees so that a long edge is now closest to you. Use a dough scraper to spread the filling over the surface of the dough, leaving a small strip at the top clear of filling. Scatter the raisins over the surface so they are evenly distributed. Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up until you reach the top, letting its own weight sit on the last bit so that it creates a bit of a seal and you have one long sausage shape.
Step 9: Using a bread knife, cut along the sausage so that each bun is about the same width as 3 fingers, to make 8 buns. Place these in a lined baking pan, spiral facing up with a nice gap in between each one to allow them to grow. A cake pan works well here too; you get a pretty flower shape once they’re baked.
Step 10: You can now fridge these so they are ready to bake the next day (we do) or you can go straight through and proof and bake these from shaping. Just bear in mind that buns from the fridge will take much longer to proof, as they need to get up to temperature before they can get going.
Step 11: Either way, leave them out somewhere nice and warm until they have bloomed up, doubling in size and wobbly as hell. As with bread, we like to take the proof as far as we can and the fact that these lads are supported by a tin means you can really push it here. Timings depend on how warm your kitchen is (and whether coming from the fridge), but it is likely to take around 1½ hours straight from the shape and around 4 hours from the fridge.
Step 12: Meanwhile, mix your glaze ingredients in a small pan and reduce over a medium heat until sticky and rich. Set aside.
Step 13: You are looking for a bubbly, wobbly, spongy-looking dough that doesn’t collapse when you gently poke it but looks like it might.
Step 14: Heat your oven to 200 C/180 C fan/400 F and bake for 18 minutes or until dark golden brown. Glaze as soon as they come out of the oven, and if you’re feeling fruity you can give them a second glaze 10 minutes later. Don’t be alarmed; they always look quite dark when they first come out of the oven. Once glazed they transform into shiny little beauties.
Reprinted with permission from The Dusty Knuckle: Seriously Good Bread, Knockout Sandwiches and Everything in Between by Daisy Terry, Rebecca Oliver, and Max Tobias, copyright © 2022. Published by Quadrille.
Photography by Matt Russell, copyright © 2022.