Recipe Review

These Double-Caramel Sticky Buns Have Major Crème Brûlée Vibes

published May 19, 2023
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sticky bun on baking sheet
Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

Have you ever heard of toasted cream? How about toasted sugar? Not melted sugar or caramel, but toasted granulated sugar? I hadn’t heard of either, but the idea of both, used in the sticky bun recipe from Serious Eats, grabbed my interest in a way I couldn’t shake. The promise of “double caramel” in the recipe title had me hooked. I knew I had to include the recipe in this showdown to see how those extra elements manifested in the finished sticky buns.

How to Make Serious Eats’ Double-Caramel Sticky Buns

Before getting into the sticky buns themselves, I made the two optional subrecipes (which to me felt too important — and intriguing — to leave out). The first was deeply toasted sugar; there’s an option to order brown candi sugar, with a suggestion of Brewer’s Best brand, but I wanted to make my own. I simply cooked four pounds of granulated sugar in a 13×9-inch baking dish for four hours, stirring at regular intervals. The sugar retained its dry, granular texture and was transformed in color, but more importantly in flavor, tasting like the irresistibly toasty, bitter burnt sugar topping of crème brûlée. 

The second subrecipe was toasted cream: Heavy cream is combined with a little baking soda, divided between two Mason jars, placed over water on the rack of a pressure cooker, and cooked at high pressure for two hours. When done, the cream was brown and tasted of butterscotch.

With those two elements made, I started on the sticky buns. For the filling, I beat together some butter, toasted sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, then set that mixture aside. The dough then came together in the stand mixer, consisting of all-purpose flour, toasted sugar, yeast, salt, baking soda, melted butter, milk, and Greek yogurt. After kneading with the mixer’s dough hook for 20 minutes, I let the dough rise in my oven on the proof setting (my kitchen was chilly) until it doubled in size, about 90 minutes. 

Meanwhile, I made the caramel topping by simply combining some of the toasted sugar, a little salt, and some of my toasted cream in a parchment-lined 13×9–inch baking pan and stirring together with a fork. When the dough had risen, I rolled it into a large square, spread the cinnamon filling on top, sprinkled pecans over it, and rolled up the dough into a log. I then cut the dough log into 12 rolls, which I placed over the sugar-cream mixture in the pan.

For the second rise, the rolls proofed overnight in the fridge. In the morning, I let the rolls hang out at room temperature as the oven preheated, then baked them, covered, for 40 minutes and finished them uncovered for about 10 minutes. When they were done, I turned them out onto a sheet pan to reveal the caramel on top. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

My Honest Review of Serious Eats’ Double-Caramel Sticky Buns

When you turn the buns out of the pan, you’ll be delighted by how much of the lovely dark, gooey caramel there is. Some of the caramel left in the pan (on the parchment paper) was faintly grainy, so I did not scrape it over the buns. (But I didn’t need to, as there was plenty of syrupy caramel already.)

The caramel itself is intensely rich and complex, thanks to that toasted sugar and toasted cream. Yet the dominant flavor when you eat the buns is cinnamon (there’s about a tablespoon in the filling). The buns themselves are fantastically tender, with a soft, gooey texture. 

All of the pecans are in the filling, so when you turn the buns out of the pan, you don’t see many on top; even though the amount is the same as in the other three recipes in this showdown, they seem less nut-rich because you don’t really see the nuts. 

Don’t get me wrong: These are absolutely delicious sticky buns, but as-is I’m not sure the flavor payoff is worth the time involved in making those sub-recipes. If I make them again (which I know I will), I would tone down the cinnamon so that I could enjoy more of the caramel’s toasty, toffee-like flavor. 

If You’re Making Serious Eats’ Double-Caramel Sticky Buns, a Few Tips

  1. Start early. If you’re planning to make the toasted sugar and toasted cream sub-recipes — which will reward you with standout results and plenty of leftovers — make sure to get started at least a full day in advance of when you plan to serve the sticky buns. 
  2. Tone down the spice. As mentioned above, I felt that the cinnamon overpowered the nuances of the caramel, so I would decrease the amount by half or two-thirds. Of course, if you’re a cinnamon fanatic, keep it exactly where it is.
  3. Divvy the nuts. The recipe instructs you to sprinkle all of the pecans over the cinnamon filling before rolling up the dough. You could try putting half inside the dough and half in the bottom of the pan before the rolls go in — so that when you invert the buns out of the pan, you’ll have some pecans on top.

Overall rating: 8.5/10