I hadn't even known I was hungry until I'd stepped into the hallway, but at that moment, standing there with a rough stomach and a bad taste in my mouth and the prospect of what would be my last freely chosen meal, it seemed to me that I'd never smelled anything quite so delicious as that sugary warmth: coffee and cinnamon, plain buttered rolls from the Continental breakfast.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Towards the end of The Goldfinch, Theo, standing in the hallway of a hotel in Amsterdam, muses on what could be his final meal. It's Christmas, and the scents of cinnamon and coffee are wafting up to his room.
For something so horribly morbid, conversations about 'final meals' are not unusual. I find hearing about other people's choices fascinating - the meal in question is often filled with food not normally part of one's diet (too expensive, too calorific, too tricky to make, too allergy-inducing) or perhaps something carrying a weight of nostalgia. For me, it's continued to evolve, but if I knew I was going to lose my sense of taste and smell tomorrow, I'd spend my final foodie hours enjoying:
A dozen fresh English oysters, with a few wedges of lemon and a champagne vinaigrette to use as I wish, and a very dry gin martini with a twist.
Beef carpaccio with finely shaved hard goat's cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil, served with a rocket salad and a glass of Pinot Noir.
Some Roquefort, fresh figs, a jar of lavender honey and some warm French bread, followed by a double espresso.
In fact, maybe I'll just make it all anyway. Let me know if you fancy coming round for tea - or what your last foodie meal would be if this one isn't your bag.
ps. If you missed yesterday's recipe, do check it out - another imagined meal from Theo's earlier years.
1.5tsp ground cardamom (or 30 cardamom pods)
425g plain flour
7g fast action yeast
60g caster sugar
Oil, for greasing
50g dark brown sugar
Juice of one lemon
Mortar and pestle
Bowl (or mixer with a dough hook)
Electric hand whisk
23cm springform cake tin or baking tray
1. If you’ve not managed to get ground cardamom (which I’ve found is difficult to get your hands on), you’ll need to bash open around 20 cardamom pods, and grind the seeds you find inside to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle. Once you’ve done this, place them in the saucepan with the milk, and bring it to a simmer over a low heat. Take the milk off the heat, add the butter and allow to infuse until the mixture is lukewarm - you need it to be warm to activate the yeast. A good test is to pop your finger into the milk; if you can’t tell whether it’s hot or not, it’s just right.
2. *Mix the flour, yeast, sugar and salt together in a bowl. When the milk has reached the right temperature, add a lightly beaten egg to the dry ingredients and mix, then start adding the milk. Bring the dough together with your hands; it will be very sticky, but should come away from the edge of the bowl once you have added all the milk. Don’t be tempted to add more flour - some kneading will make this right.
3. *Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for around eight minutes, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. A dough scraper will really help here; they’re available for a couple of quid and are great in ensuring you incorporate all those scraps of dough that always seem to stick to the bench.
4. Put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover it with cling film. Leave it in a moderately warm draught-free place (not next to a heater, but not in an unheated room in winter either) for around an hour, or until it has doubled in size.
5. While it is rising, beat together the butter, cinnamon and brown sugar until smooth, light and easily spreadable. Set aside, ready to fill the buns.
6. Once the dough has proved, carefully tip it back out onto a lightly floured bench. Gently roll it out to a rectangle about 30cm across and 25cm wide. Spread the spiced butter over your dough; I found pinching bits of the butter out of the bowl and smearing them on in patches quite effective. Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up tightly. Slice into eight even rolls (cut the length in half, then each half in half, then in half again).
NB. Here’s where you could differ from what I did - my spelt rolls didn’t hold together nearly as well as normal flour ones would - the lower gluten content means they just don’t form the strong bonds and wouldn’t stand up well on their own. They were still delicious, but a little flat (as you can see from the photo). I’d suggest, even with dough made of normal flour, buttering a 23cm springform cake tin, and placing the rolls, standing up next to each other around the inside edge of the tin, with the final one in the centre. You can then pull them apart once they come out of the oven. Alternatively, bake them like I did, straight on the tray, but get ready for them to spread.
7. Place the rolls in your tin or on your tray. You’ve just added a huge amount of butter to your dough, so it won’t rise a lot, but leave it for another half hour to prove, covered and in the same place as before, until the dough bounces back when touched. As the end of the half hour approaches, heat the oven to 200C.
8. Place the buns in the oven and bake until they are golden brown on top, which should take around twenty five minutes.
9 While the buns are in the oven, prepare your topping. I made a glaze - the juice of one lemon with a tablespoon of sugar brought to the boil with 100mL of water, and painted onto the buns as soon as they came out of the oven. However, a Swedish friend berated me for the absence of pärlsocker (which, in all honesty, I’m not a huge fan of) - so use that instead if you fancy. Eat hot from the oven, in your now delicious smelling kitchen, with a fresh cup of coffee.
*If you’re lucky enough to have a mixer with a dough hook attachment, this is one of those times to let it work its magic. You can use it to combine the wet and dry ingredients as well as do your kneading for you - keep an eye on the dough and pull it out once it has become very smooth and elastic, then follow as above from Step 4.
Adapted from the recipe by the fantastic Felicity Cloake, whose ‘Perfect’ recipe in the Guardian did most of my research for me this time.