Recreating City Bakery Coconut Buns

This recipe is dedicated to the folks of the Hometown Long Branch Facebook group.  

(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

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Those of us who grew up in and around the beach town of Long Branch, NJ, still mourn the loss of one of our favorite businesses: City Bakery.  Located on Broadway, it closed when many of us were still young.  Later on, another bakery opened down the road in the next town, and they attempted to duplicate the recipes.  They were “okay”, but not the same.  That bakery also closed.

City Bakery keeps coming up as a topic in our Facebook group. It seems that you were either a “crumb bun” person or a “coconut bun” person.  There are some outliers.  I, like many, have longed for those coconut buns, brought home warm from City Bakery.

I couldn’t stand it any longer.  My quest began.

Searching “recipe coconut buns” turned up little, and of that, nothing even close to what we remember.  What else would you call them?  I gave up for a long time.

Then, this summer, I found myself willing to try my luck again.  The coconut was only sprinkled on top of the icing, right? So I tried to eliminate that ingredient and search “recipe frosted buns”.  Nope.  Grrr.  Then I tried “recipe iced buns”. Bingo!  A bunch of recipes came up, but strangely, all in the UK.  Are these just a Brit thing?  I narrowed my search down to two recipes from food blogs with photos that definitely had that City Bakery look. At the same time, I had to look up “how to toast coconut”, as this was not part of any of the recipes.  And then, the next problem: What in the world was “caster sugar” and “strong bread flour”?  Oh, those Brits.  After another search, I found they were the same as Domino Superfine sugar and Pillsbury bread flour.

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And then, of course there were all the conversions from metric to standard, which do not come out perfectly neat.  This was becoming quite a project already!

Once I purchased all the ingredients, I realized that I had to wait.  I was coming up on a week of busy-ness and travel.  All in good time…

Well, today was the day.  I need to throw out some caveats before anyone attempts this recipe:

  • It requires 1 hour of rising, 1/2 hour of “proving”, and 20 minutes of baking.
  • This is not a hard recipe, but it is very messy.  The dough is incredibly sticky. One recipe says that you can add more flour as you knead, but keep it as sticky as you can deal with.
  • I thought I’d be smart and do my kneading on parchment paper instead of the table, but don’t do it.  This dough just sticks to everything.  It’s much easier to scrape it from the table than parchment.
  • If it makes you feel any braver, I have NEVER kneaded or “risen” anything in my life.
  • Do NOT attempt this with a stand mixer and dough hook.  I tried this on a suggestion, and I ended up with very tasty PANCAKES.  Do every step by hand.
  • Things are never as bad as they seem.
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Let me introduce you to my timekeeper, Mr. Ted. This was a long project, and he kept meowing at me to move it along.  It was getting way past lap time.

I would start by toasting the coconut, because if you only have one oven, you’re going to need it for other things from here on in.  Preheat the oven to 325°. On a baking sheet spread about a half a bag of sweetened shredded coconut (I toasted way too much).  Place in the oven and stir every 3 minutes or so, until it is the brown-ness you like.  I used an insulated sheet, and it took about 15 minutes.  That was the easy part.

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Taking a deep breath – I began to make the dough by mixing together the flours, yeast, warm water, milk, salt, and superfine sugar.  Once that was blended, I added the egg, followed by the softened butter.  Things were quite sticky, and I worried that the dough was too much on the liquidy side.  It more poured than turned onto the floured surface.

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I just kept remembering “as sticky as you can handle it.  Add flour if needed.”  And indeed, my sticky, dough-covered hand went into the flour to grab at least two more handfuls. Notice there are no photos from this kneading portion of our show.  There was no way I could grab my cell phone camera, and no one awake to take a photo for me. The food blogs had no photos of this step either.  All nice and neat.  I think they were trying to hide something. Hmmm…

Now, “knead” is a relative term here.  This is not kneading as you imagine it.  One blogger called it “splurging” – pushing the dough away from you into a big stretch, then scraping it off the table in an attempt to fold it back over itself.  For 10 minutes. I really felt I was doing a terrible job.  One blogger said it should be “pillowy-soft”.  Nope.  Just sticky.  I gave it 12 minutes.

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I then coated a large bowl with vegetable oil, and “turned” the dough into the bowl. More scraping.  In hindsight, the worst was over.

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Not having a very “warm place” to rise my dough, I set the oven on warm for a bit, shut it off, then placed my bowl, covered with a towel, but not touching the dough, into the oven for about an hour, until it had doubled.

After the dough had doubled, I took my fist and punched the dough back down (sticky, but fun). I floured a baking sheet (I used an insulated pan again) and tried to follow the directions to divide the dough into 8 “lumps” onto the pan.  After more sticky messiness, I only came up with 6.  Maybe I lost some dough with all that scraping?

I sprayed plastic wrap with Pam, and used it to cover the “lumps” while they “proved” for a half hour.

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The oven temperature for baking was tricky.  The UK recipe I used converted to 425°, which seemed a little high.  Other recipes varied widely.  I split the difference at 400º, which still seemed high, so I took advice from yet another site:  place the oven rack up high.  I placed it in the second-highest position.  The oven heated during the proving phase.

And then I found out that I could have easily made 8.  I had misjudged the size of my “lumps”.

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Into the oven they went, onto the second-highest rack.  I started to panic again – they smelled too “yeasty” as they were baking.  In about 20 minutes, they were golden brown.

I needed to use a spatula to scrape them off the pan and onto the rack to cool.  They weren’t terribly stuck, they just needed some help.

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And they were huge.  Shoulda made eight. Oh, well.

For the icing, the UK recipes all used “icing sugar” mixed with water.  I wasn’t sure if this was the same as 10-X, or if it’s something different they have there.  So I looked up ‘Merican recipes.  The one I chose uses vanilla extract, which I realized afterward gives it a darker look than that bright white icing.  I’m providing that one, plus the Pioneer Woman’s icing, which would be a stark white.  Your choice, or use your own.

Once the buns weren’t scalding hot, I poured the icing over them…

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Then topped with the toasted coconut.  They looked legit…

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But how did they taste?  Pretty darn good!  I worried a lot along the way, but in the end, I’d say this was a success.  I would hate to get into a side-by-side taste comparison with the original, but this may provide a walk down memory lane for some of you!

City Bakery Coconut Buns

Ingredients:

• 1 cup all-purpose flour

• 1 cup bread flour

• 1 packet yeast

• 1/2 cup warm water

• 1/2 cup milk

• 2 tsp salt

• 3 1/2 TB superfine sugar

• 1 egg, beaten

• 3 1/2 TB butter, softened

• A little vegetable oil to grease the rising bowl

For icing: Pioneer Woman’s icing: (In a mixer) 1 egg white, a splash of milk, and as much confectioner’s sugar as it can take – not too runny, not too thick.

For toasted coconut: Preheat oven to 300°.  Spread 1/2 bag sweetened shredded coconut on baking sheet. Stir every 2 minutes until browned.

Directions

1.Toast coconut.  Set aside.

2. Mix together the flours, yeast, water, milk, salt and sugar. Once it has all come together, add the egg,  followed by the softened butter. Once you have a uniform, sticky dough, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. THIS IS STICKY BUSINESS.  Add more flour, if needed.  Oil a large bowl, pop in the dough and leave to rise in a warm place covered with a towel or plastic wrap (not touching the dough)  for an hour or so. It should double in size.

3. Once the dough has risen knock it back with a fist, divide into eight small lumps, shape and place on floured baking trays.  Spray plastic wrap with Pam, and use it to cover the buns to prove for 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, set the oven rack to the second-highest position and preheat the oven to 400°. After proving, remove plastic. Bake the buns on the second-highest rack for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Leave to cool a bit before icing.

4. Spoon icing on top of buns.  Sprinkle a generous amount of toasted coconut over icing.

5. Close your eyes and take a bite.  You are back in your mom’s house in Long Branch…

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5 thoughts on “Recreating City Bakery Coconut Buns

  1. You are a brave woman! Have I said that before? Now, how about those yummy sticky buns we used to get as kids? And crumb buns………..Mmmmmmmmmmm………………

  2. I am tickled to find your recipe to make City Bakery coconut buns!
    I am going to attempt them when my 93 year old mom (from West Long Branch like me) visits for the holidays in a few weeks.
    We’ll give you feedback for sure. Thanks for your research and remembering how good and unique City Bakery was.
    I would love to also attempt cinnamon raisin and crumb buns as well.
    Wegman’s and Entermans are close but a sheet of homemade buns would be amazing.
    Thanks again.

  3. I grew up in NJ, Woodbridge Twp. (Iselin), during the 50’s and 60’s. Back then, every local bakery had coconut buns. For decades, I have been unable to find them anywhere. I now live in Maryland, but about once a year, I search the websites of every bakery in NJ that lists its menu. Over the years, I have been in all fifty states. When I would ask about coconut buns, no one knew what I am talking about. I remember that they were baked in a tray of twelve or more. The ones on the inside were the most moist and the ones that I tried to talk the owners into giving me, but they were not always willing because everyone felt the same way. The owners did not want to get stuck with the ones around the edge. I will have to try your recipe, but I will do so with trepidation.

  4. My husband is from West Long Branch. I have looked for this recipe for him and was excited to find this. We made them today and they are delicious. Thanks for sharing. Do you know anything about the cinnamon buns from City Bakery?

    • First, I am over the moon that you made these and liked them! I feel the rising is tricky – I actually had a failed batch once. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about the cinnamon buns. That wasn’t one of the items my parents would buy. My sister was on my case about the crumb buns! This was just a lot of research and luck finding a similar recipe for the coconut buns. It’s not from the family who owned the bakery. Thanks!

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