When we tell you the cinnamon buns Emily Bengston bakes are big - hot, yeasty swirls veined with cinnamon sugar and dripping white sugar glaze - please try to imagine them, then quadruple the size you have imagined. These buns are giants, and they are delectable.
Bengston, whom most of the customers of her Anchor Inn know as Emmy, explained their secret as we sat at a table and tore into a couple of hot ones: "potato water with all those nice potato goodies from the bottom of the pot." Potato water - water in which you have boiled potatoes - rather than ordinary warm water gives Emmy's buns a softness and flavor that make them, in our cinnamon-bun-eating experience, the best in Iowa - a state where cinnamon buns reign as the supreme bakery treat.Emmy has plenty of potato water available because she and her small kitchen staff peel, boil and mash lots of potatoes. Most of the plate lunches Emmy serves come sided with potatoes - billowy, genuine mashed potatoes, usually smothered with good brown gravy. Spud-lovers like ourselves could make a meal of them.
And, oh, what a chicken fried steak Emmy makes: crisp-crusted, tender enough inside to be a pleasant chew, but with real beef flavor that overly tenderized meat never has. Also on the daily menu - which is a blackboard posted on the wall for all to see - were Polish sausage and sauerkraut, and roast beef dinners. There aren't a lot of entries from which to choose, but what is there is real farm cooking: fried chicken, meat loaf, ham loaf, chicken 'n' biscuits. Alongside come vegetables - vegetables from a vegetable garden, cooked and bathed in butter. We had carrots, and darned if they weren't some of the tastiest we ever ate.
Cinnamon rolls cost a dollar apiece; we saw people coming in to Emmy's (which is generally open only for the midday meal, known hereabouts as dinner) for cinnamon buns to take home or to their place of business. With dinner you get a different kind of superb bread: yeast rolls. These are golden-topped beauties baked in a pan, soft enough to serve as a mop for gravy.
We don't have much space left before getting to Emmy's recipe, so let us quickly tell you about the pies. There were eight available the day we had dinner, each in an exquisitely flaky lard crust. Some were double-crusters, thick with fruit, but our favorites were the custards, especially those topped with sugar-crusted meringues. Sheer blue-ribbon heaven!
Put the Anchor Inn in your little black book. It's a small-town cafe beloved by folks from miles around and a treasure for any traveler in search of heartland square meals. Evelyn Birkby, the grande dame of KMA radio homemakers in the nearby town of Shendandoah, was the one who took us there, then shared this recipe, courtesy of Emmy:
Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.1991, Jane and Michael Stern
(Universal Press Syndicate)
Emmy's Big Buns
1 package yeast
2 tablespoons warm water (105-110 degrees)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick), plus 2 tablespoons margarine, melted
11/2 cups warm potato water (105-110 degrees) (or substitute 1/4 cup dry instant mashed potatoes and 11/2 cups water)
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup dry non-fat milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 to 5 cups flour
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
11/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoon water Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons of warm water. When yeast is foamy, mix it with 4 tablespoons of the margarine, the potato water (or plain water and dry instant potatoes), sugar, salt, non-fat milk, eggs and 4 cups of flour. Mix until a ragged dough begins to form, adding flour as needed. Turn dough out on floured board and knead 5 minutes, adding flour as needed to make a smooth, silky dough. Roll dough into ball and place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place 1 to 2 hours, until double in bulk.
Grease a baking pan about 10 by 10 inches or an ovenproof 12-inch skillet.
Turn dough out on floured board, knead 1 minute, and roll into a rectangle about 1/2 inch high. Brush with remaining 2 tablespoons of melted margarine. Combine sugars and cinnamon and sprinkle onto buttered dough. Roll dough up like a jelly roll and cut into 6 pieces. Place the slices in the prepared baking pan, cut side up, cover loosely and let rise until nearly double, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 37 degrees. Bake risen rolls 35 to 40 minutes.
As rolls bake, make glaze by beating butter and water into confectioners' sugar (you may need up to 2 tablespoons of water to make a thick, spoonable glaze).
When rolls are still warm from the oven, spoon on the glaze.
Makes 6 big buns.