SALEM — “With or without nuts?” That’s one thing you have to bear in mind when ordering a sticky bun at A&J King Bakery. Of course, that means that you’re eyeing the buns instead of, say, a ginger-apricot scone, a mini Boston cream pie, an almond croissant, or an apple tart.
As for the owners, Jackie King, 33, and her husband, Andy, 35, she’s a “without” person, and he’s a “with,” as are most customers. Jackie has a reason for not wanting nuts in her sweet yeasty cakes: “I always dip them into my coffee, and I don’t want the nuts falling into my cup.”
On a busy weekend, A&J creates 200 of the sticky delicacies to stock its case, send to three North Shore farmers’ markets where the bakery has stands, and fill several wholesale accounts. But if you love to bake, and have a few hours to spare, you can replicate the two-day undertaking. The duo explains how in “Baking by Hand,” their first cookbook. It emphasizes hands as the most important tool of the baking process, reminding the reader, “Cooks have their knives, bakers have their hands.”
The lengthy process is broken into manageable steps so you can begin on a Friday evening in anticipation of a decadent Sunday breakfast (the buns take 36 hours from start to finish). Jackie encourages patience. “It’s going to take a few times to get it right. You learn something every time you make it,” she says. “That is the joy of it. From the day we opened to now, I know so much more.”
The Kings met as students at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. The draw of family brought them back to the North Shore, and they eventually opened the bakery in Salem in 2006 because the city reminded them of Portland, Maine, where they spent three years together at the Standard Baking Co.
Homesteading is a passion for the couple. “We love to make things from scratch, not just baking, but learning the old process,” says Jackie. Andy makes kimchi, pickles, and salami.
“We’ve even made our own wine under the guidance of a customer-turned-friend, who showed us how to select the grapes, stamp them with our feet, ferment, barrel, and bottle it,” says Jackie. “We stomped in October and bottled in April.” Their most recent project is building a wood-fired oven at their 2-acre property in Topsfield, home to Emeline, 8, Elliot, 4, three Siberian huskies, one cat, and seven chickens.
The afternoon bakers start the rich, yeasty dough, which is used for croissants, Danish, and sticky buns. After a two-hour rise at room temperature, the dough goes into the fridge overnight. “This allows it to relax and gain more acidity, giving it a slight tang,” explains King.
The next morning the dough is “turned” three times, a process of rolling and folding in butter that produces 81 delicate layers. King wants the dough to be smooth, she says. If the butter temperature is wrong you’ll see “plate tectonics,” which is how she describes the chunks of butter visible all over the dough. That makes the buns less flaky.
After the dough chills again, King uses even strokes of her heavy rolling pin to coax out long pillowy strips. She describes the perfect rolling motion as “stretching, not squashing.” A large bin of brown sugar and cinnamon filling is ready to be piled high and then massaged to the very edges of the dough.
Bench scraper in hand, King moves at a quick clip down the long coil, making even slices that she stands on their cut sides in muffin tins, where they rise above each cup. After baking, when the hot buns are flipped onto the counter, there’s a perfect ratio of sticky sweetness to flaky dough.
At this point King has one final piece of advice: “Let them cool a bit before eating or you will burn the heck out of your mouth!”