I took a dance class while I was in Stockholm the other week and in the middle of executing a leg-heavy improvisation exercise, the guest artist stopped the music and told us something that I have been thinking about ever since. She prefaced with how she understands that sometimes when we are doing an improvisational task like this in dance, it can be difficult to stay balanced and maybe once in a while we fall, a foot slips or we make some sort of mistake. We think to ourselves, oh, shoot, I suppose I will do it better next time. She bluntly told us, “Don’t say this to yourself. Do it right the first time. Just don’t make the mistake.” Inwardly, I was thinking yeah, sure, like I can erase time and just stop my leg from getting tired or my knee from buckling for a second? We can’t be perfect all the time.
However, these thoughts came to a halt once she started to explain. She continued on to say “If we are not staying present in the moment and focusing only on the task in front of us, trying to do it to the best of our abilities, what are we even doing? We are wasting time. All we can ever do is what we have to in this moment right now and do it right. Otherwise, there is no point. Sorry for getting a little bit philosophical on you all. Let’s try this again.”
We repeated the exercise and this time the room was silent. The concentration palpable. Sometimes all you need is a little reminder to focus, because she was right, this moment is all you have.
It is amazing how tangible this feeling can be- of coming back into yourself after your mind has wandered out of the body. We have so many escapes these days- our phones, computers, instastories (I know I get sucked in this black hole occasionally), tv shows, messaging. There are so many ways that your mind can transport you to another world, when in reality if you look around, you might be sitting on your couch as a sliver of sunlight creeps closer and closer to your foot with the smell of the morning’s cup of coffee still lingering in the air. We can talk about mindfulness and presence all we like, but when it comes down to it, it’s all on you. You have to put yourself in that place of utter concentration on what is in front of you and where you are. This applies to work procrastination, yoga and meditation, conversations with loved ones, and peaceful alone time. Basically it is an exercise for your entire life.
Having taken this dance class the morning of my first full day in Stockholm, I tried to apply this advice and my subsequent thoughts about it to exploring the whole city. While it is natural for the mind to lose focus while we meander through twisting foreign streets, I tried to keep my eyes wide, feel the chilly air, and let the city just seep into my pores because in that moment, it was all I could do. Traveling with open concentration was the task. I applied it to the yoga class I took, the writing I did in cafe corners, and each bite enjoyed of the Swedish cinnamon rolls- kanelbullar- that I unashamedly ate on a daily basis.
Upon returning home, I realized this practice of concentration is something that I already do in one task in particular- preparing and experimenting with food. Baking, for me, is something that serves as a meditative practice. When in the kitchen, I feel utterly focused on the task in front of me, whether it is creaming together butter and sugar until they are perfectly fluffy or meticulously stirring a bubbling caramel sauce to make sure it doesn’t stick. There are certain actions of cooking and baking that require you to forget the worries of the week and of the world and just perform something very simple, accomplishing it to the best of your abilities.
I have to say, my favorite task of all is kneading bread dough. There is nothing more comforting and therapeutic than rolling over fresh dough in your hands and repeatedly punching into it with all of your strength. You feel your arm and wrist muscles hard at work and yet at the same time feel completely relaxed. Zen. Nothing else matters except working this dough into it’s perfect, elastic form.
There was something about those rolls in Sweden that I haven’t quite been able to recreate yet- they were always filled with this custard-y mix of sugar and cardamom and the bread was perfectly soft with just the right ratio of dough to filling. Making proper Swedish kanelbullar will be an ongoing project to focus on, but in the meantime, my own adaptation of traditional twisted + knotted rolls, with an added faintly nostalgic flavor of honey buttered toast, are perfectly delicious for breakfast or fika (traditional Swedish afternoon tea + snacks). Make these with love and dedicated focus and relish the soft, doughy, cardamom speckled result, with an extra swipe of butter and drizzle of raw honey on top.
Honey Butter Cardamom Buns
Makes 12 medium buns, adapted just a bit from Gourmet Traveler
- 1 cup warm milk (whole dairy or almond)
- 2.5 tsp yeast
- 2.5 cups (550g) all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup (40g) cornstarch
- 2 tsp cardamom
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp honey
- 1/3 cups (80g) melted butter
- 1 egg plus 1 egg yoke for brushing the tops
- 1/4 cup (60g) butter, softened
- 2 tbsp honey
- Optional: 1-2 tbsp brown sugar (if you want the filling sweeter- I did it with just honey and they were delicious, but not super sweet)
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp cornstarch
In a small bowl, lightly whisk together the yeast and warm milk and let sit until frothy- about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, mix in a large bowl the flour, cornstarch, cardamom, cinnamon and salt. Once the yeast is ready, pour the mixture in with the honey, butter and one egg. Begin to mix with a wooden spoon and once it starts to come together, use your hands. Once fully combined, turn the dough over onto a floured, clean surface and knead for about 6-8 minutes, or until the dough is nice, smooth and elastic. You can always use a mixer and bread hook as well, but besides the fact that I don’t have one, I always prefer doing this by hand. Form the dough into a ball and let rest in a covered, oiled bowl in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Near the end of resting your dough, create your filling by creaming together all of the ingredients in a small bowl. After the dough has risen, punch it down, then roll it out into one large, thin rectangle. Spread the filling evenly, then carefully fold the top edge towards you, folding just halfway down, then bring the bottom edge up to meet that halfway line. Horizontally cut the dough into strips, about 1-2" wide, then cut the whole rectangle in half vertically (halving each strip). You should have about 12 total. Delicately twist each strip from the ends, twisting and lengthening until it's nice and coiled, then knot it around itself and place on a baking tray with parchment paper. Repeat with each piece, leaving a couple inches of space between each roll on the baking tray. Let them rise, covered with a cloth, for another 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 350ºF(175ºC). Brush the tops of each bun with a whisked-up egg yoke before placing in the oven to bake for about 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove, cool for several minutes, then serve with butter, honey, jam, and tea.