Nineteen-year-old Ellen Thompson is a cinnamon bun ninja. She pours, rolls, kneads, powders, slices and drizzles with amazing speed to create humongous cinnamon buns.
The famous buns, which are about nine inches across, are a favorite among the Yukon Quest family. They’re sold at Braeburn Lodge which doubles as a checkpoint during the Quest.
Thompson is part of the Braeburn Lodge “family” which includes herself, owner Steve Watson, and long-time employee Leigh Knox. Watson and Knox are friends of Thompson’s family and have known her since she was born.
“They’re like an aunt and uncle,” said Thompson.
They taught Thompson how to make the cinnamon buns for fun when she was just 10-years old. She became so good at it they hired the Whitehorse piano teacher on as staff during the summer and for big events like the Yukon Quest.
“During the summer season, we make about 120 cinnamon buns a day and use 35 to 40 kilograms (77 to 88 lbs) of flour to make them,” she said. “Lifting heavy buckets of flour keeps us strong.”
For the Quest she said they made and sold 70 cinnamon buns. But this was in between taking orders, ringing up meals and making large hamburger buns, soup buns and loafs of bread.
Knox said Thomspon is an amazing employee who knows how to get things done. “I don’t ever want her to leave,” she said.
Leigh has been working at the lodge for 25 years and has helped provide cinnamon buns and hearty meals to Quest mushers, volunteers and handlers for about 20 years.
She said the Quest is a nice pulse of life during the winter.
“It’s crazy town,” she said. “It’s pretty much like our busy summer days with the tourist buses. We just get swarmed with people, only they’re in big parkas and not Bermuda shorts.”
She said she enjoys the Quest family, which is so appreciative of the cinnamon buns and hearty meals. Leigh added that the event itself is good for business.
“It gets our name out there,” she said. “The Quest trail brings people into the lodge even after the race is done. People use the trail, fat bike along it. Families take adventures on it.”
Watson said he also likes the Quest. “Old friends come through and I make new ones,” he said.
He also likes how it brings his “family” together. Not only does Thompson come in from Whitehorse, but it brings in Leigh, who spends four winter months each year on Vancouver Island.
In a way, they’re kind of like the cinnamon rolls they make: just the right teaming of ingredients to make the Braeburn Lodge a welcoming checkpoint and a delicious stopover on the Quest trail. They’re also larger than life.
Michaela Neetz, who helped at the Braeburn Checkpoint, said everyone should see the team in action. “If you stop by, you can catch them swirling around, just like the cinnamon rolls.”
What goes into making cinnamon buns at Braeburn
“The buns are the perfect mix of cinnamon and sweetness,” said Canadian Quest volunteer Scott Wagg. Braeburn Lodge’s cinnamon buns are tasty, but how do they do it? While the exact recipe for the Braeburn Lodge cinnamon buns is a secret, employee Ellen Thompson was willing to share some general info and tips about their cooking process.
1) “You start off mixing in a lot of eggs, a lot of mostly melted butter and a lot of flour,” said
Thompson. She also adds yeast, sugar and water and puts it into a commercial mixer with a dough hook for about 15 minutes. She said overworking the dough or adding too much sugar causes the dough to become tough. The temperature of the butter and the water needs to be just right. “The temperature of water and melted butter can’t be too hot or it will kill the yeast. If it’s too cold it won’t activate the yeast. You need lukewarm to warm,” she said.
2) “We take out the dough, cover it and let it rise for 20 minutes or sometimes 40 if we get distracted and busy.”
3) Thompson said they then flatten the dough to an even thickness of about an inch. “You have to have patience with the dough and get it to all the same thickness to make nice even rings.”
4) Then comes building a layer of sweetness. “We spread a whole bunch of soft golden brown sugar. We sprinkle cinnamon and toss some raisins on.”
5) Next comes the rolling of the dough. She usually gets about “four twists,” or four circles in the spiral, which means about eight layers of dough across with sweet layers of sugar and cinnamon in between.
6) “I slice the roll about every 2 1/2 inches, a width that’s exactly between my fifth and my index finger,” she said.
7) Then she uses a food mop to grease the individual bun pans with shortening, “I sometimes sprinkle sugar on the bottom of the pans to get them gooey.” She fills the pans with slices of the cinnamon bun roll, and lets them rise again for an additional 20 minutes. “It’s called a double rise,” she said.
8) She then puts two catch pans with 6 buns each in the oven for 21 minutes. They come out of the oven to cool for 2 hours, before she drizzles a mix of icing sugar and water on the buns. About five to 10 minutes later, she wraps them in cellophane and then places them onto the lodge counter for sale.
“They usually go right away,” said the cinnamon bun ninja. “Sometimes we have a hard time keeping up.” And yet, she always delivers.