This recipe for these slightly sweet and spicy buns is adapted from one in a small group of manuscripts in the Mary Custis Lee Papers at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.7 Forgotten for more than a century, these papers were found in 2002 in two wooden trunks at the Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Company in Alexandria, Virginia. Included are letters, legal papers, journals, and other significant documents, all collected by Mary Custis Lee, eldest daughter of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The recipe likely came from Ann Randolph Fitzhugh, mother-in-law of George Washington Parke Custis.
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water, divided
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
2 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
1. Sprinkle the yeast over 1/4 cup of the water, add 1 teaspoon of the sugar, and set aside to proof until bubbly—about 5 minutes.
2. Sift the flour, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and salt together into a large mixing bowl.
3. Stir together 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar with the butter. Add to the spiced flour, mixing with your fingers until crumbly.
4. Whisk the egg together with the remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons of sugar. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and pour in the egg and sugar, proofed yeast, and milk. Stir until well mixed, adding enough of the remaining water to make a soft dough. Put the dough in a buttered bowl, turning to coat with butter. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and set aside in a warm place to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until doubled.
5. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan with vegetable shortening. Push down the dough with a wooden spoon. Divide into 12 pieces, shape into balls, and place in the prepared pan. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise for about 45 minutes, until doubled.
6. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Position the rack in the upper third of the oven.
7. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the buns are lightly browned. Watch carefully, as they can easily burn. Immediately remove the buns from the pan, and place on a wire rack to cool.
Makes 12 buns
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