Roll playing: Lemon love

Valentine’s Day is customarily celebrated with chocolate. In fact, about a billion dollars’ worth of chocolate is sold worldwide, every year, to mark this holiday. Those pastel conversation hearts (“Love You,” “My Baby”) trail chocolate by a mile, while cinnamon “red-hots” and Valentine Marshmallow Peeps, though favored by some, aren’t even in the same league with chocolate.

So, for those who don’t actively love chocolate, what’s a suitably celebratory alternative? After all, a box of artisan chocolates, a chocolate heart-shaped cake, chocolate-dipped strawberries—these all bespeak time spent, caring, the energy of love.

But Marshmallow Peeps? As much as my husband craves them (which is a lot), I don’t feel quite right pledging my everlasting love to him with a 50¢ box of heart-shaped Peeps.

A good “gift from the heart” for non-chocolate fans is actually a gift OF a heart—a heart-shaped confection. Heart cake pans, big or small, can hold coffeecake, cherry cheesecake, even a fruit crisp. And, for you dedicated yeast bakers, heart-shaped breads are an easy project.

Several years ago I developed a recipe for lemon buns, lemon-scented yeast buns that, surprisingly, aren’t sweet at all. The hint of lemon simply adds its own fresh flavor to these airy textured, light-gold buns. A dollop of jam complements the tart lemon beautifully.

And on a recent Sunday morning, while contemplating heart buns for Valentine’s Day, I remembered this recipe. Lemon heart buns with strawberry jam—yeah! I quickly imagined a simple way to shape yeast dough into a heart, which reminded me of shaping pretzels, which turned my mind to (garlic) knots, from which were quickly born Lemon Love Knots. And Tart Hearts.

So if your sweetheart falls into the minority of chocolate non-lovers, or you’re simply tired of being part of a massive Valentine’s Day cliché, try these buns. A sprinkle of coarse sugar on top gives them just enough sweetness to eat alone—without jam, that is. Not without honey. YOUR honey. Sitting by your side.

Read our Lemon Love Buns recipe as you follow along with these pictures.


Let’s state with my favorite shortcut: lemon oil. This has been a key ingredient in my pantry for 15 years or more. It’s simply essential oil squeezed from lemon rind—that kind of oil, not the fat kind. A mere quarter-teaspoon steps in for a tablespoon or so of grated lemon rind in any recipe. No running out to buy a lemon; no grated knuckles. A great kitchen companion (with its friends, orange oil and lime oil) for citrus lovers.


We’ll start by putting all of the ingredients into a bowl.


Mix till combined…


…then beat for 2 minutes with the flat beater, till the dough begins to smooth out.


Scrape down the sides of the bowl…


…till the dough comes together in the center.


Switch to the dough hook, and knead for 5 minutes. The dough probably won’t form a ball, but it’ll definitely gain some body.


Place the dough in a lightly greased container. As usual, I’m using my trusty 8-cup measure, so I can track it as it rises.


Let it rise, covered, for about 75 minutes, or until it’s close to being doubled.


Transfer it to a lightly greased work surface or silicone mat. It’s not really necessary to shape it into a ball; I just love the feel of this soft dough in my hands, so why not, right?


Divide the dough into 16 pieces; they’ll weigh about 1 ½ ounces (43g) each.


Gently roll each piece into a rope using your fingers. The dough is soft, and rolls out easily.


About 15” should give you plenty of rope to shape. For variety, I like to make 8 hearts, and 8 knots.


To make a heart, curl the two ends of the dough in towards each other…


…then bring them both into the center. Lift the center…


…and press it atop the two ends, to anchor them as the dough rises.


Pull the two halves of the heart apart a bit, kind of like a butterfly shape. As they rise, they’ll become more heart-shaped. Place them on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, and cover.


To make knots, taper the ends of the ropes a bit.


Start by making a loop with long ends.


Bring the end that’s lying on top through the loop, as though you were tying a knot…


…then bring it over the loop, and down underneath.


Bring the other end over the loop…


…and into the center, where it will meet the other end, the one you just tucked underneath.


Pick the knot up, and squeeze the two ends together in the center.


And there’s your knot.  This takes a bit of practice; I suggest tying and untying a knot a few times to get the hang of it.


Put the knots on a baking sheet and cover, just like you did the hearts. Let them rise for about 75 to 90 minutes, till they’re puffy.


Brush with beaten egg white mixed with 1 tablespoon of cold water.


Sprinkle with coarse white sparkling sugar.


Be generous; the crunch of the sugar is a wonderful counterpoint to the soft bun.


Bake till light gold. Remove from the oven, and cool on a rack. See the airy inner texture?


Here are the knots.


I couldn’t resist finding a red plate.


And I even tracked down a red stoneware cake pan. Even if chocolate isn’t, the color red is an absolute given on Valentine’s Day. Enjoy!

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Lemon Love Buns.

Buy vs. Bake

Buy: Sweet Bakery & Café, Ellicott City, MD: 2-oz. plain dinner rolls, $4.49/dozen

Bake at home: 2-oz. Lemon Love Buns, $1.87/dozen

PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!


  1. cindy leigh

    I made these today for an event on Sunday- I increased the recipe by 50%. They are awesome! I ate 2!! The dough bakes up very soft and tender, and the lemon flavor is terrific. I used lemon oil, and a drop of sweet buttery dough flavor since I’m addicted to that.LOL, I used the leftover egg white in my breakfast sandwich, so I used bakers shine to stick the sugar on the top. I used half sparkling sugar (KA) and half raw sugar – lemon flavor. It’s brown like brown sugar and the crystals are large like sparkling sugar. I found it in Stop and Shop grocery.
    They are very good with cream cheese, and I bet lemon curd would be good too (for me anyway, since there’s no such thing as too much lemon in my book)
    Thanks for a nice recipe.

    Cindy, I’ve always liked (LOVED) this recipe… glad you discovered it, and like it, too. Thanks for sharing your success, as always – PJH

  2. Shawna

    To Jan, who asks about making these in advance. I mixed the dough using the dough cycle on my bread machine and let it rise there through the first rise. They turned out great! I think it would work equally well to load the bread machine the night before and set the timer so the dough has time to rise before you wake up. Then, you’d have to simply shape, wait for the second rise, and bake the next morning.

  3. Lish

    Well I finally made these using coconut milk powder for the dry milk and lime oil instead of lemon oil. They were fantastic! I made them slightly smaller, in the knot shape, and got 24 buns. They were such a hit at the barbecue there were only two left this morning for the kids to have for breakfast. They also complemented my black bean soup quite nicely. I will definitely make them this way again. I am thinking middle of winter I might try with the orange oil or fiori di sicilia and sprinkle them with sparkling sugar mixed with cloves and nutmeg. I love this recipe! The dough is so soft and easy to work with, and everyone always raves about the results. My son was so disappointed that they were gone he asked me to make more today!

    Lish, I like your idea about the fiori and spices and sparkling sugar… Sounds perfect for cooler weather and the holidays. PJH

  4. Lish

    These were so easy and made the whole house smell wonderful. Soft, not too sweet, and my 11 month old and 22 month old thought they were great! I wish you could have seen the smile on my 11 month old daughter’s face! My husband doesn’t always like sweet desserts but really enjoyed these. I also appreciate the directions on shaping these into knots, I was so impressed with myself. It was so easy to do the more I did. They looked so professional, and I am thinking that this summer for a barbecue I might do them with lime oil, and some coconut to go with some mojitos and pina coladas on the patio! Thanks for all the great info and easy to follow recipes, even for a busy mom!

    Exactly, Lish – bet your last knots looked a whole lot better than your first, right? Same with me. Glad your kids enjoyed them, too – keep developing those sophisticated palates! I think the lime-coconut idea is a winner. Try adding some coconut milk powder, if you like that flavor a lot – PJH

  5. Clare

    I’m off to try these. If they turn out well, can you show me how to make shamrocks so I can bring them to a St. Pat’s Day playdate?

    Clare, sounds like you could do the same type of heart shape, but with three swirls (for the shamrock leaves) instead of two – yes? Good luck – PJH

  6. Michelle

    I made these last night to serve to the mom’s at my playgroup today. They were a hit and I think everyone really enjoyed them. I love how they are not really that sweet and have a great lemon taste. I used the zest of one lemon which I will increase next time to get even more of a lemon taste. I have seen some people say they made a lemon glaze which I will also try in the future. As my husband and I like to say….add this one to the list!

  7. Elizabeth

    These are delicious. I made these today with help from my 5 year old daughter, Alexandra. She loved rolling them into “snakes” and then forming the shapes. We made a few heart shapes, knots and then she free formed a few that ended up looking like swirls. She says they are wonderful and she is ready to make some more! Thanks so much for an excellent recipe. My daughter and I loved spending the day together making this fun and easy tasty treat!
    PS We are new to making home made breads!

    Elizabeth, good for you and Alexandra! Glad the rolls came out well. Bet Alexandra would have fun making the letters of the alphabet… And welcome to the wide world of bread! PJH

  8. Lucinda

    I had the same problem as OE . . . measured everything carefully, used weights . . . still the dough is more like a batter than a dough . . . I used a stand mixer, so no extra flour was added for kneading. Given the caution about adding too much flour listed in step #2 in the main recipe , does the recipe assume that some additional flour will be incorporated beyond the 3c/12.75oz. listed in the recipe?

    Oh well, went ahead and put it in to rise anyway, we’ll see what happens.

    One other thing, the recipe doesn’t indicate what state the butter should be in prior to mixing–cold? room temp? cut into pieces? melted?

    I do quite a bit of baking, but mostly bread and pies. This is my first attempt at “buns” . . . I guess there’s lots to learn . . .

    Don’t give up, Lucinda. Baking is a journey. Did you use King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour? That makes a difference. This is a soft dough to begin with, and if you use a lower-protein flour than KA, it’ll definitely be TOO soft. Butter is best at room temperature, but ice cold works, too, so long as you have a strong mixer and you cut it into pats. Good luck – hope it works out for you. PJH


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