I am descended from expert bakers. My grandma was a kuchen master, turning out forty of those sweet, fruity, custardy German confections at a time, well into her seventies. My mom, valiantly feeding a family of eight, perfected the art of homemade sandwich buns. There are none like hers in any store or bakery. She enlisted me in baking mountains of cookies (see my previous post, “The Dark Side of Cookies”). All the women in my family made wonderful cinnamon rolls.
When I was sixteen or so I learned to make cinnamon rolls on my own, from start to finish. My efforts were pronounced more than satisfactory, and I was quite proud of myself. One summer day, when Mom wasn’t around for some reason, I decided to bake a batch to impress relatives who were coming to visit.
I mixed and kneaded the dough and set it to rise. Except that it didn’t rise. I’d wondered, when I was mixing, if the water might be too hot, but concluded it was just right. I should have gone with my first instinct. I had indeed killed the yeast. So there I was, with a heavy, inert lump of dough, but stupidly decided to keep going. I rolled out the dough, a recipe that should have made at least two pans of rolls, but in its unrisen state made only one very heavy pan.
Baked and cooled, those cinnamon rolls were inedible – extremely dense, chewy and dry. So I did what we farmers do with all sorts of things the humans won’t eat. I fed them to the dog. Farm dogs will eat almost anything. The dog seemed grateful at first, but when I looked out the kitchen window a few minutes later, I observed him digging a hole and dropping in a roll. Not even the dog would eat those rolls. He apparently thought they were a new kind of bone that needed to be buried.
In spite of that disaster, and a few others, I still love to bake. I know I must limit my baking projects, or risk my health and my weight. So I have to discipline myself not to bake something delicious every single day.
But sometimes you just need a sweet, gooey, warm cinnamon roll. Or a caramel roll. If you’re going to have a roll, have an excellent one. I think the best ones are homemade, with no fake ingredients (although the ones from a can will do in an emergency). Yes, I know you can get a pretty good one at the mall, but you don’t really know what’s in it, do you? What if you made your own cinnamon roll?
You might be finished reading at this point. That’s all right. Go find a cinnamon roll somewhere and eat it with delight. But if you want to try making your own, here’s my recipe, with a few hints that should make it easier. This looks like a lot of work, but I’ve used a lot of words to describe a fairly simple process. I think the dog would love these!
The Dough: You can knead the dough by hand if you want to. Some people find it therapeutic, but I’m in favor of speed. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, you’re in business. If you have a bread machine, use the dough only cycle. It’s idiot proof (just don’t make the water too hot). If you have an aversion to making your own dough, go ahead and buy the frozen kind.
1 cup water (no hotter than about 125 degrees. You’ll have to use a thermometer at first, but if you get good at this, you’ll be able to tell by testing it with your finger).
2 tablespoons oil or softened butter
1/4 cup sugar
3 tsp active dry yeast (check the expiration date. Dead yeast won’t rise, remember?)
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. salt
3 1/2 cups flour (approximately) You could substitute 1 cup whole wheat flour for white. It makes them healthier? Ha ha.
If you’re using the bread machine, follow the user’s manual for the order of ingredients (the yeast goes in last). If you’re using any other method, do this:
Mix the water, oil, sugar and yeast and let it sit for a few minutes until it’s bubbly. Mix in the egg and salt. Add the flour and start kneading.
You may need more flour or more water than the recipe calls for, depending on the weather that day. On a really dry day, you may need a little more water. On a really humid or wet day, you may need a little more flour. Here’s how to tell: If the dough feels too sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time, and knead it in. If the dough is dry and crumbly, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. If you’re using the dough cycle on the bread machine, check the dough ball after five minutes to see if you need more flour or water. The dough is ready to rise when it’s smooth (no stickiness) and elastic (stretchy). It should feel like a baby’s bottom.
Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover it with a dishtowel, and set it somewhere warm to rise, about 2 hours, depending on the air temperature. It’s ready when you poke it with your finger and the dent remains. Relax – the hard part is over!
The Filling (You’ll spread this on the dough after it’s rolled out, whether you’re making plain rolls or caramel rolls):
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
Have ready 2 tbs very soft butter (but don’t mix it with the sugar and cinnamon)
Spray a 13 x 9 pan with cooking spray. For caramel rolls, mix the following together and spread it in the bottom of the pan.
The Caramel (double this if you want):
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/ 2cup packed brown sugar
1 tbs corn syrup
2/3 cup pecan halves OR chopped walnuts
Punch the dough down to the size it was before rising. Let it rest 15 minutes to make it easier to roll out. With a rolling pin, roll it to an even thickness, 18 x 9 inches, on a lightly floured counter. Use a ruler to get it the right size.
Spread the 2 tbs soft butter over the dough. Sprinkle on the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Yes, it’s a lot, and so yummy.
Starting at a narrow end, roll up the dough tightly and pinch the edge into the roll to seal. Now take a serrated knife and cut the roll into 12 equal pieces. Start by cutting the long roll in half, then cut each half in half. Now cut each of the four pieces into thirds. Put the rolls, cut side down, into the pan. There will be a space between each roll, which will fill up when the rolls rise.
Cover the pan with the dishtowel and let rise again, about 1 hour. Use the poke test.
Bake the rolls at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes, depending on how gooey you want them to be.
If you made caramel rolls, invert the pan onto a cookie sheet set on a cooling rack. Let the inverted pan sit for a minute so the caramel can drizzle over the rolls. Invert them back into the pan, Scrape up all the caramel from the cookie sheet and spoon it onto the rolls. Put the pan on the cooling rack and let the rolls cool completely, or until you can’t stand it anymore and have to eat one.
If you made plain rolls, let them cool on a rack, and then frost them with Buttercream Frosting, which is easy to make, and much more tasty than frosting from a can. Because you use real butter, for which there is no substitute. If you warm up a frosted roll later, the frosting will melt deliciously into it, adding even more wonderful gooeyness.
1/3 cup softened butter
3 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tbs milk
Blend butter and sugar. Stir in vanilla and milk and beat until all the lumps are gone. You’ll have some frosting left over. Use it as filling for graham cracker sandwiches, which are also delicious. You can feed them to the kids, leaving more rolls for you.
Warning: If you successfully make these rolls, your family will want you to make them again. And again.