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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Christmas Cinnamon Rolls

Let’s just get one thing straight. Is there anything more delightfully, sinfully, homey than warm home-made cinnamon rolls? I think not. They are, perhaps, the perfect vehicle for food-induced nostalgia (and are my contribution to Food for Thought). In fact, I had been doing a lot of thinking about cinnamon rolls in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Growing up, my mom often made cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. No one quite remembers at what point this took on the aura of an inviolate "tradition" but at some point it became inconceivable that we would have Christmas morning without cinnamon rolls. As the days to Christmas in Ghana counted by, I became more and more stubbornly attached to the idea of having my traditional cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning. Even if, without an oven, I had to bake them in my ricecooker.

Christmas morning, perhaps moreso than any other day of the year, is a day replete with memory and tradition. In my home, it is my sister and I whispering across the gap between our twin beds in the room we share, because we are forbidden from getting out of bed before 6:30 AM. (This ban, as you might expect, was not as necessary as we grew older and more in love with sleeping late). We wake up, mismatched pajamas, hair askew, and padded out to the tree. We were allowed to open our stockings first, even before our parents were up. The stockings are hand-sewn felt stockings made by my Great-grandmother. Without fail the stockings will contain a tin of cashew nuts shaped like Rudolph the reindeer, and little foil wrapped Santa chocolates the size of my thumb.

When we were younger, presents would follow the stockings as soon as my mom was up and had her coffee brewing. As we got older, we learned to savor the anticipation better, and so we often had breakfast before exchanging gifts.

But there was always delicious breakfast. And when I think of all the Christmas mornings past, when I imagine them in my head, they always smell like cinnamon rolls baking. I knew, I just knew that I was going to make cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning.

But first, questions must be answered. Like why should we go through all this hullabaloo? Why not leave the cinnamon roll making to the good folks at Cinnabon? (Or for the Chicago natives, to the good folks at Ann Sathers). Or for those who like things just a touch more like home, why not pop open one of those convenient little cardboard tubes from Pilsbury and bake your “own” at home without all that fuss.

Because the fuss is half the point. To make cinnamon rolls from scratch for someone is a tangible message of love, a handwritten note in the digital age. Cinnamon rolls are a bit of a labor of love, but not as much as you might expect. The act of making them from scratch, endows these delightful treats with that extra little dose of love that is the makings of memorable traditions.

For those of you who have been following my adventures in Ghana, you know that I don't have an oven in my home here. It seemed oddly suggestive of the Christmas story itself: my Christmas tradition was almost, almost born in a rice cooker. But through a friend of a friend we found ourselves invited to join some other expats for a Christmas morning brunch. The kindness of near strangers inviting us to join their holiday celebration, as we all tried to meaningfully experience the holidays so far from home and tradition, is a memory I will not soon forget.

And they had an oven. And yes Virginia, these are awesome cinnamon rolls.


1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp white sugar
1 package active dry yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp salt
½-1 cup milk
2.5-5 cups flour, more if needed


4-6 Tbsp softened butter, divided
1-1 ½ cup brown sugar
3-4 Tbsp Cinnamon, preferably Korintje

Chopped walnuts or pecans
½ cup Honey




Pour warm water into a small bowl or cup. Add 1 tsp sugar and stir to mix until dissolved. Gently pour yeast onto water. Set aside. The yeast will gradually combine and should slightly puff. It will smell slightly of, well, yeast and bread. This is called “proofing” and is used to ensure that your yeast is still active.

In a large bowl, mix milk, sugar, melted butter, eggs, and salt. Stir well to combine. When yeast has proofed, add the yeast mixture and stir to combine. Add half the flour and stir to combine.

Adding flour is always the tricky part of baking, more art than science. The amount of flour varies depending on the weather that day, the humidity of the air, of the flour. It probably depends on the barometric pressure for all I know. But the real trick is that more often than not people add too much flour rather than too little.

The amount of flour is an art, so I can only give you quantitative guides and some qualitative indications. I would add flour ½ cup at a time. You want to just just barely past the stage where it seems like slightly eager primordial ooze. It will be much wetter than you expect: if left to sit on a board, it wouldn’t run all over the sides like spilled milk, but neither would it hold a perfect ball shape. At that stage, dump it out onto a well floured surface and begin kneading. This is going to be messy, but if kneading by hand resist the urge to add too much flour. It will stick to your hands like a bit of an unholy mess, but persist. Keep kneading, adding ½ cup at a time until some structure begins to develop. It still wouldn’t hold together like a perfect ball if you shaped it and set it down, but that primordial ooze is starting to get some posture, some manners. Keep working it, adding flour in smaller increments until you get it just past primordial ooze stage. It still wouldn’t stand up like a perfectly formed ball (they way cookie dough would) but it will hold together like a slightly depressed balloon, but without totally flattening out.

Place in a buttered glass or plastic bowl, preferably with steep sides. Cover and rest in a warm place, free from drafts, until doubled in bulk. This might take about an hour, but I always hesitate to give these indications, because they are an invitation to walk away and do something else. I have had too many yeast breads fall flat into unappetizing rock hard disks because I left them unattended for too long. The rise depends a lot on the temperature. Here it took about 35 minutes to double. Watch your thermometer and peek in on it from time to time


Don’t skimp on the filling. Of course the amount of your generosity depends on your own particular interests in “skinny” versus “gourmet.” Decide on your own preferences for the use of butter and sugar, but feel free to go wild with the spices. If you are feeling a bit cutting edge, I would consider adding some complimentary spices, like nutmeg, even a pinch of ginger or ground coriander.

Divide the butter into two parts and smooth the soft butter over the entire surface of the dough. Next sprinkle each half of the dough with half of the cinnamon and sugar mix. If using the optional extras, drizzle with honey and/or chopped walnuts. Be sure to spread all your goodies all the way to the edge of the rectangle or the rolls at the end will be sad.

Roll the dough gently, working from the long end nearest you towards the other long end. When you complete the rolling, pinch the long edge of the dough slightly to seal. Cut the rope into six pieces. Place the pieces onto a slightly buttered baking dish. They can be baked together in a circular baking dish with sides. Alternately, space them out well onto a jelly roll pan. If possible I like to use stoneware for this type of baking, because it produces wonderfully light final product.

Bake for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees or until rolls are golden brown. Cool rolls slightly before icing.

The Future of the Cinnamon Roll?
The success of this essential Cinnamon roll recipe has emboldened me to want to try some more creative variations. Keep your eyes open this spring for some interesting variations. I’m thinking bananas foster meets the roll. Maybe blueberry with lemon lavendar glaze. The possibilities are endless. Think of it as Cinnamon roll fusion.

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chou said...

My husband's family always has cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning. Here's the catch--they're made by a family friend, who brings them around sometime mid-December. The rolls take a short nap in the freezer and are popped in the oven Christmas morning to be enjoyed sometime between waking, unwrapping and eventually changing out of pajamas into something a little less comfy.

Laura said...

Those look wonderful--I am glad you got your oven for Christmas morning. I wanted to submit to Food For Thought, but was unable to as I was out of town, but I would have done sweet rolls--something about bread and childhood memories, eh?

kazari_lu said...


These look amazing. Bread baking (of any sort) is something i still find intimidating. but these look like fun.

baking history said...

Erin, your cinnamon rolls look wonderful!! Baking in a rice cooker is something I never thought to do, but the results are clearly perfect.

I liked the theme of the event you are hosting; in fact I sent you my submission, by email,I hope you received it. just in case, I include the link here as well


Erin said...

Chou, I have never tried freezing yeast doughs, but it sounds like it works eh? If so, that is surely a tempting way to avoid any additional work in the hustle of holiday mornings.

Laura, if you still want to submit, you are welcome to do so. A few people have written to send in late entries. Living in West Africa has made me very flexible on the concept of deadlines.

Kazari, working with yeast doughs was something I just bulled my way into. I got together a group of willing test subjects and just gave it a go. I had some (very funny) disasters, and some great successes.

I did get your entry, and just to clarify, I ALMOST had to make them in the rice cooker, but was saved at the last minute but a friend with an oven.

White On Rice Couple said...

The close up on these rolls are making us salivate. It's been such a long while since we've made our cinnamon rolls , now it's time. Thanks for the reminder!

Laura said...

Thanks for the offer re: your deadline but between the Super Bowl party coming up, my husband's birthday meal and the general chaos of my life it would be long past your deadline before I would have a chance. But thanks for saying so--someday I will write about them when I have a chance and I will send you the link for the heck of it.

Erin said...

White on Rice-Glad to give you a little motivation. I hope yours turn out tasty!

I made these again, and Ghana introduced a few too many variables, and well lets just say they were pretty tasty but resembled semi-burnt hockey pucks. But that is a future post for the follies section: troubleshooting Cinnamon Rolls. Any experienced Cinnamon Rollers should feel free to post advice on avoiding mishaps.

Nirmala said...

Gorgeous! Simply irresistible.

Meg Wolff said...

I'm so glad that you brought your rice cooker with you. :-) Wow, cinnamon rolls in a rice cooker ... that is creative!

Becky said...

Thanks for letting me know about these! I am definitely saving this recipe. We always have coffee cake on Christmas morning but it may change this year!

Philip said...

I LOVE! cinnamon rolls. My cousin's Grandmother used to make the best ones, but I never got her recipe. Cooks Illustrated has a biscuit dough recipe for cinnamon rolls that is pretty functional, but it doesn't make a roll as light as these look. BTW I'm not going to wait until next Christmas to try these... The wait would drive me insane.

Erin said...

Philip- the dough is definitely fabulously light, but I will also warn you that there as much artistry as technical mastery in making these turn out. Be sure to check out "troubleshooting cinnamon rolls" before getting down to work for a good guide on what can go wrong (with any cinnamon dough recipe) and how to address it. You definitely have to let me know how yours turn out!

Becky, I have fallen in love with these as a tradition because they are such a testament to someone going out of their way to prepare something that takes a bit of care. On the other hand, why stop at Christmas? I am thinking of birthday, valentines, memorial day, arbor day...but that may just be me

Anonymous said...

this looks great--and after my babka fiasco a few xmas' ago--i have not tried yeast since (except pizza dough)--

i am thinking that i am missing part of the instructions- they seem to go from proofing the dough ball initially to smearing butter -- no mention of how to go from doubled in size to rolled out- double proof? and do they rise again in the stoneware before actual baking?

thanks for shedding any light on this for me

Sherihan said...

I was really glad when i read the title of cinnamon rolls linked to website called SKINNY gourmet,and they look mouth watering!!! but where is the nutritional facts for it???

Erin said...

Sherihan: These are not low-cal low-fat cinnamon rolls, its true. But part of the overall SG philosophy is that your eating should be a balance of foods that are intrinsically healthy for you, and those that are wise indulgences: things that are a bit of a splurge but where small quantities are extremely satisfying. For me, these cinnamon rolls fall into that second category.

This post doesnt include NI because I posted it while in Ghana working with slow internet connections and so I could not work the magic of pulling the NI and making a label to post. But you can calculate this and any recipe's NI at:

Hope you enjoy!

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