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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Troubleshooting Cinnamon Rolls
Or the flattening of my dough and ego

Sometimes it is said, “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” Whoever said that is a chump. In my book, love means being ready to admit to the litany of your mistakes, most of which originate from being stubborn, pigheaded, and/or egotistical. Love means standing up and being willing to admit when you were wrong. And so, dear readers, because I love you, I am here to admit that I was egotistical, overly confident, and utterly botched a batch of my cinnamon rolls that had been eagerly anticipated by two dear friends. Ever dedicated to learning from my follies, I turn this into an opportunity to look at troubleshooting cinnamon rolls.

I sort of had this one coming to me. I had, after all, escaped the hubris of baking cinnamon rolls on a new recipe for a batch of relative strangers on Christmas morning and they turned out like a dream. That meant, of course, that to balance the kitchen cosmic order, I was due to be on the giving end of some comic relief.

So perhaps I should not have been surprised when this time my darling cinnamon rolls turned out dense and deflated, with an outer crust more appropriate to artisanal hearth loaves, and blackened bottoms. These were a far cry from the previous clouds of mouth delight, melting buttery cinnamon welling up over soft, pillowy rolls. I was surprised, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

For some of my mishaps I patiently ignored my own little shoulder angel, the one who whispers caution, and so probably deserved whatever I got. Other problems really blind-sided me, caught me completely unexpecting, although in retrospect they were perhaps obvious. And so, for your reading pleasure, and your cooking education, I submit the account of my follies.

Mistake #1: I got a little too high and mighty about not overdoing the flour and, you guessed it, I managed to under-do the darn flour. This one I saw coming, but still stubbornly ignored my gut. About six months ago I was convinced by the good folks at America’s Test Kitchens that most people are better off using an appiance to prepare dough than to hand knead. I take a certain joy and satisfaction out of hand kneading even when I have appliances available to me, but the Test Kitchen folks noted rather scientifically that people who hand knead are likely to add too much flour because they obsess about dough sticking unpleasantly to their hands. This ultimately results in a tougher and denser crumb that isn’t appropriate to certain airy baked goods, like cinnamon rolls. So when I made them for Christmas I dutifully kneaded my way straight through the phase that seemed too sticky, resisted the urge to add too much flour, and sure enough, in the end the dough developed the right consistency. But this time around it was as though I compounded my desire to hold back, and so I put in even less flour than I used on Christmas, even while I worried that the consistency really didn’t look right. Turns out it didn’t look right because it wasn’t right.

In the original recipe I give some pretty detailed qualitative descriptions of what the dough should look and feel like that will hopefully be helpful to beginners starting to work with yeast doughs. If I had managed to listen to my own good descriptions, I would have spared myself a lot of agony down the road.

Mistake #2: I was so concerned about letting it rise well that I let the dough more than double. I submit as an irresolute law of yeast breads that you are always always better off erring on the side of less rise, rather than letting it more than double (unless otherwise instructed in the recipe). I prefer not to tell you the number of rock hard hockey pucks I have produced when, out of inattentiveness or inexperience, I let the dough more than double. Why is this so bad? Read on to Mistake #3.

Mistake #3: My dough didn’t have enough gluten to support itself , because Mistakes #1 and #2 compounded each other. Like an overeager teen after a comeuppance, began to rapidly fall back on itself.

Mistake #4: I incorrectly estimated the amount of time it would take the oven to pre-heat. This problem further exacerbated the already out-of-whack timing between the rise of the dough and its introduction to the warm baking environment. The warmth of baking firms up the structure of the dough, like turning temporary supports into solid walls. The ideal is to catch this solidifying phase just as the dough is expansive and light with air pockets, but still has enough structure to support itself.

Mistake #5: I incorrectly estimated the temperature for baking. These next two mistakes loom large for many people baking in unfamiliar appliances, and are particularly troublesome for those of us who are baking with appliances in developing countries. For some mysterious reason I have yet to fully understand, no oven I have found while living in either Ghana or Costa Rica had temperatures written on the knob. Perhaps the makers take everyone to be illiterate, or at least insufficiently rationalized to care about a little thing like temperature. So when I went to heat the oven for cinnamon rolls, there was no setting for “350 degrees” rather, I was confronted with a dial that had a drawing of a big flame on one end, and a little flame on the other. What followed was clumsy calculus about how hot we thought the thing could get, what the coldest setting was likely to be, and how far in between the mythical “350 degrees” was likely to lie.

Why does it matter? With yeast dough, the temperature contributes to the rise, and therefore the final consistency of your bread product. If the oven is too hot, your dough will tend to develop a crust too quickly, and the crust will discourage a full rise, compressing the dough inside and producing a denser final product.

Mistake #6: I did not anticipate how poorly the heat was distributed in the oven. Having been spoiled for years now with efficient technology in ovens that manage to circulate the heat so that it distributes relatively well throughout the space, I really had not appreciated how thoroughly the heat in this small 1.5 x 1.5 foot oven space could concentrate on only the very bottom.

A fix? Many people in Ghana who don’t own ovens bake outdoors in oven spaces constructed from hand by clay and earth. Natural substances like clay are a great way to regulate heat in an uneven oven. If you own a pizza stone, try putting it in the bottom of your oven to maintain an even temperature. If you have trouble with top-down distribution, experiment with preheating the oven with the pizza stone on top, to encourage heat to gather at the top of the oven.

Mistake #7: I did not account for the effect of baking in a black pan. From time to time in recipes you will come across a special note about adjusting the baking temperature depending on whether you are baking in a shiny metal pan or a glass pan. More rarely, you will see mention of adjusting to compensate for baking in a black pan. Black tends to concentrate heat more, so baking in a black pan further exacerbated the uneven temperature within the oven, ensuring the bottom of the rolls got much too much exposure to the heat while the tops got little. This alone shouldn’t have affected the rise or consistency of the final baked product (if everything else had been in order) but it certainly contributed to turning the bottom of my rolls a dark espresso brown just shy of blackened.

In the end… In the end it wasn’t a total loss. Among the four of us we wound up eating the whole pan, which I suppose is a sort of victory. One of my friends claims to have never had a cinnamon roll before, which I find preposterous and possibly dangerous, but it also meant she didn’t have a great memory to compare to my faulty attempt. When I served the rolls I tried to just serve the uppermost part, leaving the burnt bottoms in the pan. But after we finished the rolls we got around to snacking on the bottoms like sweet crisps that we dipped in the remaining icing. They were not so burnt as to be bitter, and I found I actually enjoyed them that way, although I would never intentionally replicate the experiment that produced the burnt bottoms.

When I made the rolls at Christmas, without all these mistakes, they made 14 good sized rolls, a satisfying serving per person. This time around, with all the poor rising and poor baking factored in, we wound up with only eight.

Need more help? See what Cooking for Engineers has to say about Bakers yeast.

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Psychgrad said...

It's helpful to learn from other's mistakes. I have a lot of trouble with knowing where to put food in my oven/placement of the shelves.

Skinny How To said...

Sorry the cinnamon rolls didn't turn out but at lease you learned something in the process. I've had trouble with yeast baking before and I think maybe my problem has been letting it rise too much, so thanks for the tip.

Erin said...

Thanks you two! Nice to have support for publicly sharing ones blunders. Skinny, I hope the tip about not over-rising does help you. I have found that to be the source of my most spectacular troubles with yeast breads. You can experiment with higher gluten flours, which can be a bit more forgiving than regular flour. By the way Skinny, your tips about portion sizes and moderation are right on. Great site.

ejm said...

It's comforting to see that I'm not the only one who does this sort of thing. My last batch of cinnamon buns (aka cinnaburns) had sadly similar results. But I wasn't smart enough to actually do a point by point analysis of what I did wrong. Heh. That would have made too much sense.

Glad to hear that you were able to salvage the top parts of your cinnamon buns.


P.S. I always hand-knead dough, especially when the instruction says that a machine should be used at all costs because the dough is too sloppy. I archly look upon it as a challenge. :-)
P.P.S. Over-rising has been the cause of most of my spectacular failures as well.

Erin said...

elizabeth-I got a great snort out of your "cinnaburns" tag. I also really love the image of you out there fearlessly tackling the recipes designated for the machine. I'm in the fight there with you. Thanks for sharing my pain!

Kevin said...

I tried to make cinnamon buns a while ago as well (and sticky buns). You might notice that I did not post about them... The glass is half full point of view: I know that I will be trying to make them again sometime soon. I am looking forward to better results. :) God luck with yours!

Sue (coffeepot) said...

Thanks for sharing, as the analysis may help me in my own cinnaburn attempts.

I personally never go without my bread machine if I can help it.

ejm said...

I don't think I would use the term "fearless", Erin...

And speaking of sharing your pain, allow me to share it a little more. I just cut into a loaf of "cinnamon swirl" bread that I baked last night. Wah!! Rather than being beautifully defined and centered, the "swirl" is sitting hopeless near the bottom of the loaf in a sort of triangular shape. Yup, I made the dough too slack....


P.S. Tastes good though. (NOT burned!!)

Erin said...

kevin and sue: Glad to hear you enjoyed the breakdown of my problems. Hopefully it helps your next "cinnaburn" attempt turn out better :)

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, could I say that I pretty much made almost each mistake written on this post. I was shocked that for the first time of baking the same recipe, the Rolls came out thin and hard on its outer edges. I'm fairly dissapointed since I have been craving them like a nine-month pregnant woman. Well, great minds think 'and Err' alike.

Midnight Baker.

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