It was a sunny summer Arizona day. I was a bored 13-year-old who had a serious hankering for something sweet. I had all day with nothing to do, most of my family were off doing whatever fun activities they had set up for themselves. I decided to attempt to make cinnamon rolls. My mom made them occasionally, so I dug out her recipe and was off on my very first yeast baking experience!
As I measured out the flour and kneaded the dough, I thought, “This is easy! I could make these everyday!” I left the dough to rise. The recipe said “double”. Forget the fact that I am horrible at visual estimation, I figured 20 minutes or so would be a good amount of time, so I could get them finished before my sisters got home. After about 25 minutes, it looked like it had risen a lot…maybe it was about double.
I rolled them out (Hmmm…how thick? How thin?). I spread the melted butter and did what the recipe said to do: sprinkled sugar and cinnamon. I rolled them up and cut them and put them all side by side in one 9×13 pan. Wait, I have to let the rise AGAIN? Sheesh… *Sigh* By this time I am dying to eat these things, and it has already taken FOREVER to make them up to this point (remember, I’m 13…an age not known for it’s patience).
I let them sit for about 10 minutes and am delighted that they look all puffy and risen. I preheat the oven and pop them in. I’m so excited to pull them out of the oven, and top them with a basic buttercream frosting (yeah, I think my sisters and I all learned to make a chocolate buttercream frosting before we could talk) and EAT THEM! Mmmmm, these are amaz…amazi…amazingly hard. Like hockey pucks. And flavorless.
It would be many, many, many, many years before I would attempt to bake with yeast again.
Through my cooking and baking adventures, I commonly hear from people “I can’t make anything with yeast”. I completely understand. I had more failures than just that teenaged cinnamon roll disaster, and I finally just decided, “I’m not a yeast baker”. Somehow the yeast baking gene skipped over me.
In college, one day, I wanted homemade cinnamon rolls. I said to myself, “People make homemade cinnamon rolls all.of.the.time. Why in the heck can’t I?” I set out to follow a recipe to-the-tee and see if I could pull it off. I did. They were fabulous. They weren’t perfect, but finding a recipe with precise directions that I followed exactly helped me get a feel for yeast baking. Over the years, as I overcame my fear of yeast failure, I’ve become pretty darn good at it.
The key to yeast baking is experience. That means lots and lots of failure. Lots of hockey pucks and doorstops and fallen breads. The more you experience the dough, the yeast, and how they react in your environment and your oven, the better you’ll get at it.
This is turning out to be a super long post, so thanks for sticking with me. CINNAMON ROLLS (that was for those who skipped all the above part and wanted to get to the pertinent info). Here’s the thing with cinnamon rolls: patience. Make them on a day you have a lot of time, you’re not in a hurry. You need to make sure they are rising as much as needed. Second: roll them thin. You know those cinnamon rolls you get in the mall? They have a ton of layers, and they are nice and soft and gooey. That’s from rolling it super thin so that you get lots of thin layers. Third: do not over stuff the pan. You’ll notice in my pictures that I only put eight rolls in a 9×13 pan. Yeast rolls actually get three times to rise. First, when you double the dough. Second, after shaping, you let them double in the pan. Third, when they cook, they expand again. If you have extra space around them, it gives them lots of room to expand, which results in a softer end product. You also want to frost them hot, straight out of the oven. The frosting will keep the rolls soft as it seeps into the hot roll. Make sure every exposed surface is covered.
GOOEY CINNAMON ROLLS
1 cup warm milk (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup white sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 eggs, room temperature
3 1/2-4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
If you haven’t yet, take your eggs out of the fridge so they can warm up to room temperature. In a bowl, or your stand mixer, combine the milk, yeast and sugar. Let sit for 5 minutes, until it is frothy. Meanwhile, melt your butter and let it cool a bit. Stir the butter into the yeast mixture, then add in the eggs and stir to combine. Stir in 3 cups of the bread flour and the salt. Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time until the dough just comes together. Do not add too much flour, or your rolls will be tough. Knead for 5 minutes with your dough hook, or for several minutes by hand, until the dough is soft, elastic and bounces back when you touch it. If you are using a stand mixer, the dough should stay on the hook and not stick to the sides of your mixing bowl. You may need to sprinkle extra flour in every so often to keep it from sticking. Place a towel over the bowl and let sit and rise until double, about an hour.
Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Roll dough into a 16×21 inch rectangle. This is easier said than done, it takes some practice, but don’t worry too much if it has uneven edges. The key here is not the measurement given above, but that it is rolled thin. It can be bigger that 16×21. In a small bowl, mix together the cinnamon and brown sugar. Use a rubber scraper to spread the soft butter across the surface of the dough. Leave a 1/2 inch border just on the side farthest from you, where you will seal the roll of dough, free from butter. Evenly spread the cinnamon mixture on top of the butter. Starting at the long edge, start to roll the dough. You want it fairly tightly rolled. I tend to stretch it a bit as I go, pulling the roll towards me as I go. It’s normal to have to do one side, then the other. This is a nice, soft dough and will take some finessing to get it to roll evenly. Don’t worry if it’s lopsided. When you get to the end, pinch the edge shut as well as you can. Place the seam side down. Cut the jagged edge piece off each side. Don’t throw them away, those are rolls, too! Now, cut your nice, neat roll into 12 equal portions. I usually cut the log down the middle, then in quarters, then cut each quarter into thirds. You will see all sorts of tips on cutting cinnamon rolls. The only trick you really need is to use a serrated knife (the kind with a jagged edge), and “saw” the rolls, do NOT press down with the knife, or you will mash them. If you lightly saw them with a nice, sharp, serrated knife, you won’t have any problems.
Spray your pans with cooking spray, or lightly grease with some oil. I typically use one 9×13 pan and one slightly smaller oblong pan that fits six rolls (remember, you have the two edge ‘reject’ rolls). You can use a 9×9 pan and ditch the reject rolls if you want, or depending on their size, combine then into one roll and place it in the middle of the 9×9 pan. You want to only put 8 rolls in the 9×13 pan, and the remaining 4-6 rolls in whatever other pan you choose. Cover each pan with a towel and let rise again, about 30 minutes.
Preheat your over to 375 degrees. Bake the rolls for 15-18 minutes, until light brown and moist, but not doughy on the inside (just use your psychic abilities, or use a fork to kind of pull the middle of one roll to one side to see the texture of it).
While the rolls are baking, or while they are rising, or whenever (you could pre-make this frosting and freeze it, if you want), whip together the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat until light and fluffy.
Immediately frost after removing them from the oven and let cool 5-10 minutes, so you don’t scorch the inside of your mouth (this is the hardest part of the recipe).
If you want fresh baked rolls for breakfast (we have them every Christmas morning), you can make these and freeze them after shaping (just get the disposable foil pans and put 6 in each pan). Pull them out of the freezer the night before and let them defrost and slowly rise in the fridge all night. Pull them out of the fridge when you wake up, preheat the oven and bake. for best results, bring to room temp before baking, but even if you don’t do that, they’ll still be amazing.