Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The perfect cinnamon roll, part one


All my life, as far back as I can remember, my father used to talk about his mother's cinnamon rolls.  When she came out west to live with my parents, I asked her to make them.  With pen and paper in hand, I set out to capture the recipe, but it was quickly apparent that her method was an art form, and there would be no measurements to capture on paper, so instead I sat and watched, and tried to absorb as much as possible.  It would prove of little value.

"A little of this", or "add enough until it looks right" were common utterances.  No measuring cups or spoons were used, yet her cinnamon rolls were perfection. I remember thinking, as I watched her, that she was so haphazard with her yeast, yet it yielded to her direction, aiding in the production of beautiful, light and fluffy cinnamon rolls.

I was impressed with her 'no fear' approach to yeast.  Frankly, yeast scares the crap out of me.  I look at it, and I swear it's heaving up and down, taunting me, challenging me to make it work in my recipes.  I have had great success using yeast, but only through tenacious efforts to conquer the yeast beast.


Sadly, it wouldn't be long before my grandmother would pass on, and with her, her well loved cinnamon roll recipe.  It was then I decided I would make the perfect cinnamon roll.  Someday.


A few years ago I set out on my quest.  How difficult could it be?  Well, apparently, pretty difficult.  Batch after batch I made, and while some were good, I was never completely satisfied.  A little dry.  A little heavy.  Dough not proofed well enough, or dough proofed too much.  I got close so many times.  I tried one variation or tweak after another, yet I still came up just shy of my goal of perfection.

What was I going to do?  Well, keep on keeping on.

I wanted the lightly sweet cinnamon rolls my grandmother made, not the ones I kept finding recipes for, that were so overwhelmed with sugar, you couldn't appreciate the beautiful dough, nor the feature ingredient, which, of course, is cinnamon.


It was clear I would have to develop my own recipe, and develop I did.

My grandmother had set a bar I would soon realize was very high, and very nearly out of my reach, but my perseverance would prevail.

A few things of note...

A word about ingredients.  Do yourself a favor, accept the fact you are making a rich, buttery, sugary dish.  Don't attempt to substitute your ingredients.  If you truly want top shelf results, stick with the ingredients, as they are called out.  In most every case, when someone takes a recipe I have given them, and makes substitutions, I'm often met with, "it didn't turn out like it does when you make it".

Don't *ever* work with yeast and pass over the yeast proofing step.  It's a simple step, and if you proof your yeast, and find out it's no good, you will have saved the remaining ingredients in your recipe, not to mention a heck of a lot of time.

In this recipe, I use active dry yeast.  I do not use instant, or 'bread machine' yeast, and there is a reason.  I find active dry yeast has better rising duration.  Instant, or 'bread machine' yeast is more forgiving of inaccurate water temperatures, but it races fast, and stops short, meaning it doesn't seem to have the rising duration of the dry active yeast.

When proofing yeast, I recommend measuring the temperature of your water.  You can't accurately determine a failure if you aren't sure what your water temperature is.  An instant read thermometer can be found for a few dollars at most grocery stores.  In my opinion, it's a great little kitchen tool, and when you proof yeast, you increase your chances of success when you work with the correct temperature.

Proofing dough:
Cinnamon rolls don't like to be over-proofed.  They like to grow to about 2/3 their original size in the first rise, then fully in the second, just before baking.  And, under no uncertain terms will they be happy to rise more than double the first time, and then be expected to do a repeat performance for the second rise.  Like a mile horse in a two mile race.  They might finish the race, but they will have nothing left for the second race, or rise as it were.

Frozen vs. fresh:
Contrary to popular belief, cinnamon rolls really don't like to be frozen after they have been rolled and cut.  They will adapt, but they don't love it, and special consideration needs to be taken to help them rise as they thaw.

A frozen cinnamon roll needs 8-12 hours on a kitchen counter to thaw and rise, then another 30-40 minutes in a proofing box prior to baking.  They are very good, and while I prefer fresh, because I do find a very slight difference between fresh and frozen, the convenience of frozen balances the scales.  There's no questioning the convenience of buttering a loaf pan, adding two frozen cinnamon rolls before you head to bed, covering it with plastic wrap, and waking up to a ready to bake treat, following a short time in your proofing box.

Moisture and elevation:
I live at 3200', and our climate is extremely dry.  These two things would have a dramatic impact on my results, as I would learn, and your own elevation should not be weighed too lightly, either.  If, like me, you live at 3200', and your climate is dry, you likely have fewer adjustments to make for my recipe than if you live at sea level, in an extremely humid climate.  Just remember these two principles: dough likes to be wet, and the higher your elevation, the quicker your dough will rise.

Do not rise by time.  Rise by eye.  When it's ready, it's ready, whether it's 2 hours or 20 minutes.

Purists will tell you that hand kneading is the best, and on the one hand, I agree, but when you need to maintain a moist, sticky dough, there is an underlying challenge with hand kneading; you must fight the urge to over flour as you knead, else your moist, sticky dough will turn into an easy to handle, but horribly dry, tough and dead mound of useless goo.  For me, the solution is a stand mixer.  I realize not everyone has a stand mixer, and for the serious cook/baker, there is no question it's a major convenience.  In the absence of a stand mixer, hand kneading is fine, provided you do not over flour your dough as you work it, and be prepared for it to stick to your hands quite effectively.

The pan:
There is truth to the old adage that different pans produce different results.  I use a straight sided baking pan that measures 6" x 6", and is 3" high.  I bought it specifically for this recipe.

I freeze what I don't bake immediately after I make the rolls, and I always use this pan. I have also used a 9" straight sided round cake pan, as well as the full sized 9" x 12" baking dish called out in the recipe.

The only type of pan I would avoid is a dark baking pan, and certainly do not use a non-stick pan.

Rising warm or cold:
Some say you can rise cinnamon rolls overnight, in the refrigerator.  I have never known this to work all that well.  If there is a trick, I haven't found it.  In my experience, yeast wakes up when it's warm and moist.  When it's cold, it will simply continue to sleep.  I suspect, with enough time, the 'rise in the refrigerator' method will work, but I haven't found it to work overnight, even when following recipes entitled "overnight cinnamon rolls".  Perhaps my refrigerator is just too cold.  That could certainly be possible.

A proofing box:
There is much discussion among bread makers regarding proofing, which is a fancy word for rising.  Unless you live where it's 80 degrees, and 80% humidity, you will need to make some adjustment for proofing.  A proofing box is nice, but I find the cavity of my microwave oven makes for an effective proofing box.  I simply place my dough (first rise), or the cut rolls (second rise) into the microwave.  I add a small bowl of boiling water in with the rolls, and close the door, creating a mini sauna for my dough/rolls.  It cuts proofing time, and I get a much nicer rise.

A word of caution:  do not boil liquids in a microwave.  Not even water.  Water can explode in a microwave, and cause severe burns.  Boil your water in a small pan on your stove top, then transfer the boiling water to a glass bowl.  Just place the bowl of boiling water into the microwave, along with your dough/rolls.

Ingredients vs. the baker:
A set of ingredients is really only as good as the baker who will work with them.  There is some skill required in working with yeast dough, whether a loaf of bread, or a pan of cinnamon rolls, so if you don't get the results you desire in your first attempt, don't automatically blame the recipe.  It's most likely the implementation of the process, or a missing ingredient.

Not too high, not too low:
When it comes to baking cinnamon rolls, the best place is smack in the middle of your oven, with the pan centered on a rack set to mid height.  You don't want to burn the bottom, and you don't want to burn the top.

Cover or not to cover?
For me, this was an interesting question.  It never occurred to me that covering my rolls for the first several minutes of baking might actually be a benefit, until I started my artisanal bread journey, where steaming the bread for the first several minutes of baking time, gives beautiful oven spring to the finished loaf.  Why not my cinnamon rolls?  After all, dough is dough, right?

For a while, the 'cover or not to cover' question would remain unanswered, but in time I would feel the tickle to test that out, and the results were pleasing.  I now cover my rolls with foil for the first ten minutes of baking, at which time I remove the foil, and let the rolls finish, uncovered.  The oven spring was impressive when the rolls baked under cover for those few minutes.

Frosting or glaze?
This was a difficult question for me to answer for myself.  I love frosting on a cinnamon roll, but often find the rolls overwhelmed by their frosting cap.  By the same token, a glaze is so runny and light, I didn't feel it would be quite substantial enough.  I settled on a thinned frosting.  Not as thick as regular frosting, not as thin as glaze.  Thick enough to set on top, and thin enough to fill any seams within the rolls.  As it turned out, it was the perfect solution.

Ready to bake?  If you remain confident, ready to attempt my idea of the perfect cinnamon roll, take a look at the perfect cinnamon roll, part two.


  1. I am having a problem with my dough. Sometimes when I am mixing the dough it gets sticky and soft. I use instant yeast and hot water. Then when I let it rise and rest it stretches and doesn't roll as it should. After baking the rolls lot very bad but taste good. I live at around 4300ft and this happens when the temp and humidity is high. Can you tell me why my dough is not working.

    1. Without seeing what you are doing, this is a difficult question to answer, but the one thing I would take a look at is your first rise, before you roll the dough. If you let the dough rise too much, it doesn't have anything left for the second rise, and you won't get the right texture in your finished rolls - they will tend to be on the dense side.

      Even when the initial rise is just right, the dough is very elastic, and will spring back as you roll it. This is normal.

      I would also suggest you re-read the instructions carefully, and see if you've missed something.

      I have had other folks test the recipe, and they did not have any trouble. Like you, I live at high altitude, and when you are at a higher altitude, the pressure is generally lower, and rising times should be shortened. Doughs rise faster at high altitude.

      I hope this helps you find success. Happy baking!

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