On A Roll...

To make a special weekend a little bit sweeter, I decided to try my hand at homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast this morning for the first time. I've long been interested in trying my hand at them because they hold such positive associations for me: for most of my life, the majority of the cinnamon rolls I've consumed have been made by Grandma Betsy, who keeps a stash of them in the freezer, ready to serve to any family members who happen to come over for a visit. Though she changes her recipe frequently, and has long been frustrated by her inability to find a cinnamon that meets her rigorous standards for intensity of flavor, a warm, spicy-sweet cinnamon roll in the morning has become synonymous in my mind with hospitality. For me, cinnamon rolls are sort of the ultimate food of love.

Originally, I was intimidated out of trying them for myself because I was afraid of dealing with yeast, but years of making my favorite pizza dough and recently delving into yeasted waffles have made me more comfortable with the fungi, so my fear of yeast was no longer an impediment. Eventually, it just came down to a matter of time; cinnamon rolls take a long time to make. The dough needs time to rise, then you roll out the dough, sprinkle with cinnamon, roll the dough into a spiral log, cut it, place it in pans, then allow it to rise again before baking. Then you have to make icing, and ice them as well. They're not a convenient weekend breakfast -- this is why they're a food of love.

Since I'm completely head over heels in love, I decided it was time to suck it up and put some time and effort into making a special treat for my beloved. I'd long had my eye on a recipe from popular food blogger-come-Food Network personality Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, that has been floating around the blogosphere for years and is regarded as one of the best cinnamon roll recipes out there, so I decided to use a reduced version of her recipe for my first attempt. (Drummond's original recipe is truly massive, as she suggests you make them as a holiday gift and share them with basically everyone you know, so I halved her version.)

I was particularly pleased to finally get around to trying this recipe because it gave me an excuse to finally use up some of the cinnamon that Katherine sent me as a birthday gift last year, in a sampler pack from Penzley's Spices. It featured several different single-origin cinnamons from around the world, each purporting to be ideal for a different purpose. The bottle of Chinese cinnamon touted that it was perfect for cinnamon rolls, so I decided to go with that, and I was glad I did. It was intensely flavored (despite being over a year old... oops), and had a pleasant sweetness to it that complimented the rolls.

The rolls themselves were fairly straightforward and not particularly difficult to make, though, as I predicted, they did present a serious time commitment. I started them last night after we got back from Starved Rock (and had Justin go to the store and get some yeast, because it turned out that I was under the mistaken impression that I had the right type in my cabinet), then I woke up early this morning to finish them before Justin had to leave for work, while I let him sleep in. Even with making only half the recipe, I still ended up with four pans of rolls, for a total of 28 cinnamon buns, so I think I'll be going the freezer route, just like Grandma Betsy.

Before icing. Even at half the original recipe, I ran out of pans and had to substitute one of my own cake pans.
I'm not prepared to make The Pioneer Woman's cinnamon bun recipe my gold standard just yet. Though I was attracted to them in part due to their maple glaze (I love me some maple flavoring), I found its overall effect on the rolls to be a bit too sweet. In the future, I might opt for a cream cheese based topping to add some much needed tanginess to the mix. I'd also like to give the Cook's Illustrated cinnamon bun recipe a try, as they've earned my complete trust when it comes to bread products. Still, now that I've shown myself that I can conquer cinnamon roll making, I look forward to perfecting my own version to share with my loved ones, just like Grandma Betsy.

After icing.
Pioneer Woman's Cinnamon Rolls

2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. sugar
1 package active dry yeast
4 c. all purpose flour, plus 1/2 c., separated
1/2 teaspoon baking powder (heaping)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (scant)
2 teaspoons salt
1 c. butter, melted
1 c. sugar
generous sprinkling of cinnamon
Maple Icing, recipe follows

Mix the milk, vegetable oil and sugar in a pan. Scald the mixture (heat until just before the boiling point). Turn off heat and leave to cool 45 minutes to 1 hour. When the mixture is lukewarm to warm, but NOT hot, sprinkle in the active dry yeast. Let this sit for a minute. Then add 4 cups of all-purpose flour. Stir mixture together. Cover and let rise for at least an hour.

After rising for at least an hour, add 1/2 cup of flour, the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir mixture together. (At this point, you could cover the dough and put it in the fridge until you need it - overnight or even a day or two, if necessary. Just keep your eye on it and if it starts to overflow out of the pan, just punch it down).

When ready to prepare rolls: Sprinkle rolling surface generously with flour. Take the dough and form a rough rectangle. Then roll the dough thin, maintaining a general rectangular shape. Drizzle 1/4 to 1/2 cup melted butter over the dough. Now sprinkle 1/2 cup of sugar over the butter followed by a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

Now, starting at the opposite end, begin rolling the dough in a neat line toward you. Keep the roll relatively tight as you go. Next, pinch the seam of the roll to seal it.

Spread 1 tablespoon of melted butter in a seven inch round foil cake or pie pan. Then begin cutting the rolls approximately ¾ to 1 inch thick and laying them in the buttered pans. Let the rolls rise for 20 to 30 minutes, then bake at 375 degrees until light golden brown, about 15 to 18 minutes.

Maple Icing

1 lb. powdered sugar
1 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 c., plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
pinch of salt

Mix together all ingredients and stir well until smooth. It should be thick but pourable. Taste and adjust as needed. Generously drizzle over the warm rolls. Go crazy and don't skimp on the frosting.

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