If the most intimidating part of making cinnamon rolls is making the dough, don’t make the dough.
The very best cinnamon rolls are ooey gooey and soft, and that requires some kind of yeasted dough. Yeast is enough to scare off plenty of would-be bakers. If you’ve never worked with it, those tiny, smelly pellets might seem like dynamite, ready to over-ferment at a moment’s notice and ruin the whole project.
In truth, yeast is easier to work with than you might think. Most cinnamon roll recipes call for a substantial quantity of it — anything over 1 teaspoon feels substantial to me — but that means the dough will rise quickly. You need to stick with a schedule or the dough will rise too much, either in the bowl or on the floured counter or after you’ve shaped the rolls.
So why not start with a prepared dough? The most common types of prepared dough found in grocery stores are pizza dough and puff pastry, and you can make cinnamon rolls out of either one.
The puff pastry makes something flakier and crisper than traditional rolls, so we are calling them cinnamon pinwheels. The version from Christine Moore’s “Little Flower Baking” contains one of the best fillings I’ve had in any cinnamon roll.
Pizza dough is a decent substitute for homemade yeasted dough, though the rolls won’t be as sweet as you’re used to because there is no sugar in it. But it’s a good way to get started baking your own cinnamon rolls if you aren’t ready to make the dough.
Homemade cinnamon roll dough almost always calls for milk and butter, sometimes an egg. You heat the milk and some of the butter together, add the yeast, flour and a little sugar and let the dough rise for at least an hour. The recipe from Orangette blogger Molly Wizenberg, which she shared in Bon Appetit in 2008, is a good from-scratch recipe to start with if you’re making cinnamon rolls for the first time.
No matter if using homemade dough or store-bought, yeasted dough or puff pastry, the assembly process is the same. You’ll need to roll the dough into a large rectangle, about 14 inches by 12 inches. Rolling it on a piece of parchment paper that you’ve dusted ever-so-slightly with flour will help when it comes time to roll the dough into a long log.
I prefer a filling where the butter, sugar and cinnamon are combined before being spread because if you simply brush the butter onto raw dough, it seems to soak in and make the dough even harder to handle.
The filling from Moore’s book also includes an egg white, which helped bind all the ingredients and gave a bite to the baked filling. Another expert tip I learned from her: Use a bench scraper — a versatile tool that’s helpful for scraping dough off a counter or evenly spreading flour or something like this mixture — to evenly spread the filling across the top of the dough. As the rolls bake, some of that thick filling will spill onto the baking sheet and caramelize, an added treat for those of us who like our sugar a little on the crispy side.
Nuts or raisins are among the most popular additions to cinnamon rolls, but they do make rolling the dough a little trickier. (No need to toast the nuts before sprinkling on top of the filling.) The good news is that cinnamon rolls can be somewhat forgiving, even with tiny lumps that can make the log feel uneven, because you can reshape the individual rolls once they are sliced.
However, it’s difficult but not impossible to re-roll the spiral once you’ve cut the slices. To avoid that, go slowly as you roll the log the first time, gently folding the dough and filling on top of itself. Roll the dough starting with the long side closest to you, and err on the side of rolling the spiral too tight rather than too loose.
Another trick I learned: You can use a piece of thread or floss to cut the cinnamon rolls. Rather than pressing down from the top, drag the string underneath the roll and then cross the ends as if you were going to tie it, but without actually looping one end under the other. Cutting with a knife tends to squish the sides; this method is a little more gentle on the dough.
If your dough gets too soft, especially if you’re using puff pastry, place it in the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes to firm up the log before cutting it.
One of the perks of those cinnamon pinwheels is that you can freeze them on a baking sheet, place in a zip-top plastic bag and then bake just a few at a time. This isn’t as easy with yeasted cinnamon rolls, which are usually baked side-by-side in a pan.
Now, let’s talk about glazes. The easiest glaze is powdered sugar mixed with a tiny amount of milk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally added too much milk to powdered sugar glaze and then have to keep adding powdered sugar to thicken it up. Don’t do this. Start by adding a teaspoon of milk at a time if you’re using a cup of powdered sugar, even less if you’re making a small batch.
Cream cheese adds a wonderful savory element to cinnamon roll glaze, but make sure you use room temperature cream cheese or it will be lumpy. If you’re going to add a glaze, drizzle, pour or spread it on the rolls when they are still hot from the oven.
These crispy, flaky cinnamon pinwheels use puff pastry instead of yeast dough. They might not be gooey, but half the fun in this is the cinnamon pecan filling that caramelizes as it cooks.
1 sheet puff pastry, frozen
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 cold egg white
1 cup pecans, chopped
Place the frozen puff pastry on the counter for 20 minutes to thaw.
As it thaws, cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl, scraping the bowl at least once. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon with a fork. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon to the butter mixture and beat until combined. Add the egg white and beat until light and fluffy, scraping the bowl as needed. Set aside.
Unfold the puff pastry and let thaw another 5-10 minutes. Roll into a roughly 14-inch by 12-inch rectangle on a sheet of parchment paper. Scrape the brown sugar and butter mixture onto the puff pastry and spread out evenly with a bench scraper, leaving ¼-inch of an edge clear on the top long side so that the rolls can seal. Sprinkle the pecans on top.
Using the parchment paper to help you, make a ½-inch fold over the edge of the dough on the long side nearest you. Continue rolling the pinwheels, keeping the roll snug, until you get to the other side. Gently press the seam of the puff pastry into the roll. Place the roll in the freezer for 5 minutes, and then cut into 1 ½-inch to 2-inch slices and place them on their sides on the parchment. To help prevent them from tipping over when they rise quickly in the oven, pinch the bottom edges of the pinwheels outwards.
Freeze for at least an hour or overnight. Store in a zip-top plastic bag in the freezer until ready to bake.
To bake, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the rolls on a parchment-lined pan and bake for 30 minutes, rotating halfway. Makes about 8 cinnamon pinwheels.
— Adapted from a recipe in “Little Flower Baking” by Christine Moore (Prospect Park Books, $35)
Yeasted Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Frosting
For the dough:
1 cup whole milk
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 1/2 cups (or more) unbleached all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 1/4 tsp. rapid-rise yeast
1 tsp. salt
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
For the filling:
3/4 cup golden brown sugar
2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
For the glaze:
4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Place the milk and butter in a microwavable bowl or measuring class. Heat in the microwave until the butter melts and the liquid is heated to about 120 degrees. Add to the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Add 1 cup flour, sugar, egg, yeast and salt. Beat on low for 3 minutes. Scrape down the side of the bowl, as needed. Add the remaining flour and beat on low until the flour is absorbed. The dough will be sticky, but if it’s sticky enough that it’s not pulling away from the sides of the bowl and into a shaggy ball, add a tablespoon or two of additional flour.
Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, adding a small amount of extra flour if it’s too sticky, for about 5 to 8 minutes. Form into a ball.
Spray a large bowl with cooking spray (or lightly oil it) and place the ball in the bowl, turning to coat with the oil. Cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours. While the dough is rising, whisk together the brown sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl.
Punch down dough and transfer to a floured work surface. Roll out to a rectangle, at least 14 inches long and 11 inches wide. Spread butter over dough, leaving 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar evenly over butter. Starting at one of the long sides, roll the dough into a log, pinching gently as you roll to keep it tight. Place the log seam side down and slice into pieces that are about 3/4-inch thick.
Spray two square glass baking dishes with cooking spray. Place the rolls in the baking dishes with one of the cut sides up. Cover baking dishes with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise for about 40 minutes.
Heat oven to 375 degrees and bake until the tops are golden, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and invert immediately onto rack. Cool 10 minutes. Turn rolls right side up.
To make the glaze, use an electric mixer to combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter and vanilla in medium bowl. Spread glaze on rolls while still warm. Serve warm or at room temperature.
— Adapted from a recipe by Molly Wizenberg in Bon Appetit
Year of Baking
This is the latest in our ongoing baking series that we launched in January. Here is what we have baked so far, and you can find all the recipes and videos at austin360.com/yearofbaking.
January: Cherry muffins
March: Cream puffs
April: Strawberry scones
May: Fruit crisps
June: Ice cream sandwiches
July: Upside-down peach cake
August: Margarita pie
September: Cinnamon rolls
Next month: Candy bar cupcakes