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In one of my most vivid memories, I'm watching my parents make cinnamon rolls from scratch on Christmas morning. Flour and mess are everywhere; dough is coiled directly on the counter. The house smells like the siren song of Cinnabon at the airport. I want our home to feel like this every day! And it happened exactly once.
Because, inevitably, cinnamon rolls from scratch are a commitment. There's usually (but not always) yeasted dough to rise twice, filling and icing to measure and whisk, rolls to swirl and slice and bake.
But most problematic of all: The joy is fleeting. Most rolls are at their best still-warm and molten. Do a little math, carry the one, and — in order to have breakfast at breakfast time — you're waking up just a few hours after you went to bed. Maybe that part's just me, but it's no wonder my parents didn't make this an annual tradition.
The team at King Arthur Baking Company knows this, of course. They also know, with the pandemic still keeping much of the world at home, that we could really use a cinnamon roll, but won't be in a position to polish off a whole pan at once any time soon.
So the King Arthur team's mission, with their 2021 Recipe of the Year, was to change all this, and to bring from-scratch cinnamon rolls into more homes, more often. The recipe they developed is so pillowy-soft, the rolls will taste just as good for lazy Sunday brunch as they do on groggy weekday mornings (and midnight snacks) thereafter, with some bakers even reporting pillow-softness a week later. This also means you can make the entire recipe ahead the night before, then just warm and frost as you go in the morning. Cancel that 6:30 a.m. alarm.
But how? And will coffee shops everywhere stop giving away their pastries at the end of the day when they learn about this recipe? The King Arthur baking team relied on the moisture-retaining powers of tangzhong, a technique you may have seen used in Japanese milk breads and other downy baked goods to achieve lasting moisture and softness (1).
In tangzhong — a technique with origins in Japanese yukone (or yudane), widely popularized by the Taiwanese cookbook author Yvonne Chen in her book 65 Degrees C — simply pre-cooking a portion of the recipe's flour with water before mixing with the rest of the ingredients kick-starts the gelatinization of the flour's starches. This makes them better able to hold liquid — up to twice as much as if you were mixing the flour and water together at room temperature or lukewarm. The same amount of hydration in a recipe without a tangzhong step would be a runny, un-kneadable mess.
And best of all, that well-trapped moisture sticks around long after the rolls are baked. Hence the plush, gooey cinnamon rolls for days on end, an experience so rewarding, it most certainly won't be the last time you do it.
Prep time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Cook time: 18 minutes
Makes: 8 large rolls
- 1/2 cup (113g) whole milk
- 3 tablespoons (23g) bread flour (preferably King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour)
- 2/3 cup (151g) whole milk, cold
- 2 1/2 cups (300g) bread flour (preferably King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour)
- 1 teaspoon (6g) salt
- 2 tablespoons (25g) granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 4 tablespoons (57g) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon (14g) butter, melted
- 1/2 cup (107g) light brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons (15g) bread flour (such as King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour)
- 3 to 4 teaspoons (8g to 10g) cinnamon (see note)
- 1/16 teaspoon (pinch) salt
- 3 tablespoons (42g) butter, melted, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/16 teaspoon (pinch) salt
- 1 1/2 cups (170g) confectioners' sugar, sifted
- 1 to 2 tablespoons (14g to 28g) milk, cream, or buttermilk; enough to thin to desired consistency
- To make the tangzhong: Combine both the ingredients in a small saucepan, and whisk until no lumps remain.
- Place the saucepan over medium heat and cook the mixture, stirring regularly, until thickened, paste-like, and the spoon or spatula leaves lines on the bottom of the pan. This should take 1 to 3 minutes, depending on the strength of your burner.
- Remove from the heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl, the bowl of a stand mixer, or the bucket of a bread machine (whatever you plan to knead the dough in).
- To make the dough: Add the ingredients to the mixing bowl in the order listed; the heat from the tangzhong will help to warm the cold milk.
- Mix — by hand, on low speed of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, or in a bread machine set to the dough cycle — to bring the dough together. Next, knead the dough until it's smooth, elastic, and tacky. This will take up to 15 minutes by hand, 10 to 12 minutes on medium-low speed of a mixer, or the length of the dough cycle in a bread machine.
- Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a bowl, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a reusable cover.
- Let the dough rise until puffy but not necessarily doubled in bulk, about 60 to 90 minutes (depending on the warmth of your kitchen).
- To make the filling: While the dough is rising, put the melted butter into a medium bowl and add the remaining ingredients, stirring until the mixture is the texture of damp sand. Set aside.
- Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment paper.
- To assemble the rolls: Transfer the dough to a lightly greased work surface and press it into a 10x12-inch rectangle that's about ½-inch thick. For evenly shaped rolls, try to pat the dough into an actual rectangle (with corners), rather than an oval.
- Sprinkle the filling over the dough, covering all but a 1/2-inch strip along one long side.
- Starting with the filling-covered long side, roll the dough into a log.
- Score the dough lightly into eight equal 1 1/2 to 2-inch pieces; this will make large, saucer-sized cinnamon rolls — their generous size is part of their charm. Cut the dough at the score marks. Dental floss will give you the cleanest cut: pull off a long piece of floss, loop it underneath the log at the score mark, and pull the ends in opposite directions to cut the dough. Repeat until you've cut all of the rolls. If you don't have dental floss, a bench knife or sharp knife will work.
- Place the rolls onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them so there's at least 2 inches between each one and they're 2" away from the edges of the pan; a 3-2-3 arrangement works well on a half-sheet pan. To prevent them from unraveling while they rise and bake, tuck the ends of the spirals underneath the rolls so that they're held in place.
- Cover the rolls with lightly greased plastic wrap or a reusable cover and let them rise for 30 to 60 minutes (depending on the warmth of your kitchen). The rolls should be puffy and the dough shouldn't bounce back immediately when gently pressed.
- About 20 minutes before you're ready to bake, position a rack in the top third of the oven. (If you need to use two sheet pans, either keep one sheet in the fridge while the first bakes, or bake them on racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven, rotating halfway through baking.) Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Bake the rolls until they're a light golden brown and a digital thermometer inserted into the center of one roll reads 190°F, for 14 to 18 minutes, or less if you've cut the rolls thinner than 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Bake for the lesser amount of time for extra-soft rolls, and the longer amount of time for rolls with a bit more color and slightly firmer texture.
- Remove the rolls from the oven, place the pan on a rack, and brush the hot rolls with 1 1/2 tablespoons (21g) of the melted butter. Let the rolls cool for 10 to 15 minutes before icing.
- To make the icing: Combine the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons (21g) melted butter with the remaining icing ingredients in a medium bowl, mixing with a spatula until smooth. Milk makes a lovely frosting; using cream in place of milk creates an extra layer of richness, while substituting buttermilk adds subtle tang, a nice counterpoint to the icing's overall sweetness.
- Ice the rolls and serve immediately. If you're planning to serve the rolls later, wait to ice them until just before serving. Store icing at room temperature, tightly covered, until you're ready to use it.
- Store completely cooled rolls, un-iced and well wrapped, for a couple of days at room temperature; or freeze for up to 1 month.