My mom’s cinnamon rolls have ruined me for all others. We’re all a little biased towards the foods of our childhood because they’re comforting and nostalgic. But her cinnamon rolls aren’t just the best because they were ours. It’s not just because I can remember eating them hot from the oven, risking a burned finger to pull at the crisp edges where the sugary filling has spilled out and caramelized.
It’s not just because she only makes her cinnamon rolls for Christmas, making the smell of cinnamon sugar and butter incredibly powerful for me. It conjures up the scent of the fresh pine tree we’d cut down, and the crunch of snow underfoot as we’d walk through the fields to pick the perfect one. The stickiness of the sap of our fingers as we’d carry it back, Bing Crosby on the record player, the glitter that would fall off our collection of homemade ornaments, getting all over our pajamas and the floor.
It reminds me of wearing uncomfortable shiny shoes to church on Christmas Eve, and of kneeling down to take communion, feeling the cold red brick through my thick white tights. It reminds me of the sparkly look of tea lights, of spools of silky red and green ribbon, of Archie comics wrapped up on our bedside table so we’d have one single present to unwrap as soon as we opened our eyes on Christmas morning.
It reminds me of my toes turning numb as we took our annual Christmas card outside in the cold fresh air—sometimes with our pig Wilbur, sometimes with our cow in the milking shed. (I imagine that these cards were probably eagerly anticipated by our friends everywhere, serving as a welcome change of pace from the piles of similar ones everyone else took: Nantucket vacations or summer hiking photos or staged family holiday portraits. Oh, you went to Cape Cod? Well here we are holding chickens. Ha!)
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my mom would make dozens of batches of cinnamon rolls. She’d freeze a few for us to have, then wrap the others in foil and tie them with ribbons. We’d drive around, dropping them off with friends and teachers and so on.
Partly the excitement at which these rolls were received is due to the mere fact of such a gesture—gift-gifting, especially the homemade sort, is meaningful no matter what.
But mostly everyone loved the rolls because they are so, so good. And here’s why: they are the polar opposite of what people think of as the “ultimate” cinnamon roll. Unlike a Cinnabun monstrosity, they aren’t puffy or oversized or swathed in frosting. They aren’t even glazed!
Next to bakery cinnamon rolls, they look downright austere. But I swear to you that they’ll win you over. Because they aren’t so puffy or doughy, you can roll them tighter so the insides get more compacted, creating a dense swirl of buttery cinnamon sugar filling that’s sticky and thick and gets almost caramelized as it bakes. The outsides of the rolls are practically crisp, especially if you reheat them in the oven a day or two later.
This isn’t the exact recipe my mom uses, but it’s close and it’s the one I always use now. I love it best because the dough is exceptionally easy to work with. It’s actually the same dough I use for most brioche breads and babka-type loaves. It rolls out easily without snapping back; it’s rich-tasting but not too buttery; and you don’t even need flour to roll it out. It’s soft and elastic but not sticky.
And forget about the glaze. You don’t need it! Try them once as is, and see what you think. You can easily swap the filling flavors when you want a change of pace.
I often do a cardamom sugar filling (using cardamom, sugar, and melted butter plus a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg), and sometimes I add a little five-spice powder. You can skip the cinnamon sugar and use Nutella or cookie butter for a totally different vibe, or blend together tahini and sugar and melted butter with some toasted sesame seeds for a Mediterranean twist.
The Best Cinnamon Rolls
Makes one 9” round pan
For the dough
7 ounces milk (2% or whole), heated until lukewarm
2 1/2 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast
3 cups (360 grams) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the filling
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (I use Vietnamese cinnamon)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or by hand in a large bowl, mix together all the dough ingredients. Mix until the dough comes together, and then knead until the dough is very smooth and elastic—don't skimp on this step. It should take about 10 minutes in a stand mixer. If the dough is still pretty sticky, carry on kneading until it feels quite smooth.
Lightly grease a large bowl and place the dough in it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until puffy and almost doubled.
Gently press down the dough to deflate it, and turn it out onto a counter. The dough is buttery enough that you shouldn't need extra flour—it shouldn't stick.
Press/roll/stretch the dough out into a large rectangle, about 12" x 18" in size.
Brush the melted butter evenly over the dough, leaving a little space around all the edges (about 1/2"). Whisk the cinnamon into the sugar to combine, then sprinkle the mixture evenly over the butter.
Starting with the long edge closest to you, roll the rectangle into a long log. Pinch the seam closed firmly. Using a serrated knife or a piece of unflavored dental floss, slice the dough into 2-inch rounds (or a little thinner).
Place the rolls into a greased 9-inch round cake pan. (I like to grease the pan, then line it with parchment, and then grease it again because then the rolls pop out easily.) Cover the pan with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise until puffy, about 20 minutes. Towards the end of the rise, preheat the oven to 350° F.
Bake the rolls for about 25 minutes (start checking after 20, and then may take as long as 30 -- just take them out when they are golden brown on top). Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes.