Cinnamon rolls: A treat for Christmas

BRATTLEBORO — There is a lovely space of years when your children are adults but your grandchildren are not yet attuned to Christmas and its feast of presents.

These are years when one can rise early in a quiet house, with late-twenties children still asleep and no little tots hungrily lusting at 5 a.m. for their Christmas stocking and the wonderful excess to come. One must use these hours wisely because they will not last.

There is something almost holy about a Christmas morning spent downstairs alone, knowing that those people you care about the most in the world are upstairs tucked into their beds.

You make coffee just for yourself. You contemplate the world and your life and its accomplishments. You could decide, for instance, that life has worked out all right so far, that your children are wonderful and unique, and all those decisions you made over all those years were perhaps the right ones.

You want to cook wonderful food for these people to show them your love, but Christmas breakfast is a tricky business. There is that main meal to come, so breakfast can't be too lavish.

But it's Christmas, so you want it to matter. How to reach a balance, as with all of life, is the challenge.

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The first decision about breakfast on Christmas morning is whether it should it be a casual meal with lots of hand food that can be eaten walking around or a “real” breakfast with everyone sitting at table.

This menu casts a vote for the latter and is centered on one spectacular and central item augmented by some classic accompaniments. This central item for me is a cinnamon roll, mostly prepared the night before and then baked off while I drink coffee in the solitude of my own very personal Christmas morning thoughts.

The recipe might seem daunting, but it is Christmas and excess is in the air. Make these. They are very delicious and provide pleasure both in the finished product and the process.

In recognition that not everyone finds pleasure in getting her elbows into a warm mass of sticky dough, I include a quick, yeast-less, and almost-as-fabulous recipe that is ready for the oven in 15 minutes.

The yeasty rolls are soft, pliant, buttery perfection. You can use a standing mixer with the yeast rolls or, for a more athletic feel, use your hands and a wooden spoon.

The rolls without yeast require just a bowl and spatula. They are flaky and light, yet still very buttery, a bit scone- or biscuit-like and delicious.

The beauty of the yeast rolls is that they sit in the refrigerator overnight, allowing you to merely take them out the next morning to sit on the counter for an hour to warm up before you bake them.

Your guests will awaken in their snug beds to the aroma of sweet, buttery dough wafting from the oven, and the rolls will be just the right temperature to eat when sleepyheads wander down for breakfast.

First, a short very basic explanation of yeast: it's a fungus and it's alive.

The kind of yeast that is used in the making of bread is grown, harvested, and dried into the little granules you find inside those small foil-lined packets. The granules are made up of many thousands of yeast cells, and those cells are activated and start to grow when you mix them with warm liquid. This process is called “blooming.”

Blooming hydrates the yeast and allows it to expel carbon dioxide gas, which causes foaming in the liquid mixture. When baked, yeast continues to expel carbon dioxide, which rises through the dough. It gets trapped in the gluten of the flour (the gluten you have encouraged through all that kneading) and makes air bubbles, which form the structure of the bread.

Cinnamon rolls (with yeast)

I usually start this recipe late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. It makes about 10-12 rolls.

¶1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast

¶{1/2} cup lukewarm water

¶4{1/2} cups all-purpose unbleached flour, plus more as needed

¶4 large eggs at room temperature

¶{1/4} cup granulated sugar

¶1 teaspoon kosher salt

¶8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

If you are using a standing mixer, combine the water and yeast in the mixer bowl and allow it to bloom for 5 minutes, then whisk in {1/2} cup of the flour.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand in a warmish place for half an hour. Just use a large regular bowl if you are making the rolls by hand.

After the yeast has bloomed, add the eggs, sugar, and salt and 4 cups of flour, then mix, either with your trusted wooden spoon and elbow grease or with the mixer's dough hook for about 3 or 4 minutes, until smooth.

Add the softened butter 1 tablespoon at a time and continue to mix until the dough is smooth.

Knead either in the mixer with the dough hook, or by hand, on a lightly floured surface for at least 10 minutes. Add a bit more flour if the dough becomes too sticky. Do not add too much flour. Remember that yeast needs moisture, and dry dough will rise much more slowly than wet dough.

When the dough has become shiny and plump, return it to the bowl if you knead by hand. Cover your bowl of dough with plastic wrap and let it rise in that warmish place again for 2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.

Here's what you need for a simple and classic cinnamon roll filling. Don't mix the butter with the sugar.


¶{1/2} cup granulated sugar

¶1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon

Or, if you are feeling a bit more decadent, mix the following:

¶{1/2} cup sugar

¶{1/4} dark brown sugar, packed

¶{1/4} cup finely chopped pecans

¶{1/4} cup finely chopped walnuts

¶1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

¶{1/2} teaspoon salt

¶2 tablespoons maple syrup

Butter two 9-inch heavy cake pans or a rectangular baking pan that will accommodate all the rolls. Transfer the beautifully risen dough to a lightly floured surface and gently roll it into a rectangle about 15 by 10 inches. Try to square up the sides a bit so they are relatively even.

Melt, then cool slightly:

¶8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

Brush the dough with not quite all the melted butter, leaving a 2-inch strip unbuttered along the long side.

Sprinkle the dough evenly with the cinnamon sugar or the decadent filling.

Roll the dough up snugly, starting with the long side. Pinch the seam together with your fingers and tuck it in facing down.

Using a very sharp serrated knife and almost no pressure, slice the roll into 10 to 12 equal pieces. Place them in your pans, cut sides up. Brush the tops with the rest of the butter, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. Go to bed.

The next morning, remove the pans from the refrigerator and let the rolls rise for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and bake the rolls until golden brown and cooked through, around 30 minutes. They will smell like a little bit of yeasty heaven reserved for the angels.

Leave the pans to cool on a rack and make the frosting by whisking until completely smooth the following mixture, which you drizzle and spread on the warm rolls:

¶1 cup confectioners' sugar

¶2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

¶2 tablespoons cream, milk, or half and half

¶1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract and/or 1 teaspoon lemon zest

Cinnamon rolls (yeast free)

For the yeast-free version, baking powder and baking soda are used to provide the rise.

Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. When mixed with moisture and some kind of acidic agent like lemon or buttermilk, it immediately produces carbon dioxide gas.

Baking powder is actually made of baking soda with some added cornstarch and acidic salts. The cornstarch slows down the production of carbon dioxide, and the salts provide the jolt of acid needed for activation.

Double-acting baking powder has a second reaction brought on by the heat of the oven, which creates more gas, and thus, more rise. When both are used together, as here, you get a triple whammy.

With no kneading, however, the gluten in the flour is not really allowed to develop, so you get a completely different texture compared to the yeast version. This recipe makes 12 rolls.

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine in a medium bowl:

¶2{3/4} cups all-purpose unbleached flour

¶2 tablespoons sugar

¶1{1/4} teaspoons baking powder

¶{1/2} teaspoon baking soda

¶{1/2} teaspoon salt

Whisk thoroughly to evenly distribute the baking powder and soda throughout the flour.

In a small bowl combine:

¶1{1/4} cup buttermilk

¶6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

Add this mixture to the dry mixture and quickly but gently mix with a rubber spatula for no more than 30 seconds until the liquid is barely incorporated.

Do not overmix because it will make the dough tough by bursting all those lovely carbon dioxide bubbles created by the baking soda combining with the buttermilk!

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and gently knead it, turning it over gently - the trick here - and folding it in on itself for about 2 to 3 minutes, until it is has come together but is still soft.

Add a very small amount of extra flour if it is sticky.

At this point, you follow the yeast recipe, rolling out the dough then spreading the melted butter, adding the filling of choice, rolling it all up and cutting, then brushing the tops with the leftover melted butter.

One recipe makes 12 rolls, so grease whatever pans you prefer. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes until the rolls are golden and cooked through.

Cool the pans on a rack and drizzle the rolls with frosting. Both versions are best the day they are made but can be easily reheated in a 325 degree oven for 20 minutes, though I doubt you will have leftovers.

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What else?

Eggs of any kind, bacon, sausage, maybe a platter of crispy home fries. Fruit provides a good balance to the richness of the meal and can be as simple as a platter of sliced oranges or as sly as a few mimosas.

But it will be the rolls that make for contented sighs and sticky fingers.

And just when the last crumble left on the table has been picked up with a licked thumb, it will be time to start thinking about dinner.

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