Entries in GCRP (10)


GCRP: Ultimate Cinnamon Rolls

What a long, delicious trip it's been. 

I started The Great Cinnamon Roll Project over six months ago and three thousand miles away. I've tried over a dozen recipes and had the results sampled by several evaluators. Also, purely for the sake of research, I've sampled cinnamon rolls from bakeries like Panera Bread and Cinnabon. The time has come to end the project and proclaim a winner. 

First, let me report that the last recipe I tried came to me from my nephew, Michael, who got it from his mission president's wife. Michael thought that these rolls were pretty dreamy, so we gave them a shot. 

They were good, but they weren't the best we've made. The rolls were gooey and sweet, but we felt that they didn't have much depth of flavor--or, as Patrick declared, "Too Cinnabon-y."

And at this point, I knew what the results would be before I even made them, just from reading the recipe. The huge side benefit to the project has been my new, easy familiarity with sweet yeast dough. It's a friendship I plan to nurture in coming years.

So, of all the recipes we tried, Grandma Ida's was the favorite. I've made the recipe a few times more, just to confirm what we knew at first taste: that Grandma Ida knew how to treat her family right. 

But I have tweaked it a bit. I've substituted milk for water, and Michele's suggestion of scalding the milk produced superior rising ability. I also liked the extra richness that Our Best Bites' Overnight Cinnamon Rolls achieve with one extra egg.

Then, today, my son James had a burst of what can only be termed pure inspiration. "Why don't we frost this batch with Penuche Frosting?"

For the tragically uninitiated, Penuche Frosting is what graces the top of my mother's Applesauce Cake. (Click here for Comfortably Yum.) My children prefer it to all other frostings, and my brother-in-law Dave accurately calls it "crack."

Therefore, here's the new and improved version. I think these are the best cinnamon rolls I've ever eaten. Am I not generous to share the fruits of my months of labor with you? Try them and see what you think.

Ultimate Cinnamon Rolls

1 tablespoon yeast

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons warm water

1 cup milk, scalded

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 eggs

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

5 cups flour

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast and the 2 tablespoons sugar in the warm water. Put the stick of butter in the hot milk and stir it around until it is completely melted. Let the milk/butter mixture cool until it is 118 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly below; you don't want to kill your yeast.

Add the eggs and the milk/butter to the yeast and blend well. Add the salt and the flour and use the dough hook of your mixer to knead the dough at a medium speed for five minutes. The dough should be soft and still sticking to the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl and put it in a warm area for two hours. (See here for a trick if you don't have a warm spot in your house.)


3/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus an extra tablespoon for buttering the baking pan

Lavishly butter a 9x13" pan. Mix the brown sugar and the cinnamon together. Take your nicely risen dough out of its bowl and place it on a well-floured countertop. Roll it out into a large rectangle about a half inch thick. Use a bench scraper or big pancake spatula to make sure it isn't sticking to the countertop. The dough will be floppy and hard to handle; this means it will be tender when baked. 

Spread the softened butter evenly over the dough. Top it with the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Roll up the dough evenly and firmly from one long side to the other. Slice the rolls using an 18-inch length of dental floss: hold the floss tightly, slide it under the roll, and bring the two ends up and across the top of the roll until the dough is sliced through. Place the rolls in the buttered pan, cover the pan with a dishtowel, and let the rolls rise somewhere warm for another half hour. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Uncover the rolls and bake them for 20-25 minutes, until they are golden brown on top. (Don't overbake them! These took 25 minutes in my NY oven, but only 20 in my CA oven.) While they're baking, make the frosting:

Penuche Frosting

2 tablespoons white sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons heavy cream

1-1/2 cups powdered sugar

Heat and stir the white sugar in a medium saucepan until it is golden and dissolved. Add the butter, brown sugar, and salt; heat and stir until melted and dissolved. Add the cream, one tablespoon at a time, stirring all the while. Boil for one minute. Remove from heat and scrape into a mixer bowl. Add the powdered sugar and stir until it's mixed in, then beat on high until the frosting is no longer glossy--about three to five minutes. 

Spread the frosting over the hot rolls, then leave the house for about a half hour so that you don't burn your tongue by trying the rolls too early.

OR you could make a cream cheese frosting:

4 ounces (half a package) cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat until smooth and then spread over hot rolls. 

Lastly, you could instead top these rolls with a simple glaze, and they'd still be amazing:

1 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons heavy cream

Stir until smooth and spread over hot rolls. 


GCRP: Mel's Kitchen Cafe Cinnamon Rolls

Yesterday wasn't exactly cinnamon roll weather--it got up to 98 degrees inside our house--but undaunted, on I forged with The Great Cinnamon Roll Project. My darling and brilliant friend Jenna had recommended yesterday's recipe to me, and frankly, I wouldn't have tried it if the recommendation had not come from her. I would have taken one look at the ingredient list (which includes instant vanilla pudding) and moved on. But I trust Jenna. End of story.  

Mel (of Mel's Kitchen Cafe) claims that the vanilla pudding makes the dough tender and pliable, and it certainly was that. I tasted the raw dough, which was surprisingly un-sweet and had only the faintest of artificial tastes to it. (That disappeared upon baking, by the way.)

When it came time to roll out the dough, I did make a change. Mel called for an amount of filling that is fully double the amount of any other recipe I tried. There was no way. It's not like I ever cut down on the amount of butter and sugar in anything, either--but this was too much. So instead of spreading one cup of butter over the dough, I settled for 3/4 cup, and instead of 2 cups of brown sugar +  4 tablespoons of cinnamon, I halved that--and it was more than plenty. 

The dough was a bit sticky, but it rolled up and cut just fine. The rolls rose and baked beautifully--I used my big lasagna pan plus another pan that measures about 10x7 inches. 

Mel's frosting recipe calls for cream cheese, which of course, divided the household. Hope conceded that this particular recipe was "less cheesy" than others, but James was not impressed.

Thse rolls were good. Quite good. They certainly got gobbled down in a hurry. However, I think Grandma Ida still has the edge; the higher egg-to-flour ratio in her recipe gives the dough a richness that Mel's doesn't quite have. In the end, although the texture was excellent and the sweetness level was spot on, I felt these rolls were slightly one dimensional in flavor. Would I make them again? Probably--but only if I had instant vanilla pudding in the pantry, and that's not all that likely.


GCRP: West Coast Cinnamon Rolls

Ah, The Great Cinnamon Roll Project. Did you think I'd forgotten about it? How could I? No, the cross-continental move has merely slowed me down a bit. Onward we go.

When we were still in New York, I tried Bon Appetit's Yukon Gold Cinnamon Rolls. They were tasty, but not at all worth all the extra work involved boiling and mashing the potatoes--at least, I didn't think so. I know the potatoes are supposed to make the bread extra tender, but we did not notice much of a difference. Meh. So far, nothing has compared to my modernization of Grandma Ida's recipe.

But I have completion anxiety, so we'll finish the list. In our new house, with a new (old oven), we tried the penultimate recipe on the list: Sweetapolita's homage to Cinnabon

The dough came together easily. Was that because of the recipe, or because I'm now practiced at making cinnamon rolls? It rolled out nicely, which made me suspect that it might be tough when baked--but it wasn't. They were a little on the sweet side--"a little cloy," as Grandma Ybright would have said--but overall decent.

The deal-breaker for almost everyone? The lemon flavoring in the frosting. No. Bad. Wrong. I knew it would be a problem, too, but in my commitment to sticking to the recipe (except for using the m-word (margarine)), I tossed it in. Anne took one bite, screwed up her face, and scraped off the rest of the frosting. Everyone else ate them politely, but when I reminded them that I needed an honest critique, they all expressed a wish for different frosting. 

So there you have it. Next up? Mel's Kitchen Cafe's recipe--which is very similar to the Tyler Perry one we tried months ago. After that, I'll probably make Grandma Ida's one more time as part of the formal testing process, then tally up our thoughts and crown the winner.


GCRP: Cinnamon Rolls of Vermont

I've subscribed to Cook's Illustrated for nearly twenty years. It is the Consumer Reports of cooking magazines; when its staff wants to make the very best roasted turkey, for example, it'll roast 20-30 of them in different ways until it finds success. The results are almost always spectacular. 

It was actually CI's spin-off show "America's Test Kitchen" that inspired my method for the Great Cinnamon Roll Project. Therefore, even when CI's cinnamon roll recipe looked a little spartan, I went forward in full trust. CI has never let me down before. 

But apparently there is a first time for everything. Perhaps it is because CI originates in Vermont, where the yankee-est yankees live. Perhaps those stern, frugal Vermonters frown upon rich, gooey indulgences like my ideal cinnamon roll. I'm not sure, but I have my suspicions.

The recipe heading stated that its creators had compromised between "a rich brioche dough" and "a lean sandwich bread." (Based on past GCRP experiences, I'm pretty sure I would have erred on the side of brioche.) In addition, the filling was made with a couple of tablespoons of milk in lieu of the usual butter. I hoped that these substitutions would not detract from the taste and texture I was going for, but my hope was in vain. The result was a faintly spicy piece of bread with a dash of anemic icing on top. Boo. My taste testers all vehemently agreed.

The next recipe on my list was from the King Arthur Flour company, another bastion of my kitchen, and another very successful company based in Vermont. I love KAF's flour, its website, and its recipes--usually. But when I saw that KAF's recipe was nearly identical to CI's, I didn't bother. Next, we'll move right on to Bon Appetit's Yukon Gold Cinnamon Rolls.


GCRP: Grandma Ida's Cinnamon Rolls

Well, I'm a happy woman right about now. I'll continue with the GCRP, but as of today, we may have a winner.

A few days ago, after reading about The Great Cinnamon Roll Project, Patrick's Aunt Karen sent me an email containing her mother's cinnamon roll recipe. It was published in 1941 in the book Favorite Recipes of Ephraim Women.

Ephraim is the town in Sanpete County, Utah in which Patrick's father's family lived until the end of World War II. (Correct me if I have my Perkins family lore wrong, Aunt Karen.) Oh, how I love the kind of cookbook that the women of Ephraim put together--community compilations of tried-and-true recipes from seasoned cooks and bakers. My Nani has a whole shelf of such Relief Society cookbooks, and she has promised they will be mine someday. TREASURE.

I knew and loved Grandma Ida late in her life, but I had no idea that she was an accomplished baker. Her recipe is written in the style of her generation, with shorthand instructions. There was no need to school the reader on how to proof yeast or the optimal temperature at which dough will rise. You could just write, "Roll out as for cinnamon rolls," and bakers of that day, tutored by daily experience and wise forbears, would know what to do.

I just pulled a batch of these rolls out of the oven. Grandma Ida apparently didn't frost her cinnamon rolls; in the lean days in which the recipe was published, the unadorned bun would have been treat enough (especially if raisins had been added, as Aunt Karen reports that she would beg). But I wanted to assure a level playing field for the project, so I adapted the Magnolia Bakery's Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting--and I also frosted some rolls with a simple powdered sugar-cream-vanilla glaze. 

They are outstanding. Feather-light, yeasty, fragrant, with that perfect pull-apart texture and just the right amount of sweetness and spice. Grandma Ida, I know that you are smiling down from heaven right now as your great-grandchildren happily devour your legacy. Thank you--and thanks, Aunt Karen, for passing on this gem.

Grandma Ida's Cinnamon Rolls (translated for the modern baker)

1 tablespoon yeast
1 cup + 2 tablespoons water (105-110 degrees)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3 eggs
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
4-3/4 cups flour


1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon 

Mix the yeast with two tablespoons water and two tablespoons sugar and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix 1 cup water with 1/2 cup sugar, then add the 1/2 cup melted butter, eggs, and salt and mix well. Add the yeast mixture. Replace the mixer's paddle beater with the dough hook. Add the flour and mix on medium speed for 4 minutes until well-kneaded and elastic. The dough should still be sticking to the bottom of the bowl. 

Cover the mixing bowl with a dishtowel and set in a warm place to rise. 80-85 degrees is best; if there's nowhere in your house that is warm enough (like the top of the refrigerator), set the mixer bowl in a big pot containing hot (115-degree) tap water, cover, and set on the back of the stove. My oven vents to the back of the range, so I turned it on to about 150 degrees, just so some additional warmth would hit the bottom of the pot and keep the yeast happy. Let the dough rise for 2 hours. It should be double in size. 

Butter a 9x13-inch baking pan. Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon together with a fork. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a large rectangle--about 12 x 18 inches. Pour the 1/4 cup of melted butter in the center, then spread it around evenly over the entire surface. Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar evenly over the butter. Roll the dough up tightly into a log and press the edges together to seal them. Slide an 18-inch length of dental floss under the log and cut one-inch rolls. Place the rolls in the buttered pan, cover the pan with a dish towel, and set the rolls to rise in a warm place for a half hour. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 

Uncover the rolls and bake them for 25 minutes. They should be golden brown, and some of the centers might have popped up a bit. While the rolls are baking, mix up ONE of the two icings. Once the rolls are out of the oven, spread the icing over them so that it can melt into all the crannies. Leave the room and distract yourself for at least fifteen minutes while the rolls cool somewhat. Serve warm, with plenty of cold milk on the side. (They are also plenty tasty at room temperature--if they make it that long.)

Caramel Cream Cheese Icing

4 ounces (1/2 package) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature
1/3 cup Caramel Sauce*, room temperature

Mix all ingredients until smooth.


Vanilla Icing

3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar

Mix all ingredients until smooth.

*Caramel Sauce

1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups sugar
2 cups heavy cream

Put the water, salt, and sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves--about 3 minutes. Raise the heat to high and boil without stirring until the syrup turns a deep amber color--about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Very slowly, add the cream and whisk like mad. The caramel will bubble up furiously at first. Just keep adding the cream in a thin stream and whisk until it's all mixed in. Put the pan back on medium-low heat and stir for one minute. Turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Store in a quart jar in the refrigerator. Excellent over ice cream.