Things a Monkey Could Cook: Cinnamon Rolls

Well now, once the holidays roll around—bringing those festive, frosty mornings where there’s actually very little to do but savor the moment and ponder what goes with warm beverages—well that’s when I usually get it together to bake cinnamon rolls. Believe me, once you’ve tasted anything even resembling these things you’ll understand why actual stores devoted exclusively to them began popping up all over the planet; and while dealing with dough can at first be intimidating, just keep telling yourself that until recently plenty of people routinely baked their own bread, and they weren’t all rocket scientists.

So it might take a little time and practice to turn out a decent cinnamon roll, but it’s not particularly difficult to understand. Remember: with bread—as with anything baked in your own home sweet home—unless you make a truly colossal mistake, your end result—while perhaps not too visually appealing—will probably still taste light years beyond anything you can go out and buy, unless you have the good fortune to live five minutes from a bakery and plan to pound on its door at sunrise.

Plus, there’s that wonderful build-up, where everyone in the house becomes intoxicated by the smell of them baking….

And so I feel free to assure you that it’s all going to be worth it, while you should expect this glorious process to take anywhere from two to four hours depending upon your experience and the weather. Yeast loves warmth of course, and in the heat of summer bread will rise like crazy; but in the winter, one must put it in a warm spot, and it’ll still take its own sweet time—especially a heavy dough like this, which will take even longer than something like a sandwich roll, and much longer than pizza dough or French bread.

As a matter of fact, if you wish, you can mix and knead it the night before without much sacrifice in quality—putting it into a very large, covered bowl, followed by the refrigerator, where it’ll rise slowly while you sleep. You still have to get up with the sun—to set it out on the countertop, where it must warm back up before you can work with it—but you can then return to dreamland for about an hour as it does so; while if you oversleep, only to discover that it’s metamorphosed into some sort of alien blob—tumbling out of the bowl and on to the countertop—you can probably just knead it all back into itself and proceed anyway, unless it’s already crept all the way to the floor, where it now appears to be walking erect and straight toward you—having already made short work of the toaster….

Also, for those experiencing nutritional reservations, I suppose you could substitute honey for the sugar in the dough without too many problems, but if you use oil instead of the solid fat—or whole-wheat for even part of the flour—your rolls just aren’t going to be the soft and tender treat most people will be expecting; while if you feel an almost dutiful need for fiber, you might throw in a couple tablespoons of wheat germ.

However, let’s face it: these things are for celebratory mornings—not just because they take forever to make, but also because they’re full of sugar and fat, which is of course what makes them so tasty, and I plan to eat them once in a while anyway as part of my continuing effort to die happy.

May God have mercy on us all!

Amen.

Sweet-Dough

  • ¼ cup very warm water (not hot: about 110 degrees)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon = 1 package dry yeast
  • ¾ cup barely warm milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup softened butter, or shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 3 to 4 cups bread or unbleached all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, dissolve one tablespoon sugar in the water, and then just sprinkle the yeast all over the surface of it. Let it sit undisturbed for 5 to 10 minutes until it has a foamy appearance, which is of course called proofing: making sure the yeast comes back to life from its dormant state; and when you buy it, be sure to check the expiration date, lest it be more than just dormant. If you've never done this before, keep watch or you’ll miss the cool part where it suddenly explodes into growth.

Add the rest of the ingredients except the flour. Mix well. You can do this part with an electric mixer if you like, but eventually—unless your appliance has a dough hook—you're going to have to put some muscle into it. Purists generally say to mix it with a spoon, but I confess to using a fork when producing small quantities. No doubt, the pastry police will soon arrive at my door.

Add 1½ cups flour, and beat very well, until smooth and elastic.

Continue to add flour until the dough forms a ball. You want to keep it in the bowl until it’s not too sticky.

Knead the dough on a well- floured surface for about 10 minutes until it no longer wants to stick to your hands; and beginners seeking detailed instruction in kneading technique can hopefully find it in my book. Eventually a matter of personal style, I begin by pushing into the center of the dough with the heel of my left hand—immediately followed by using the other to fold the upper right-hand corner of the dough down and in toward the center, while rotating it slightly counter-clockwise—over and over and over again, until it turns into a cohesive ball—the gluten fibers having developed enough elasticity that the carbon dioxide released by the yeast will now be able to inflate this unappetizing lump of wet flour into an incredible, edible balloon.

Let your dough rise for as long as 2 hours, depending upon atmospheric conditions; and I imagine you  recall that because it’s so rich and heavy, rising can take some time when the room’s cool; and if this is the case, cover it with a warm, moist towel as well, while looking around for something like a sunny shelf to park it on. However, although a turned-off, draft-free oven might seem the perfect spot, I can tell you from experience that if you get distracted to the point that your dough actually spills out of the bowl, you’ll soon be confronted with one of the biggest messes you’ve ever seen….

Filling

  • 4 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Take the butter out of the fridge as soon as you set the dough to rise, so that it’ll be nice and spreadable for this next step.

Mix together the sugar and cinnamon. An easy way to do it is to put them in a closed glass jar and shake it.

Make a fist and punch into the center of the dough to deflate it. Remove it from the bowl and knead as much air out of it as possible. You may need a little more flour on your work surface as you do this step and the next, but try not to use any more than you need to prevent sticking.

Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes to relax the gluten for easier shaping, while lightly coating your shiniest baking sheet with shortening or unsalted butter. However, life will be much sweeter if you can afford parchment paper.

Knead the dough a bit more, and then roll it out into a thin rectangle: about 12"x15". It’s important to do this gently: stretching the dough without tearing it. Turn it over at least once after it begins to flatten out, dusting the work-surface with flour as necessary to prevent sticking.

Use a small spatula to spread the softened butter over the entire rectangle.

Sprinkle it with the cinnamon-sugar.

Roll the dough up—as though it’s a towel—carefully from the 12” side, pinching the edge together with the body of the dough to seal it. Roll this tasty log around a bit to relax it, while also letting it a get little shorter to achieve uniformity from end to end.

Cut into about 12 slices about ½ inch thick, and space them evenly apart on your baking sheet. I do this with my pastry scraper—a thin square of metal about 3”x4” that’s attached to a wooden handle—that I would be reluctant to live without.

Wait for the second rise: at least 30 minutes; while you’ve got to be patient at this point and give those rolls the time they need to double in size--even if some frighteningly hungry horde hovering nearby appears to be on the brink of fresh-baked-goods-fever—since these monuments to classic cuisine absolutely must be light to bake and taste correctly.

Once they’ve nearly doubled, preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and then bake on the center rack until they’re golden brown: about 15 minutes. Watch them carefully—once again because this is a relatively dense dough, and so there’s a pretty fine line between when the center’s done and the bottom’s burned. Unless your baking sheets are in great shape, the bottom’s probably going to be darker than the top, so once again I say these magic words to you: parchment paper, which will make your rolls act like that sheet’s almost brand new….

Let them cool about 10 minutes before you try to ice them or eat them. However, if the aforementioned hungry horde has been circling, my advice is to waive the ten-minute rule and just get out of their way—grabbing the best-looking one for yourself on the fly.

You’ve earned it!

Icing

  • 1½ cups confectioner's sugar
  • 2 tablespoons milk

Mix and drizzle this on to taste; while when in mixed company I put it into an attractive bowl and place it on the table, where people can spoon it on and have it their way.

Now, wasn't that worth all the trouble?

While those wishing to download my cookbook for free might care to click here, where if you're also hungry for entertainment, you might like to sample some of my fiction as well.

Enjoy!

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