Cinnamon Rolls + A Little Baking Philosophy

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I made cinnamon rolls today for breakfast tomorrow before we head to northern Wisconsin to celebrate Christmas with extended family. I’ve been making this cinnamon roll recipe since my first job at seventeen, when I was asked to develop a signature roll for the cafe where I worked. The cafe closed after three months in business, but I’ve continued baking these since then because they’re so damn good.

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They’re a pretty irresponsible way to start the day (sugar/carb coma, anyone?) but their extravagance is part of their charm. There have been days where I’ve eaten only cinnamon rolls, grabbing an edge every time I walked by the pan in the kitchen. Bad life choice.

The best time to bake, in my opinion, is at night. It’s okay to drink a little bit; since the events of the day have passed, it’s easier to focus completely on the project at hand; and no one is coming into the kitchen to bother you since all the meals have been eaten. My family, who’s dealt with clunking pans, whirring mixers, and beeping timers at 10:30 PM might disagree with me. Too bad.

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The one “down side”, as a blogger, is that the lighting is not ideal for photography at night. I use “” because I actually don’t think it’s a real down side. The whole home baking blog scene has become a little food porn-y for me these days. It seems like a big ridiculous competition to see who can make the most picture-perfect sweets. Who can capture the realest drip of melting chocolate, who can create the best bokeh, who can include the most salt, bacon, pretzels, sprinkles, and dulce de leche.

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I don’t mean to sound so disenchanted. Sometimes I love the aesthetics of it all. I’m as guilty of scrolling through pins and blogs and salivating as the next baking enthusiast. However, at a certain point it ceases to agree with my baking philosophy. Maybe a baking philosophy is a stupid thing to have, but I’ve been thinking about the subject long enough that I’ve inevitably come to some conclusions.

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Food should be pretty. It’s what makes us want to eat it. But I find myself drawn to vintage cookbooks, classic cooking shows (original Martha Stewart, Julia Child, etc.), and actual functioning home kitchens, where the food looks more real. I think the flawlessness of today’s home baking blogs belies the humble beauty of home baking. The flour on the floor, the inconsistencies between cupcakes, the cookies frosted by enthusiastic kids, the piles of dishes in the sink – this is the appeal of home baking to me.

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The internet can set me up to have very unrealistic expectations of real life. It should – everything there is staged and color-corrected and hand-picked to look perfect. The best comparison I can think of is women in movies. In movies made even 15-20years ago (some of Meg Ryan’s and Andy McDowell’s work comes to mind) I’m often struck at how much less perfect the women looked. Their hair was a little frizzy. They wore lighter makeup and less form-fitting clothes. Their bodies were a little softer. And they looked gorgeous. Now, most women in movies have perfectly muscular bodies and precisely shaded eyebrows.

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The crispy, caramelized underside of the roll is my favorite part. 

Baking has followed the same trajectory to me. While I’m all for creativity and  beautiful photography, at a certain point I begin to crave the simplicity and messiness of the home kitchen atmosphere where I first learned to bake. Maybe that just means I need to get off the internet. Why not just not blog? I guess I want to inspire people to embrace the reality of their kitchens without feeling like they are failing if things are imperfect.

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So here is my favorite cinnamon roll recipe, and the photos in this post were unapologetically shot under florescent lighting and in my messy kitchen without props or mini spoons or repurposed wood or napkins from Etsy. Also, unedited. I don’t have any shots of frosted rolls because I’m going to wait to frost them until right before we eat them tomorrow.

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Cinnamon Rolls

Makes 9

Dough:

-2 cups whole milk

-1/2 cup vegetable oil

-1/2 cup granulated sugar

-2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

-5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

-3/4 tsp. baking powder

-1/2 tsp. baking soda

-1 1/2 tsp. salt

Filling:

-1/2 cup salted butter, softened

-1/2 cup brown sugar

-1/2 cup white sugar

-2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

Buttercream:

-1 cup salted butter, softened

-2 cups confectioner’s sugar

-Vanilla extract and salt, to taste

1. For the dough, heat oil, sugar, and milk in a medium saucepan until sugar dissolves (do not boil). Cool to 110 F, then stir in yeast. Measure 5 cups of flour into a large mixing bowl. Stir in milk mixture to create a loose dough. Spray surface of dough with cooking spray, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and leave dough in a warm place for an hour to rise.

2. In the meantime, combine the remaining 1/2 cup flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Measure the filling sugars and cinnamon into another small bowl and stir to combine. Grab your rolling pin and a little flour to keep the dough from sticking.

3. You can also make the buttercream while you’re waiting. Beat the butter in a stand mixture for a couple minutes until it’s very fluffy. Add the sugar a little at a time and continue beating until frosting is light and shiny. Add vanilla and salt to taste.

4. Once the dough is risen, punch it down and stir in the flour/leavener mixture. Dust your work surface with flour and then roll the dough out into a large rectangle. Don’t make it too thin. Spread with softened butter (I like to use my hands) and then with sugar mixture. Carefully roll the dough up from the bottom of the long edge, keeping it as tight as possible. Pinch the roll to seal and then flip the roll so that the seam is on the bottom.

5. Cut 9 2″ wide rolls using a serrated bread knife. Butter two sheet pans and transfer rolls to pans, spacing them evenly. Preheat oven to 375 F and allow rolls to raise while oven preheats. Once hot, bake the rolls for about 12 minutes, or until set and lightly browned. Cool slightly and then spread with frosting. Eat warm!

Notes:

I’ve also made these with glaze or cream cheese frosting. Equally delicious.

They freeze surprisingly well after baking. You can also freeze them raw prior to second rise.

This batch easily doubles if you need more. Just roll two logs instead of one.

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