Stella Parks' Homemade Cinnamon Rolls
Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls
It’s not the idea of a dough twirled up with cinnamon sugar that’s so American, but the execution. European versions use yeasted Danish dough or a flaky pastry base. While the details vary from country to country, some spice the filling with cardamom or finish things with an apricot glaze, they’re pastries meant to be eaten out of hand. Our thick cut cinnamon rolls are dough and soft, filled with gooey cinnamon, often stuffed with pecans, and usually dripping with vanilla frosting or sticky caramel. In either case, you need a fork to dig in and a shower to clean up.
In a roundabout way, their story begins in France. According to Jessup Whitehead’s 1898 essay, “Hotel French Rolls— An Inquiry Into Their Origin,” hotel magnate Paran Stevens traveled to Europe and became enamored with some type of French bread. He didn’t know the name or the recipe, but on his return to Boston he worked with his bakers at the Tremont House to replicate the bread. Paran presumably fell in love with brioche, because the “French Rolls” that baker Charles Wood put on the menu in 1868 were downy soft and tender. When a competing hotel put the same soft rolls on their menu as well, they gained an American identity as Parker House Rolls.
The story’s a little suspect, milky soft “French Rolls” had been turning up in American cookbooks since the 1840s, but there’s no denying the success they gained at the Parker House. Milwaukee’s Semi-Weekly Wisconsin[i] printed the earliest known recipe in 1869, “Good Rolls— the famous Parker House Rolls.” While not exactly eggy brioche, the rolls were distinctly rich and a little sweet: one part butter, two parts milk, four parts flour and a handful of sugar to form a thrice-risen dough (after mixing, after kneading, and after shaping).
Parker House Rolls seemingly appeared in every magazine, newspaper, and cookbook of the 1870s[ii]; recipes that offered more detailed instructions for shaping the dough. After the second rise, it was rolled thin, cut into rounds, brushed with butter, then folded in half like a pocketbook and set aside to rise up to eight hours more. The timing reflected the rhythms of a hotel kitchen, where shifts of bakers could babysit multiple batches of dough to ensure waves of hot bread coming out of the oven for every meal.
Cooking schools from Chicago[iii] to Boston incorporated the recipe into their curriculum, establishing Parker[iv] House[v] as the definitive American dinner roll to a generation of professional bakers. Yet anyone could tackle the simple recipe at home, it was the timing that made it tricky. With some twelve to fifteen hours of total downtime, the rolls would either finish up in the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning.
May Perrin Goff, editor of the Detroit Free Press, turned this problem into an asset in 1881, with “Cinnamon Rolls” tacked onto the Parker House recipe in her 1881 cookbook The Household[vi]. This variation added an egg to the basic dough, then rolled it up with butter, cinnamon, and sugar. It was sliced into pinwheels, then left to rise and bake. With this format, the timing didn’t matter; cinnamon rolls tasted equally delicious whether served as a midday snack, late night dessert, or an early morning breakfast. The convenience of an overnight rise, however, favored breakfast.
Of course “Cinnamon Rolls” were nothing new, but made with scraps of biscuit or pie dough they turned out flakey and crisp. As an addendum to Parker House Rolls, they turned tender and soft. Piggybacking on the popularity of Parker House Rolls, this type of cinnamon roll rode a wave of popularity into the 20th[vii] century where they met a a drizzle of white[viii] icing[ix] a la Hot Cross Buns.
Thanks to explosive tubes of refrigerated dough introduced[x] in the 1950s, we’re more likely to think of Pillsbury when it comes to cinnamon rolls today, or perhaps an oversized Cinnabon from the food court, by my recipe goes back to the “brand” first associated with cinnamon rolls, the Parker House.
My recipe calls for the same ratio of ingredients found in “the Famous Parker House Rolls” of 1869, but with only two rises (one overnight) and the egg of Mary Goff’s recipe. I’ve also replaced half the milk with sour cream to thicken the dough so it’s a bit easier to handle. When I want to change things up, I can trade the sour cream for creamy purees like banana or sweet potato to flavor the dough.
Homemade Cinnamon Rolls
Cinnamon Rolls are the harbinger of a lazy morning, filling the kitchen with an aroma of butter, cinnamon, and freshly baked bread that announce it’s time to sit down. With each puffy swirl of dough dripping with cream cheese frosting, there’s really no way to tackle one standing up. This recipe’s my secret weapon around the holidays, because it’s an all-in-one recipe that only takes one bow, and can be made in advance to bake and frost without any fuss
Yield: twelve 3 1/2” cinnamon rolls
Active time: about 45 minutes
Downtime: 45 minute initial rise, 8 hour second rise
1/2 cup, 4 ounces plain, full fat cream cheese, very soft— about 70°
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups, 5 ounces powdered sugar, sifted if organic
1 stick, 4 ounces unsalted butter, creamy and soft— about 70°
3/4 cup, 6 ounces light brown sugar
2 Tablespoons, 1/2 ounce ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
3 1/2 cups, 16 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup, 3 1/2 ounces sugar
2 teaspoons instant dry yeast, not rapid rise
1 3/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick, 4 ounces unsalted butter
1/2 cup, 4 ounces milk, any percentage will do, cold
1 cup, 8 ounces plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt, any percentage, cold
1 cup, 4 ounces toasted pecan or other nut pieces
1. Preparing the Frosting, Filling, and Dough:
Combine cream cheese and vanilla with half the powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low to moisten (it may look curdled), then sprinkle in the rest a little at a time. Once incorporated, increase to medium and beat until creamy and pale ivory, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a zip-top bag and set aside until needed, up to 24 hours at room temperature (if your kitchen is chilly and the butter hardens in that time, briefly microwave the bag to restore its creamy texture before use).
Prepare filling with the same bowl and beater, mixing butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt on low speed until moistened. Increase to medium and beat the dark paste until creamy, light, and very soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a zip-top bag and set aside until needed, up to 24 hours at room temperature.
Wipe the bowl with a paper towel, then whisk together flour, sugar, yeast, salt, and baking soda until thoroughly combined. Melt butter in a 2-quart saucier over low heat, then stir in milk and yogurt, warming to about 80°. Add to flour and stir to form a very dry and shaggy dough. With the hook attachment, knead on low until silky smooth and elastic, able to be gently stretched into a thin but rough sheet without tearing, about 20 minutes.
Cover with plastic and set to rise until puffy, light, and doubled in bulk, about 90 minutes at roughly 70°. If the dough feels dense, firm, or overly resilient, rest 15 minutes before testing again (this is more likely in chilly months).
2. Proofing and shaping the dough:
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface, dust with flour and roll into a 13” square. Briefly microwave the Cinnamon Filling if firm, snip a corner from the bag, and squeeze over the dough; spread into an even layer with an offset spatula. Sprinkle nuts on top and roll to form a 12” log, ending seam-side down.
Slide an 8” strand of thread or unflavored dental floss under the dough until you reach the middle. Cross the ends over top and pull tight to divide the log in two. Cut each half into six 1” slices and arrange in a parchment lined 9” by 13” by 2” aluminum baking pan (or two 8” by 3” cake pans). Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight, or up to 48 hours.
3. Bake and serve:
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°; meanwhile, let cinnamon rolls stand at room temperature until oven is hot. Bake (covered) until puffed and firm but pale, about 45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until lightly browned, about 15 minutes more or to 205°. Snip a corner from the bag of Vanilla Frosting, squeeze over the Cinnamon Rolls, spread into an even layer with the back of an offset spatula. Serve immediately and leave no survivors; life’s too short for day old cinnamon rolls.
Don’t rush the kneading process, which is longer than usual in order to develop gluten in the soft and rich dough.
In this recipe, baking soda isn’t meant to provide leavening to the dough, but to regulate its pH, allowing it to brown more easily in the oven.
The bag of frosting and the pan(s) of Cinnamon Rolls can be frozen up to 3 months. Thaw both at cool room temperature, no warmer than 70°, overnight (about 8 hours). In the morning, bake in a fully preheated oven for 45 minutes; discard the foil and continue baking until golden— about 5 minutes or 205°.
Mix it up!
Apple Cinnamon: prepare frosting with 2 ounce (4 Tablespoons) unsalted butter instead of cream cheese, but prepare filling and dough according to the recipe. During the first rise, dice a medium (6 ounce) Granny Smith apple into 1/4” chunks, and scatter over the filling in place of (or in addition to) pecans. Otherwise, bake as directed.
Banana: a fantastic change of pace from typical banana bread, this variation will help you polish off overripe bananas to make a wonderfully aromatic cinnamon roll. Prepare frosting and filling exactly as directed, but reduce the milk to 2 ounces (1/4 cup) and replace the Greek yogurt with an equal amount of overripe banana puree, from 3 to 4 large bananas.
Brown Butter Sweet Potato: This sweet, nutty, and vibrant ochre dough is perfect for chilly autumn mornings. Prepare frosting and filling as directed. For the dough, melt butter in a 1-quart saucier and continue cooking until golden brown, then cool to roughly 115°. Replace yogurt with an equal amount of cold, mashed sweet potato.
Double Chocolate: After the powdered sugar, gradually add 3/4 ounce (1/4 cup) Dutch process cocoa to the frosting. For the filling, add 1 ounce (1/3 cup) Dutch process cocoa and 1 Tablespoon of vanilla extract; you can omit the spices if you like, or leave them in for a Mexican chocolate vibe. Instead of (or in addition to) pecans, sprinkle the dough with 3 ounces (1/2 cup, roughly chopped) 72% dark chocolate just before rolling up.
Honey Buns: Convenience stores sell these sticky snacks with and without frosting, so make it or skip it as you prefer. For the filling, replace brown sugar with 5 1/4 ounces (3/4 cup) white sugar, reduce cinnamon to 1 teaspoon, and add 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. Otherwise, prepare the cinnamon rolls as directed. During the first rise, cream 4 ounces (1 stick) soft unsalted butter with 8 ounces (3/4 cup) clover honey and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Spread into an even layer in the baking pan(s), and arrange sliced Cinnamon Rolls on top; otherwise refrigerate and bake as directed. After baking, loosen the rolls from the pan with a knife and invert onto a serving platter.
Pumpkin Spice: For the filling, add 2 teaspoons ground ginger and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves along with the other spices; after creaming the butter, fold in 6 ounces (3/4 cup) canned pumpkin puree. For the dough, replace the Greek yogurt with an equal amount of canned pumpkin puree.
Sticky Buns: during the first rise, put 12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) light or dark brown sugar into the baking pan. Drizzle with 3 ounces (1/3 cup) heavy cream, sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and mash into an even layer with a fork. Arranged the sliced Cinnamon Rolls on top, but otherwise proceed as directed. After baking, loosen the rolls from the pan with a knife and invert onto a serving platter.
[i] “Good Rolls,” Semi-Weekly Wisconsin. February 23, 1869.
[ii] Chase, Alvin Wood. “Parker House Rolls,” Dr. Chase's Family Physician, Farrier, Bee-keeper, and Second Receipt Book (Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Printing and Publishing Company, 1873), 155.
[iii] Whitehead, Jessup. “Hotel French Rolls- An Inquiry into their Origin,” Whitehead’s Family Cookbook and Book of Breads and Cakes (Chicago: Jessup Whitehead and Co, 1891), 134-135.
[iv] “Parker House Rolls,” Cuba Tribune, September 2, 1926.
[v] “Parker House Rolls,” Good Housekeeping 6, no. 6 (January 1888): 173.
[vi] Goff, May Perrin. The Household (Detroit: Detroit Free Press, 1881): 391.
[vii] Jones, Mary Chandler. “Cinnamon Rolls, Parker House Rolls,” Lessons in Elementary Cooking (New York: Sully and Kleinteich, 1913), 119.
The Fawn (bakeshop). Advertisement for Parker House Cinnamon Rolls. Oakland Tribune, September 4, 1931.
[viii] Richards, Paul. “Pecan Rolls,” Baker’s Bread (Chicago: Baker’s Helper Company, 1918), 141.
[ix] Evans, Edna. “Icing for Drop Cakes,” Home Baking (San Francisco: Golden Gate Compressed Yeast Company, 1912), 42.
[x] Pillsbury. Advertisement. Life (November 1955): 77.
Pillsbury. Advertisement. Life (September 1960): 72.