Cinnamon rolls never used to grace my breakfast table. First of all, they struck me as the sweetness equivalent of drinking a triple espresso first thing: it might seem like a good idea at the time, but the crash that accompanies it is surely inevitable. And secondly, I was certain that to be the sort of person who can put cinnamon rolls on the table at breakfast time, you must be immensely practical, organised and competent – and tied to the kitchen. And that’s simply not me.
Happily, neither of these things are true. While cinnamon rolls are sweet – if you don’t have at least a little bit of a sweet tooth, I’d probably stick to marmite on toast – they’re not the one-note sweetness I had assumed they were. A good cinnamon roll should be balanced: the dough itself is sweetened but it’s still recognisably dough rather than cake. Enriched with milk and butter, eggs and sugar, it should have enough body to stand up tall once shaped, but will stay tender and soft within. Spiralled inside this is the cinnamon butter, heavily spiced and with a little salt to cut through the sweetest part of the bun; using light brown sugar brings a caramel note, too. What looks like tooth-jangling American frosting should be cream cheese icing, cool and slightly sour alongside the sweetness, smeared across the top like freshly applied plaster. Cinnamon rolls certainly aren’t a puritanical breakfast choice, but they are a true treat, and one that has become a regular in our household.
While yeasted baking can put off even the most assured of cooks, these buns will work around you: your timings, your tastes, your tins. I love them for that, for their flexibility, and their ability to build confidence through their success. I love that the dough is lovely to handle, that it isn’t impossibly sticky, and that the shaping is simple. I love that as the buns prove, and then bake, any minor imperfections in the coiled dough smooth out, plumping up, like they’ve been photoshopped.
I like these buns ever so slightly warm – an hour or so after they emerge from the oven – so that they hold their shape when demoulded, but the filling is still gooey. This means that I want to bake them shortly before I sit down to breakfast, but obviously I don’t want to be preparing the dough or faffing about with shaping in the small hours of the morning. Fortunately, these buns are extremely flexible in their timings: the dough can be shaped and baked in an afternoon, or the buns can be refrigerated before or after shaping so that they’re ready when you are. This is what I do: make and shape the buns the night before, fridge overnight for a slow, cool proof, and then I bake straight from the fridge the next morning.
And yes, ok, they might be called cinnamon buns, but you can introduce whichever spices you like most. With baking, the rule of thumb is that you can’t just mess around with recipes: ratios are important, and reducing sugar, or eliminating ingredients, can ruin the whole thing. But it’s different with flavourings, and here you can be led by your tastes and your spice cupboard without any detrimental effects: add cardamom if you fancy, or nutmeg, or spike the mix with coarsely ground black pepper.
I give instructions for using a stand mixer here, but of course you can make these buns by hand. You’ll need to knead the dough for 10-15 minutes, until it’s elastic and smooth. Put the radio on, and enjoy it. You can use whichever method of kneading works best for you, but all you’re really trying to do is lengthen the gluten strands, so any method of pushing
Similarly, there is tolerance when it comes to the size of the tin you use: you can use an 8 or 9 inch square tin, a 9 inch round tin, or a rectangular roasting tin about 8 x 10 inches. Depending on the size of the tin, some of the buns may spiral up during cooking, like an edible jack in the box, but this is easily rectified. Use a clean tea towel to cover the rolls, then gently press them downwards; as the rolls cool, they will relax into an even layer.
Makes: 9 buns
Takes: 30 minutes (plus proving time)
Bakes: 35 minutes
For the dough
500g strong white bread flour
7.5g dried, instant yeast
225ml whole milk
100g butter, melted
75g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
For the filling
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
115g butter, room temperature
150g light brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
For the icing
115g cream cheese
75g icing sugar
¼ teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
- First, make the dough. Combine all the dough ingredients together in a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, kneading for about 7 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Cover the bowl with clingfilm or a clean teatowel and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size – about 2 hours.
- To make the filling for the buns, beat together the butter, sugar, cinnamon and salt until smooth and completely combined.
- Line an 8 or 9 inch square cake tin (see above for other size options) with two long strips of greasproof paper.
- Dust a work surface lightly with flour, and roll the proved dough out into a rectangle measuring roughly 50 x 30cm. Spread the cinnamon butter evenly across the rolled dough, leaving a 3cm border along one of the long sides. Starting from the long side without a border, roll the sausage up tightly.
- Using a sharp knife, cut the buns into 9 even rounds. Place the 9 buns cut-side up in 3 rows of 3 in the cake tin, cover loosely with clingfilm, and leave to prove for 90 minutes, until puffed and visibly increased in size.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C and, when the buns are ready, bake them for 35 minutes. While the buns are cooking, make the icing: beat the butter until smooth, then beat through the icing sugar, cream cheese, vanilla and salt into the butter, until thick and smooth.
- Remove the tray from the oven. If any of the buns have spiralled upwards, use a clean tea towel or a piece of kitchen roll to gently press them down; they’ll relax as the buns cool. Leave the buns to cool for ten minutes, then spoon the icing onto the buns. The icing will sink into the buns, keeping them moist, so be generous, and use a small spatula or knife to encourage even coverage of the icing across the buns, right up to the edges.