~By Kate H. Knapp
When the air outside gets chilly and the leaves begin to turn shades of red and gold, I start to crave the plump and gooey cinnamon rolls my grandmother used to make.
Just a whiff of spicy cinnamon, and I am six years old again kneeling on a stool in my grandma’s small Utah kitchen. I would watch her petite figure stirring the ingredients with the strength and conviction of a small army, using the same wooden spoon, which moments earlier she had waved threateningly at my brother and me for taunting one another.
As she pounded the dough down with her fists, her wedding ring drowning in a milky-white paste, clouds of flour would coat her faded blue floral apron, while specks of white peppered her curly, bright red hair. She never used a recipe, and I can still hear her happy, melodic voice whispering to the dough that maybe just a little more flour or another egg would make it just right. To this day, I believe the ingredients always spoke back to her, as if she were somehow a Dr. Doolittle of food.
Waiting for the dough to rise, she would impart small pieces of wisdom, such as the way to man’s heart may be through his stomach, but the way to make him happy is through his sweet tooth. I would nod with my most mature look of understanding as I sipped my cold milk with just a splash of coffee.
When the dough had risen for the second time, my grandmother would hum the tune, “Come Said the Wind,” while coating the perfectly patted white rectangle with butter, brown sugar, and a heavy-handed pour of cinnamon. Occasionally, she would add nuts, but my brother would gag, stick his tongue out, and remove them one by one.
While cutting the rolled dough, she would tell me that a good cinnamon roll was all about the swirl, and that if done properly, it should look like a milky way of sweetness. It wasn’t until years later on a field trip to a planetarium that I realized she was talking about the stars and not the candy bar.
After only a few minutes in the oven, the buttery sugar aroma would creep into all corners of the house. As I watched the rolls puff out like proud roosters, my grandma would prepare her simple, yet addictive coffee icing. She would say while patting me on the head as I peered into the oven that a watched pot never boils, but I would dismiss it, not wanting to miss the final moments of their creation.
Once out of the oven, she would pour icing over them, delicately tracing the perfect galaxies. Sitting down to taste one, still piping hot, little whispers of cinnamon steam would invade my nostrils, followed by the aroma of melted brown sugar. The bittersweet combination of spices, sugar, and coffee mixed with the airy dough created a harmony that captured the season perfectly, and, to be honest, my grandmother as well.
Grandma’s Heavenly Cinnamon Rolls
After years of baking everything from scratch, my grandmother decided that the Pillsbury Roll mix was an easy way to keep most of the ingredients on hand. However, she never once used the instructions on the package, but instead created her own recipe simply by instinct. This is what follows.
Makes 8 large rolls
For the rolls
2 Packages of Pillsbury Hot Roll Mix
2 cups warm, not hot, water
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
3 large or 4 medium eggs, beaten
½ cup (I stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons butter, cut into 8 cubes
¾ cups brown sugar
3 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional
½ cup flour
For the icing
1 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar
¼ cup butter, melted
2 tablespoons freshly brewed coffee or espresso
Make the rolls
1. Remove the two packets of yeast from the Pillsbury box, and blend the water, salt, and sugar until well mixed. Let stand until foamy (about 10 minutes). Add yeast mixture to one packet of dough mix, and stir until the dough sticks to the sides of the bowl. While stirring, add eggs, then the final packet of dough mix. Beat until the dough puffs up. Cover with a dishtowel and place in a warm spot. Wait for the dough to double in size, about 40 minutes. Once the dough has risen, pad it down with your hands, then let it rise again (about 20 minutes).
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, place the dough ball in the center. Without kneading it too much, fold the dough over itself a few times, before stretching it out in a uniform rectangle. Brush melted butter over it, then sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon (nuts, if using) over the top. Starting at the bottom of the widest end, begin rolling the dough over itself until you reach the other side. Cut the log into 8 2-inch slices. In a buttered 9-inch pan, place each slice cut-side up. Place a cube of butter on top of each slice. Bake until an inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
Make the icing
1. Blend the butter, confectioner’s sugar, and coffee until the icing clings to a knife without running. Pour icing over the warm rolls.