Croissant-doughnut hybrids may come and go, but doughy, icing-covered cinnamon rolls are forever.
They may not be sugar crusted and totally on trend like orange-scented morning buns. Or gluttonously gooey and speckled with nuts like sticky buns. Actual debates on the minute distinctions have, ahem, arisen among Sarah Simmons and her team as they get ready to open Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop next month in Columbia, South Carolina.
"Basically what we determined is that a sticky bun uses the same technique as a cinnamon roll, which requires a dough with a cinnamon-based filling rolled up and sliced," Simmons says. "But in a sticky bun, the topping is layered on the bottom of the pan before baking."
According to Laurel Almerinda, the baking director of the Rustic Canyon group in Los Angeles, "A sticky bun is, of course, all dressed up in maple-y goo and, typically, nuts. A morning bun is a naked cinnamon roll without the royal icing, just tossed about in sugar. Cinnamon rolls are simple and old-fashioned, something Mom might have made."
Yes, some consider cinnamon rolls to be a tad trashy—most of us remember slamming twisted tins of them on the counter to pop them free or grabbing one in the food court during our mall rat days. But they're easy to love and, with help from our chef friends, easy to make (see the recipe).
"It's one of those classics that's nostalgic for everyone," Abigail Quinn, the pastry chef behind Atlanta's new Proof Bakeshop, says. "I feel like it brings back fond memories for everyone. Who's had a bad time eating a cinnamon roll?"
Certainly not us. That's not to say the dated cream cheese-laden dough boys couldn't use a little freshening up. These days, chefs are elevating the prepackaged morning-time staple at a slew of new bakeries, relying on experience, experimentation and really good butter. Here's your ticket (aka foolproof recipe) to hot pans of glorious, frosted cinnamon rolls, plus some tips and techniques from fellow bakers on how to pull them off at home. Roll with us.
Spackle on the cinnamon sugar, then roll and cut up the dough
The chefs waffle between eggy, buttery brioche and flaky laminated dough (aka folded a million times for croissants) as the base for cinnamon rolls. "If you make them from scratch with love and serve them hot from your oven, they'll be great either way," Almerinda says diplomatically. "But I do prefer a laminated dough. Brioche is just a bit more bready, whereas laminated doughs give you a bit more buttery richness."
Simmons prefers brioche. "Brioche is such a versatile dough and perfect for cinnamon rolls," she says. "You're starting with a rich, butter-laden dough, so you've pretty much already won even before you add the cinnamon and frosting." For our recipe, we go with brioche for its unfussy method and chewy bite.
The Scandinavians call this treat kanelbullar, which literally translates to "cinnamon bun," but we like how the Germans think, dubbing their version "the snail" (schnecken) after that all-important inner spool of spices and sugar. "It's all about using great cinnamon and great butter!" Kelly Fields, the executive chef and partner at Willa Jean in New Orleans, exclaims. "If you don't start with those two things, you're never going to achieve greatness." That, along with a bit of brown sugar and salt, is how we do it, keeping the ring of sugary deliciousness intact. Because it's what's on the inside that counts, right?
As much as we love cream cheese variety, we have to hand it to Fields on the vanilla frosting: "I'm much more invested in the cinnamon roll than I am in the glaze," Fields says. "I feel like the cream cheese frostings or other variations I've seen and tasted pull away from the pure flavor and eating experience of the actual pastry." And for our cream cheese-less icing, we take a cue from Simmons, adding evaporated milk to the frosting, along with vanilla, white and brown sugar, and a good amount of butter for an earthier, richer sweetness.
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