baking, butter, Christmas, home cooking, huzhou, mysterious ingredients, recipes

The Bun Also Rises

12.27.09 | 3 Comments

Every year for Thanksgiving, my family and I headed out to the desert for a potluck lunch with my grandparents’ friends and their families. Though the location changed a few times, we were always out in the desert, eating turkey and hiking and playing volleyball.

Every year one of my grandmother’s good friends, Susan, would bring along her special soup. It was always my favorite part of the meal and I usually ate four or five bowls (I have always upheld a standard of moderation). The soup was a sort of vegetable and chicken soup with alphabet noodles, and as much as I, my mother, or my grandmother pleaded for the recipe, Susan would never relinquish it.

[Susan, if you’re reading this, Please please pleasepleaseplease can I have the recipe? PLEASE? I promise I won’t tell Nana.]

I’ve heard a lot of stories of home cooks who refuse to divulge their recipes. I can kind of understand this—if people could make it themselves, what use would they have for you? It’s your specialty! But usually when other people try to reproduce the recipe, it doesn’t taste quite the same anyway. The sad part is, eventually these recipes get lost forever when they aren’t recorded or shared. And that seems kind of like a waste to me.

z_sprinkled side

While I’ve proclaimed that my family doesn’t have much of a recipe legacy, there is a really special recipe that my mom makes every Christmas morning—cinnamon rolls. And even though I give her a hard time about making them in the bread machine, I LOVE those things. They’re buttery and sweet, but not Cinnabon sweet; my mom doesn’t frost them, but rather bathes them in a butter-brown sugar glaze.

z_butter sugar bottom2

The hardest part about Christmas morning was waiting for them to rise and bake, especially when they started to smell up the whole house. It was pure torture. My tradition was to eat four or five (or six) of them for breakfast and then not eat until about dinnertime. The pillar of moderation, I am.


Living in China, I obviously miss out on the cinnamon roll festivities. Having gone last Christmas cinnamon-roll free, I decided that I this Christmas I could stand for it no longer. Thankfully, my mother is not the kind of person to guard her recipes to the grave. And since I have a food blog, I guess neither am I.

z_roll close

These rolls work in or out of a bread machine, and they’re very simple. The only problem I’ve encountered is with getting things to rise in Huzhou. Bread rises very slowly, if at all, here—maybe it’s the yeast or the humidity, I’m not sure—but on the first rise these rolls had to rise overnight in my heated bedroom.


z_rolls done2

I ended up with about 18 small cinnamon rolls that still weren’t quite as risen as the ones my mom makes, but they tasted almost like home. Buttery, sugary, cinnamon-y, gooey, sticky home.

z_rolls done6

And Susan? Pleeeeeeeeeease?

Mom’s Cinnamon Rolls

3/8 cup milk, lukewarm
3/8 cup water, lukewarm
1 egg, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons yeast

1 tablespoon melted butter
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup brown sugar

For the dough, mix together all the ingredients and let the dough rise until doubled. Make sure the water is warm enough to activate the yeast but not so hot that it will kill it.

For filling, melt the butter. Mix the sugars and cinnamon together in a bowl.

When the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and roll it into a 9×18-inch rectangle. Brush the melted butter over the dough and sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mix. Starting with the long edge, roll up the dough, pinching at the seams to seal. If you have trouble getting the seams to stick like I did, wet your fingers and pinch it together. With a sharp knife, cut the rolls crosswise about 1.5-inches in width.

Pour the melted butter for the glaze into a 9×13-inch pan or two 8-9-inch round cake pans. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Place the rolls in cut-side up and flatten slightly. At this point you can let the rolls rise and bake them, or cover them with foil and refrigerate them overnight, or freeze them up to a month.

Before baking, allow the rolls to warm or thaw and rise, covered, in a warm oven for 30-45 minutes until doubled. Bake at 350 F for 25-30 minutes until the rolls are golden brown. Remove the pan and invert immediately onto a plate. Eat them all. Now.

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