January 22, 1992|By Alison S. Arnett | Alison S. Arnett,Boston Globe

BAKING WAS A fierce competition in the Midwestern farming village of my childhood. Some of my friends' mothers made wonderful pies; some made astounding cakes. But everybody's mother made cinnamon rolls.

It was the real test of baking, as my sister and I fondly remembered recently, and the ratings came out regularly at the monthly school breakfast, held to raise money for our Catholic parish. All the schoolchildren knew whose mother was baking for that month's breakfast. We could sign up to buy as many as four rolls apiece, to be eaten along with hot cocoa. When the favored bakers were in the kitchen, there would be no leftovers.

The school breakfasts may be childhood memories, but the appeal of soft yeast dough swirled with cinnamon and graced with glaze has certainly not died out. My children clamor for them and so do their friends. And recently I listened, bemused, at a health club as three older men compared the merits of coffee rolls vs. cinnamon buns.

Cinnamon rolls have various names in ethnic cultures -- sometimes they're called sticky buns; German Americans and Pennsylvania Dutch know them as schneckes; Scandinavians call them biscuits; to Eastern European Jews they are putterkuchen.

But, basically, they consist of yeast dough rolled into a rectangle, spread with melted or soft butter, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and sometimes plumped raisins. The dough is then rolled into a tight jellyroll shape and cut into slices.

The rolls then rise a second time in round cake pans, or rectangular pans, cookie sheets or in muffin tins. If placed in a cake pan with their sides touching, the way they were made in my town, the interiors come out soft and the sizes will be irregular (the kids will argue about who got gets the biggest). They can also be baked on cookie sheets or in muffin tins, the their edges will then be crisper.

My grandmother's specialty was pecan rolls, which were cinnamon rolls baked upside-down style over a mixture of melted butter, brown sugar and pecan halves. When the rolls were turned out of the pan, the topping would have melted into the rolls and the aroma would be irresistible. Hers were prized at church fairs.

This recipe is adapted from "The Centennial Cookbook" of Wright, Kansas, and was given by Winnie Norris Slattery. A very typical recipe, it is also very large, to feed big families. Extra pans of rolls freeze well.

The amount of this filling can vary according to taste. Too much butter, sugar or cinnamon tends to overpower the delicacy of the yeast dough, however.

Cinnamon Rolls

1 package dry yeast, dissolved in 1 cup of warm water

2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm

3/4 cup sugar

7 to 8 cups unbleached or all-purpose white flour

3 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup melted margarine or butter


1/3 to 1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled

3/4 cup sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons cinnamon


1 cup powdered sugar

2 to 4 tablespoons hot water or orange or lemon juice

In a large bowl, add yeast to milk. Stir in one tablespoon of sugar and enough flour, about 3 1/2 cups, to make a soft sponge dough. Allow to rise an hour, until bubbly, in a warm place. Beat the eggs with the remainder of the sugar and the salt. Stir the mixture into the sponge and add the melted butter. Then begin adding flour one-half-cup at a time to make a soft dough.

Turn out the dough onto a floured board and knead lightly for about four minutes, just until the dough is smooth. Return it to the bowl, pat with greased fingers and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, about one to 1 1/4 hours.

Punch down and divide into three pieces. Using a heavy, wooden rolling pin, roll the first piece into a rectangle, about eigth-inches wide and 18 inches long, spread with soft or melted butter, sprinkle with sugar and then cinnamon. Roll the dough tightly into a jelly roll shape by starting at the top of the long end of the rectangle and rolling toward you. Using a floured, serrated knife, slice the roll into sections about 1 1/2 -inches thick. Place the sections, cut side up, into buttered, round cake pans or rectangular baking pans. Continue in the same manner with the rest of the dough.

Cover the pans with kitchen towels and allow to rise again until almost doubled, about one-half-hour. Put the pans into a preheated, 350-degree oven and bake for 25 to 35 minutes until rolls are golden brown on top. Drizzle with glaze while still warm. To make glaze, sift the powdered sugar into a large bowl, and then add hot water or orange or lemon juice a tablespoon at a time, stirring, until a thin glaze forms. Makes about 3 1/2 dozen rolls.

Overnight Rolls

1 package dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup warm water

7 tablespoons margarine or butter

1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm

3 beaten eggs

4 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

4 1/2 to 5 cups flour


1/4 to 1/3 cup melted butter

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

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