How to Make the Greatest Cinnamon Rolls of Your Life

Going to sleep at night knowing the next day holds the promise of cinnamon rolls is comforting.

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Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

When the pandemic began, I was convinced I was absolutely the last person on Earth to inspire any sort of baking excitement within anyone. I had spent the last decade as a pastry chef/baker and yet truly hated everything that was coming out of my oven. Sourdough and bread and baking were being touted as the “new fun thing” to keep us occupied for this “brief two week quarantine” (lol) we’re all experiencing together. How fun!?

I was inundated with messages on Instagram from followers who wanted to know what “discard” was and to please DM them a recipe of what to do with it. I listlessly gave in, posting free and easy recipes that might have seemed pretty convincing. But in reality, I was overwhelmed with how much I hated baking. My self-worth was in tatters because a few days before Thanksgiving of 2019, I was fired from my longtime job that had given me a baking platform to speak from in the first place.

Actually, my family was fired. My partner was the sous chef at the “celebrity chef” owned brunch restaurant where we met and dedicated our lives to. Honestly, we should’ve seen it coming. We knew we worked for an exploitative misogynist who was truly only good at stroking his bad boy chef image. But instead of breaking away and starting our own thing, we had decided to stay put, buy a home, have a kid, and begin a family before a business venture. We made on the high-end of what managing chefs make within our city and thought of ourselves as the lucky ones.

If I told you that by sheer determination and perseverance I prevailed and loved baking again, that would be a damn lie. I started online therapy in May of 2020 and kept baking, even when I felt the imposter syndrome creeping in and doubted my every movement. Some days I gave up. Sometimes I’d go weeks at a time without creaming butter or turning on my oven and that was fine.

But I did come back to it, and when I do, my favorites are the recipes that are leavened with expectancy and not-too-sweet-frosting-laden immediate gratification the next day. Hence, overnight cinnamon rolls. My toddler loves them. I love them. My neighbors love them. It’s consistently been the recipe that’s made me look at my mixer with fondness rather than shooting daggers at it. That’s bread hope right there. Going to sleep at night knowing the next day holds the promise of cinnamon rolls is comforting, even to this bitter-ass pastry lady.

Bomb Cinnamon Rolls with Kefir Cream Cheese Frosting, Choose Your Own Adventure Style

If you have sourdough starter available for this recipe, great! You can use it with the yeast in the recipe or you can forgo the yeast and rely on your starter. Totally up to you. If sourdough isn’t your thing, that’s fine! Just use the yeast and forget about the sourdough in the recipe, excluding that only and not changing anything else. They’ll still be delicious and worth the wait.

Side note: your best friend in the kitchen is a scale that can register grams. It’s really fun and you’ll feel like a mad scientist or on Narcos Bakes or something. Highly encourage the investment for ease/enjoyment, but the recipe is in cups/ounces if you don't have one yet (get one). Also, I like to use regular old All-Purpose (King Arthur is great!) flour for this recipe other than the alternative flour (which is totally optional but adds a nice nutty flavor). Using bread flour will result in a tougher dough, so stick with everyday all-purpose. This dough is a brilliant thing to do midday on a Saturday for major Sunday payoff—again, that expectant anticipation can be a comfort.

Brioche Dough:

  • 50 grams (1/3 cup) alternative flour such as whole-grain, rye, spelt, or just replace with AP
  • 350 grams (2 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 51 grams (1/4 cup) sugar
  • 7 grams (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 10 grams (1 1/2 teaspoons) salt (I like fine sea salt!)
  • 100 grams (around 3/4 cup) sourdough starter
  • 5 eggs
  • 100 grams (scant 1/2 cup) buttermilk, kefir, milk with a bit of yogurt mixed in, just plain old milk, whatever you have!
  • 150 grams (5 1/2ish ounces) cold butter


Filling:

  • 100 grams (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • 100 grams (1/2 cup) brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric (it gives the rolls a lovely golden glow and balances the sweetness)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
  • 69 grams (5 Tablespoons) melted butter


Kefir Cream Cheese Frosting:

  • 150 grams (5 1/2ish ounces) soft butter
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) cream cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 100 grams (a heaping cup) powdered sugar
  • 115 grams (1/2 cup) kefir (or buttermilk, or milk with a couple tablespoons of yogurt whisked in)

Combine the flours, sugar, yeast and salt in the bowl of your stand mixer. Mix briefly with just your hand to incorporate. Add the sourdough, buttermilk and eggs and with the dough hook, mix for one minute until a shaggy dough forms. At this point, turn off your mixer and let this messy lump of dough rest for 20 minutes while you get your butter prepared. This rest is called an autolyse and allows the flour to absorb moisture and properly hydrate. Cut your cold butter into little cubes—this will allow it to incorporate into our dough easily once we’re ready. After 20 minutes is up, mix on medium-low speed for 5-7 minutes or until the dough balls up around the hook. Every once and a while stop and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to help this process. Once in the ball stage, you can start adding chunks of your butter to the dough while the mixer is on low. Add 7-8 small pieces at a time, waiting until they’ve disappeared into the dough before adding more. Once all your butter is in, keep mixing until no butter chunks remain and your dough looks smooth and glossy. DONE. Either keep the dough in your mixing bowl and cover with a damp towel or place in a slightly oiled dish that has enough room for it to double itself and cover. Place in the fridge and let chill for a couple of hours. We want it to get nice and cold so it’s easy to roll out. Alternatively, you could leave this dough in the fridge overnight and shape your buns in the morning, letting them proof for about an hour before baking. I like shaping them the day the dough is made because I like rolling out of bed and tossing them into the oven as soon as it’s reached 350 degrees, even before coffee is ready. It’s just easy. Like Sunday morning. You know.

While your dough is chilling, you can combine both sugars, the spices, and salt in a small bowl. Toss to combine. In another small bowl, get your butter ready to melt. Also make sure your butter and cream cheese for the frosting are out and getting soft at room temperature.

After three to six hours, take the dough from the fridge and sprinkle your countertop with flour. Toss your prepared butter in the bowl into the microwave to melt but not get too hot. Scrape the dough from the bowl—you should see nice elastic webs of gluten all over the place. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour and pat into a rough rectangle shape. With a rolling pin (or bottle of wine, whatever is closest), roll into a rectangle about 10 inches tall and 14ish inches wide. Doesn’t have to be perfect at all. Sprinkle the prepared sugar mixture all over the rectangle, leaving about a half inch at the bottom sugar-free. Dip your fingers into your melted butter and smear that sugarless half-inch at the bottom—this will act as glue to keep the roll sealed up. Starting from the top, begin tightly rolling up the dough. Once at the end, let the roll sit on the seam to ensure it’s closed up. If it’s a bit lumpy or wonky, don’t worry. Just sprinkle a bit of flour over the now log shape and roll back and forth until it’s more even. Now grab some dental floss. Really. This dough is SO tender and sweet and cutting it with a knife could smush these precious rolls we’re so excited about. Slide a piece of floss (or kitchen twine if you’re fancy) underneath the roll and criss cross to cut. It’s pretty satisfying actually. I like to cut this into 10 rolls but if you want bigger, go for 8. 

I like to bake these in a 9x13 pan but if you’re forgoing the sourdough you could get away with something a little smaller. Line with a piece of parchment for easy cleanup and nestle the buns into the pan. Place in the fridge overnight to slowly rise (and ferment, if using sourdough). You can now wipe out that mixing bowl and reuse it to make your frosting ahead of time since we’ve already softened our butter and cream cheese by leaving them out of the fridge for hours. Combine the soft butter, soft cream cheese, salt, and vanilla and whip on medium until fluffy and no lumps remain. Scrape down and add the powdered sugar, mixing on low until incorporated and then on medium high to fully bring together. On low speed, add the kefir or buttermilk. Place in a container and store in the fridge with the rising buns.

First thing the next morning, take the buns out of the fridge and leave out while your oven preheats to 350. Once heated, toss them into the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, depending on which pan you used (the more space, the less time they’ll need) and oven variations. If you have a thermometer, they should reach 190 degrees in the middle of a center bun and they’re done. Or just rip one open in a very dignified way and if it’s not doughy, they’re good to go. Let cool for 10 or so minutes and then place a few big spoonfuls of your frosting on top. Let melt for about a minute and then spread evenly all over. I like to grate some lemon zest over the top because I’m extra like that but dig in and ENJOY. Worth it, right?

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Zoë Taylor is a Thrillist contributor.