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Gramps's Cinnamon Rolls, Apricot Rolls, Lemon-Honey-Pecan Rolls

My room in the farm house is, on foot, as far from the kitchen as it is possible to get, through several rooms and up a set of stairs. Smells from the kitchen, though, fly quickly through walls and up the stairs. Growing up, I could lie in bed on Sunday morning and predict breakfast by the smells. First, coffee, then, half the time, cinnamon and butter and nut and yeast all mixed together. Even in my years as a sleep-deprived, secretly sullen teen, my nose took notice and sent a little aroma alarm into my morning sleep: "Cinnamon rolls! Now baking. Hurry." The other half of the time, Sundays had a different luscious smell. Just after the coffee came the scent of fresh hot oil, and then dough in oil, followed quickly by Dad's loud voice at the bottom of the stair, 'Rise and shine. Doughnuts!' Usually he brought a spoon and baking sheet with him, and banged mercilessly as he called in one of his silly voices, "Come and get 'em before they're cold.' Not to be denied. Sleep time: Over and done.

More story later (below). Here are the recipes. (Do please note: These are family recipes, not tested in professional kitchens. Use the "Feedback" or "Comment" sections at the end of this page to report mistakes or send suggestions, if you wish.)

Mother and Dad's Saturday Night Roll Dough All these breakfast pastries begin with one batch of Mother and Dad's Saturday Night Rolls. I believe this basic recipe came from an old cookbook, perhaps the original from Better Homes and Gardens. We committed the recipe to memory. Someone in the house prepared it each Saturday night (and on Christmas and Thanksgiving eves) for more than 40 years. The measurements and ingredients remain unchanged. I have elaborated on the instructions.

Note: The dough must be made about 8 hours before you plan to use it. It needs those hours in the refrigerator to go through various chemical and mechanical transformations that produce the right texture when it is baked or fried.

The ingredients:

  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 cups milk (whole milk makes slightly richer rolls; low fat and skim will work, too)
  • 2/3 cup shortening or bland oil (grapeseed, rice bran, safflower, canola)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 whole eggs, beaten well
  • 7 cups of unbleached flour, or more

Instructions:

  1. Using a small bowl or a 2-cup measuring cup, stir 2 packages of dry yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar into 1 cup lukewarm water. Lukewarm means "barely warm." A drop of lukewarm water on the inside of your wrist should feel slightly warm.) Set aside the yeast mixture while you prepare next batch of ingredients.
  2. Heat two cups milk (whole milk makes slightly richer rolls, but you can use any type) in a small pan or in the microwave until it nearly boils - but not quite. Bubbles will appear around the edges, and the surface may seem to swell slightly. A surface 'skin' may appear.
  3. Melt 2/3 cups solid shortening by stirring into the hot milk, or use a high quality bland oil such as safflower, grape seed, canola, or rice bran oil (my present favorite.)
  4. Place the milk-shortening blend in a large mixing bowl.
  5. Add 3/4 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons salt. Let this mixture cool until it, too, is just barely warm.
  6. In a clean small bowl or glass measuring cup, beat two large eggs until they are light, thick, and pale yellow.
  7. With a clean finger, check the temperature of the liquid mix in the large bowl. When they are just barely warm, add the beaten eggs and stir well.
  8. Add the yeast mixture to the large mixing bowl. The yeast mixture should be quite foamy by now.
  9. Stir all together with a large wooden spoon or wire whisk. A whisk hurries the thick liquids together. And then a wooden spoon works best for the next task.
  10. Add 7-10 cups unbleached flour, about two cups at a time. If you wish, use a sifter to lighten it as you sift it onto the batter. After each addition, stir thoroughly. Keep adding flour until the dough is medium stiff. Clues: It will pull away from the sides of the bowl slightly. It will hold its shape a bit when you stop stirring, and then it will very gradually settle down. It will still be somewhat glistening, not dull like a really stiff bread dough.
  11. Turn the dough out on a thoroughly floured cloth, board, or piece of waxed paper. Pile it up in a round heap, and leave it alone for several minutes. The time is just about right for you to wash all your bowls and tools, dry the mixing bowl, and either spray it with non-stick spray or rub it lightly with oil.
  12. With extra flour nearby if needed, flour your hands and begin kneading the dough. Start by lifting an edge and plopping it onto the middle of the dough and pressing it in lightly with the heel of your hand. Repeat all around until the dough starts to get a bit more organized. Turn it over, press down the center hump some, and repeat. Keep up the piling, pressing, kneading for about five minutes, and when it is fairly smooth, pick it up and drop it into the oiled mixing bowl, smooth side up. Cover with a clean, damp towel, or with plastic wrap, and put the bowl in the refrigerator. The dough needs to chill at least eight hours before using, so make it the night before you need to use it.

Cinnamon Rolls

Half a recipe of Mother and Dad's Saturday Night Rolls will make enough cinnamon rolls for 8 people, usually with one or two leftovers.

In addition to the dough, you will need these ingredients:

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup pecans, finely chopped, if you like them, or other nuts if you prefer. Or none!
  • You may also choose to add ½ cup raisins, if you like them. (I don't.)

Take the dough from the refrigerator, and use a sharp knife to cut about half the dough out of the bowl. Put the dough on a floured cloth, board, or waxed paper. Re-cover the remaining dough and return it to the refrigerator.

Oil or spray a heavy baking sheet that has raised sides. Cast aluminum ones that are not darkened work well. Instead of oil, you may line the pan with a sheet of parchment paper or silicon baking sheet.

Flour your hands and press the extra air out of the wedge of dough. Work it into a round ball shape. With a heavy rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle that is roughly 12" X 14" with the long edge closest to you, 'Landscape' instead of 'Portrait' orientation, if you think in computer terms.

Now the fun really begins. Lightly drizzle the melted butter onto the dough. Spread it as evenly as you can without being fussy. Stay away from the very edge of the dough all around, so the butter does not run off.

Crumble the brown sugar a bit at a time across the buttery dough. It will not make a smooth covering layer, but will be in small clumps. Just make sure the clumps are fairly evenly distributed.

Sprinkle the cinnamon across the top of the brown sugar. Follow with the chopped nuts, if you are using them, and raisins, if you think you must.

Now comes the next fun. Starting with the long edge of the rectangle closest to you, pick up the edge of the edge gently all along the length of the dough, and turn it up onto the larger expanse of dough. You are starting to roll this whole thing up like a jelly roll. Pat it and insist with it until you get the beginnings of a little roll. The very first edge is the least cooperative, but even that is not hard, because you don't have to have evenness or perfection, you just have to start a roll.

Roll carefully until you reach the far edge. Pinch that edge of dough to seal it to the roll all along its length, so the filling ingredients will not leak out. (If they do, it still is not disaster.)

Now, with your sharpest large knife, cut the roll into slices 1/2" to 3/4" thick. As you cut, place each piece on the baking sheet. If you like cinnamon rolls that are brown all around, place the rolls at least 2" apart. If you like rolls that snuggle up together and have soft white sides, place them so they touch.

Cover the pan lightly with a clean, damp towel, and put in a warm place, out of the way of other work, and out of the way of drafts. Let rise until at least doubled, usually around 90 minutes.

Near the end of the raising time, move a rack in your oven to the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the rolls are fully risen, bake them on the middle rack 15 minutes, checking after 12. Depending on your oven, it may take longer, or it may take less. The tops of the rolls should be a light golden brown, with a nice ooze of brown sugar, cinnamon and butter showing all around, and making your house smell heavenly. If you are uncertain about done-ness, take them out of the oven and peer down inside an inner layer with a knife and fork. If it still looks like raw dough, continue baking. (You may need to place a long piece of aluminum foil over the whole pan of rolls if they have browned before baking through in the center. The foil will prevent burning on top as the rolls finish baking in their centers.)

Optional Glazes

While the rolls bake, make a glaze if you like. The simplest is 1 cup sifted confectioner's sugar, 1 Tablespoon milk, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, and a tiny sprinkle of salt. This is surprisingly good, and adds something extra to the whole gooey sweet experience of the cinnamon rolls.

Variations: Sour cream glaze: Replace the milk with 2 Tablespoons sour cream. Cream cheese glaze: Replace the milk with 3 Tablespoons softened cream cheese plus 1 Tablespoon softened butter.

When you remove the rolls from the oven, carefully drizzle your chosen glaze on top, and serve immediately. Or serve without glaze, some people prefer them less sweet. Others like to add still more butter at the table.

Lemon Honey Pecan Rolls

Here you replace the butter/brown sugar/cinnamon filling above with lemon/butter/honey.

A glass casserole dish with deep sides, either 9" X 13 X 2" or 10" X 15 X 2," works best for these rolls. The filling gets juicy during baking and it roams around between and among the rolls. These rolls end up more like sticky buns.

In addition to the dough, you will need these ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted and mostly cooled
  • ½ cup fine honey
  • Juice and finely grated rind of two large lemons
  • Optional: 3/4 cup pecans, finely chopped, orother nuts if you prefer (Chopped whole or blanched almonds are good in these rolls, too. Cut them into fairly small pieces, though - about the size of an oatmeal flake works well.)

Stir the butter, honey, lemon juice and lemon rind together. Once you have rolled out the dough, spread the lemon/butter/honey mixture gently and carefully across the dough. Sprinkle with nuts, if you are using them.

Roll up, slice, and set the rolls to rise in a warm, draft-free spot for about 90 minutes, or until doubled.

Near the end of the rising period, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 325 degrees. Bake on the middle rack 20 minutes, checking after 17. Depending on your oven, it may take longer, or it may take less. The tops of the rolls should be a light golden brown. Glaze if you dare.

Apricot Rolls

These are fruity, the ultimate sweet tart experience.

A glass casserole dish with deep sides, either 9" X 13 X 2" or 10" X 15 X 2," works best for these rolls. The filling gets juicy during baking and it roams around between and among the rolls. These rolls end up more like sticky buns.

In addition to the dough, you will need these ingredients:

  • 2 cups (1 pound box) dried apricots
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Cook these ingredients together over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until the apricots are very soft, about 20 minutes. Cool. Either chop with a chopping tool or pulse six times in a food processor fitted with the basic blade.

Also have ready 3/4 cup pecans or almonds finely chopped, if you wish.

Once you have rolled out the dough, spread the cooled, coarse apricot puree mixture gently and carefully across the dough. Sprinkle with almonds or pecans if you are using them. Roll up, slice, and set the rolls to rise in a warm, draft-free spot for about 90 minutes, or until doubled.

Bake about 20 minutes, checking after 17. Depending on your oven, it may take longer, or it may take less. The tops of the rolls should be a light golden brown. Because of the tartness of the filling, glazes make a particularly nice addition to these rolls. I mean - definitely choose and use a glaze to get the right sweet-tart balance (and moistness.)

And now, for a bit more story... The Sunday morning cinnamon rolls or doughnuts were possible because Dad was such an early riser. When we had milk cows, he got up at 4:45 a.m. each morning, and the habit of rising early stuck with him after that. Even in the years when he did no other cooking, he always handled the Sunday morning breakfast pastry. Perhaps he and Mother consulted about whether to make cinnamon rolls or whether to make doughnuts, or perhaps he made the choice himself. I don't know. Years later he liked to make a small joke. When I came to visit on a weekend he would say 'Which would you like to have for breakfast tomorrow morning, cinnamon rolls or doughnuts?' Several times I bit on this question, leaning one or the other, to his delight because he had not, for some reason, made roll dough that weekend.

He also liked to play around with the basic formula a little, sometimes adding cloves or nutmeg in addition to cinnamon, or testing whether the rolls were better if he browned the butter slightly before he put it in the cinnamon rolls. He liked to leave cayenne pepper and black pepper on the table where he had rolled out the cinnamon rolls, and make jokes at breakfast that he had mistakenly put one of those fiery ingredients in the rolls, thinking it was cinnamon.

Somewhere in my early teen years, either he or Mother had an inspired moment in the kitchen. It was holiday season, and someone had sent or brought a couple of pounds of dried apricots. These functioned as edible gold in our kitchen, since they showed up rarely, and everyone loved that apricot flavor. Someone, either Mother or Dad, thought about the beauty of an apricot roll rather than a cinnamon roll, and a new era began. Eventually, apricot rolls became the standard Christmas morning fare, a tradition that passed on to my sister's house as well.

I developed the lemon honey pecan roll as an adult, after tasting such a confection somewhere thinking it could be easily duplicated with the familiar Saturday Night Roll dough. It is a stickier roll, but then I always liked the sticky ones better than crispy, drier types.

Mother told me shortly before she died that that she began filling doughnuts with apricot puree or other fruit mixtures long after I had left home. She recommends experimenting with that approach as well. It is hard to get the inside of the dough perfectly well cooked before the outside gets too brown, she said. I have not included a recipe here, because it's important to leave some things to the imagination and inventive energy of the intriguing people using these recipes.

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