There are few more axiomatic statements than this: Cinnamon rolls are delicious. Consider the success of Cinnabon, the processed-pastry mega-chain whose 880-calorie behemoths tempt weary mall patrons and air travelers at 770 locations worldwide. Each roll from Cinnabon is, as Louis C.K. memorably put it, “a six-foot high, cinnamon-swirled cake made for one fat man.”
If you’re expecting a smug explanation of why homemade cinnamon rolls are nutritionally superior to Cinnabon’s, forget it. Homemade cinnamon rolls are terrible for you, chockablock with butter, sugar (two kinds), and refined flour, with some egg and salt thrown in for good measure. Healthwise, there’s not much difference between downing a Cinnabon Classic, eating a couple of homemade cinnamon rolls, or injecting buttercream frosting directly into your liver.
That doesn’t mean there are no good reasons to make cinnamon rolls from scratch. For one thing, homemade cinnamon rolls taste better than Cinnabon’s, with none of the latter’s chemical tang. For another, they’re inevitably cheaper than the kind from a kiosk. Finally, and most importantly, you get to eat them in the warm comfort of your own kitchen, rather than in the supremely depressing environments where Cinnabon outlets lurk.
There are only two secrets to making terrific homemade cinnamon rolls. The first is to embrace the fact that they are a nutritional catastrophe. Don’t try to redeem them with raisins or nuts, which distract from the three primary cinnamon-roll textures: tender, feathery bread; sticky cinnamon filling; and smooth, smooth icing.
The second secret is potato. Yes, that sounds absurd and perhaps even gimmicky. But adding a little mashed potato to cinnamon-roll dough results in incomparably moist, soft rolls. (This is true for virtually all yeast breads, since potato contains starch but none of the gluten that can make baked goods tough.) A ricer is the best tool for making boiled potato smooth enough to vanish into dough—and it conveniently separates the potato skin from the flesh—but if you don’t have one, you can peel the potato by hand and mash it with a fork or a traditional potato masher until the lumps are gone. Either way, no one will guess that there are traces of tuber in their breakfast bun. All they will notice is that they are eating a pastry as ethereal as the new Beach House album.
One final note: Cinnamon rolls take time—though not much effort—to assemble. The most convenient way to go about making them is to start the process the night before you intend to bake them and then refrigerate the uncooked rolls overnight. (Just be sure to let the rolls rise in a warm place before you refrigerate them—contra some recipes, yeast dough will never double in size in the fridge.) In the morning, all you have to do is pop the pan into the oven, whisk together some minimalist frosting, and wait.
Surprise* Cinnamon Rolls
Yield: 12 servings
Time: 3½ to 4 hours, mostly unattended
*1 small potato (about 4 ounces), cut into 1-inch chunks
1½ teaspoons salt
4½ cups flour, plus more for kneading and shaping
1 cup sugar
2¼ teaspoons instant yeast or one ¼-ounce packet active dry yeast
¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
Oil or butter for greasing the bowl and pan
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Put the potato in a medium saucepan with ½ teaspoon salt and enough water to cover it by at least 1 inch. Cover the saucepan, bring to a boil, and cook until the potato is very tender, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flour, ½ cup of the sugar, the yeast, and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl.
2. Drain the potato, reserving 1¼ cups of the potato-cooking liquid, and put the potato through a ricer. (Discard the potato skin.) Add ¼ cup (½ stick) of the butter to the reserved potato-cooking liquid and stir until it melts. When the butter mixture cools to 100°F—about the same temperature as the inside of your wrist—add it to the flour mixture along with the riced potato and the egg. Stir with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand until combined.
3. Knead the dough with the dough-hook attachment of a stand mixer or by hand until it feels smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Grease a large bowl (it’s fine to use the same one you mixed the dough in), add the dough, and turn it over to coat it lightly with oil or butter. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, put it in a warm place, and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Grease a 9- by 13-inch pan with oil or butter. Punch down the dough, then transfer it to a floured surface. With a rolling pin, roll the dough into an approximately 8- by 12-inch rectangle. Spread the remaining ½ cup (1 stick) butter over the surface of the dough. Combine the remaining ½ cup sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle this mixture evenly over the butter. Starting from one of the long sides, roll up the dough as tightly as possible. Cut the roll into 12 one-inch slices and arrange the slices, cut side up, in the greased pan.
5. Cover the pan with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, put it in a warm place, and let the rolls rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. (At this point you can refrigerate the cinnamon rolls for up to 12 hours or overnight; let them return to room temperature before baking.)
6. Heat the oven to 350°F. Uncover the cinnamon rolls and bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the powdered sugar and milk until smooth, then whisk in the vanilla. Let the cinnamon rolls cool slightly, then drizzle the icing over them and serve warm.