Thursday, January 5, 2012

Baking Memories: Grannie's Cinnamon Rolls

Growing up in a very small town (a village, actually, of about 200) there were events and traditions you could count on year after year:  there would always be a community fish fry around Labor Day, a weenie roast at Halloween, and one of the villagers would dress up and play Santa for the kids at Christmas.  My dad did it one year - he didn't fool me at all.  The weenie roast and bags of candy from Santa were provided by the village, but the Fish Fry was an annual fundraiser held for the Fire Department and, later on, the Ambulance Service.  There was never any shortage of good food, friends and neighbors, and certain pairs of brothers always getting into fist fights. 

Grannie Helen
Although my grandmother usually only made cinnamon rolls at Christmas time (she always took a tray over to the neighbors on Christmas morning), at some point she started making them for the bake sale table at the fish fry.  The ladies working at the table would carefully plate the rolls individually on little foam plates and wrap them in plastic before setting them out on display.  The first year Grannie only made one tray of rolls for the bake sale.  Not very many people had the opportunity to try them that year.  That year, our village marshal bought one of the cinnamon rolls and ate it on the spot.  And then he bought the rest of them.  All of them.  After that, Grannie made two trays of cinnamon rolls:  one tray to individually wrap and sell to people attending the fish fry, and one tray to wrap in its entirety and sell to the marshal.

Over the years, I've had many disappointments trying to re-create Grannie's cinnamon rolls.  I can't tell you how many different recipes I've tried.  "So," you ask, "why didn't you just use her recipe?"  Because I never saw Grannie use a recipe.  While I'm sure she owned measuring cups, they didn't get used much.  She poured ingredients into a bowl without seeming to even think about what she was doing and they turned out perfectly every time.  She just knew the recipe.  I didn't.  And I didn't think a written recipe existed.  But I was wrong. 

Grannie's cinnamon rolls came up while talking to my mom one day.  I was lamenting about my failures and the lack of a written recipe.  I nearly fell out of my chair when she said she had it.  Could it be?  When she sent it to me and I looked at it, I had some doubts.  Her report on her experience with the recipe was that it seemed like she needed a lot more flour than what the recipe called for and the baking time may have been too long.  Things to consider. 

Before beginning yet another attempt, I compared Grannie's recipe to some other egg/yeast bread recipes and came to the conclusion that two cups of milk was just too much.  If I had to venture to guess, I would say there are three possibilities:  1) Grannie never measured, so when asked to put a recipe in writing the amounts were her (perhaps inaccurate) estimation; 2) whoever typed the recipe may have made an error and the actual amount of milk is supposed to be 1/2 cup; or 3) perhaps Grannie new exactly what she was doing and just didn't want anyone else to be able to make her cinnamon roles.  

At first I considered reducing the milk to one-half cup, but instead went with one cup thinking I could add more flour if necessary.  It was necessary.  I used five cups of flour plus extra that was kneaded in.  It was also necessary to keep in mind that I was using my KitchenAid mixer.  Grannie didn't have a KitchenAid.  She had a strong right arm. 

I forgot to take pictures of the dough while it was coming together and there are no pictures while I was kneading it because I didn't want my camera covered in dough and flour.  Sometimes having a photographer would be very helpful.

Feeling a bit nostalgic, I decided to forgo the French rolling pin I ordinarily use in favor of Grannie's rolling pin.  It seemed fitting.  I chose to roll the dough on a silicon mat to make clean up easier, but it also turned out to making rolling up the dough easier as well.

I just lifted one edge of the mat and started rolling like a jelly roll.  As for cutting the individual rolls, I thought one-half inch seemed a little on the thin side so mine were closer to an inch thick.  I ended up with 17 full size rolls, plus the two ends.

Even though I cut the rolls thicker than directed in the original recipe, Mom said baking them 30 minutes seemed like too long.  I set the timer at 20 minutes, checked them and baked an additional 3 minutes.  Two minutes probably would have been better.  I let them cool slightly and made the icing.  Grannie would have made this icing with artificial maple flavoring.  There is no such thing in my house, so I used maple syrup. 

The end result:  they're not bad, but still not the same.  I think part of the problem is still with the quantity of milk.  Adding more flour to make the dough come together throws off the ratio of the other ingredients and, I think, alters the flavor and texture.  The next time I make these I'm going to reduce the amount of milk to one-half cup and add the flour gradually just in case that's not enough milk. 

The other part of the problem is that there's one ingredient missing that I'll never be able to add:  the love Grannie put into making them.


  1. What a lovely, lovely story. And they look amazing. I just finished writing a post on my recent adventures in cinnamon rolls, which came out square! And the recipe called for just 1/2 cup of milk.

  2. Thanks, Susan! I was a little disappointed that these came out square, maybe I should have spaced them furher apart. An excuse to make them again (with 1/2 cup milk)!


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