My friend John is a painter, an incredible painter who is not recognized in the established art world the way he should be. Whatever. That’s not why he paints. (However, I hope the museums and art critics flock to his door when he is 94, the way they have with Carmen Herrera.)
He paints because he has to paint. He sees the world differently than I do and he has this relentless flushed urgency to try to capture what he sees in oil paints, thickly applied sometimes, on blank canvasses. Lately he has been sitting in his cold studio, hunched forward, working with these crazy translucent red paints (rose madder and alizarin crimson), this slash of red that stands out in winter grey around here. His art teacher 30 years ago told him that no one should ever use this particular red. So John bought a tube — expensive for 1979 — and saved it, all this time. He said he wasn’t ready for it before. He didn’t know enough yet. He opened the tube this winter.
I haven’t seen this painting yet. I can’t wait.
Forgive me. I know you loaded up this site hoping to find cinnamon rolls. And there they are! See them up there? Lush and delicious, soft and inviting. The recipe is at the bottom of this post. If you really can’t stand it anymore, skip these words. Click on the part that says “Keep reading” and it will all be there. You don’t have to read this at all.
But I have to write it.
You see, I can’t draw stick figures in any recognizeable fashion. My mother bought me a set of paints or watercolors or oil crayons every Christmas, hoping that the artistic talent would bloom some late December. It never did. I’m no visual artist.
Lately, however, I gobble up light with my camera, not wondering if I’m a good photographer, just wanting to see. I write little messages on Twitter because my fingers twitch if I go more than a few hours without recording what I have noticed. I write letters to friends on small stationery cards and copy them before I tuck them into envelopes, saving the copies in a folder for sometime later, in case I ever wonder what I was doing this second day of winter, 2009.
I don’t know what I call this. I just do this.
And I bake.
Nearly every afternoon, I open the cupboard with the gluten-free flours and grab corn flour or potato starch. Sometimes sorghum. Sea salt, baking powder, and xanthan gum are in the cupboard next to the dishwasher. I reach for the butter that has been softening on the counter so I can mix it with brown sugar and start the magic happening.
I never know what’s going to happen next. I imagine it. I know the general structure. But lately, that countertop in front of the bay window, with Little Bean beside me, has become my blank canvas. I’m inventing as I go, trying to make the soft sweet treat I imagine happen underneath my hands.
For Christmas, I wanted cinnamon rolls. Tell truth, I have made them every Christmas for the past four years. The first year’s were awful: gnarled at the edges, a bit burnt, and dry as insulation material. The second were from a mix. The third year…Did I make them the third Christmas? I was 8 weeks pregnant, sleeping and sick most of the time. It’s a bit of a blur.
Last year, Danny and I proudly carried in the cinnamon rolls we had created for the first draft of our cookbook. And they were.…good. I mean, really good. But not, great.
No, that’s not it. They still didn’t match the image I had in my mind of what a good cinnamon roll should be.
I want a soft, pliable dough, one that tastes good on its own. Yes, I love plump golden raisins, brown sugar almost melting, the ooze of cinnamon-scented butter on the edges, and cream cheese frosting. Really, how could you not love cream cheese frosting? But most of all, I want a cinnamon roll that stands up to the rush of Christmas morning, with a few stragglers left until the afternoon when we pick at the caramelized edges to stave off the hunger pains until dinner begins.
I want the cinnamon roll you see above. And I need it to be gluten-free.
A few days ago, I finally baked it.
As you may know, I have been baking cinnamon rolls non-stop for the past few weeks. I learned so much from every batch, from the botched to the beautiful, that none of it has been a waste. Seriously, though, I started growing close-throated at the idea of another cinnamon roll. Time to bake something else.
Tita’s the one who did it. She, my dear friend for the past 18 years (and painter John’s wife), knows her food. Tita’s the one who gave me the cornbread recipe we have been making since. When I told her stories of making cinnamon rolls that begin by heating oil and milk, she made a face. “I’ve never done that. All you need is a white bread dough.”
Oh. It never occurred to me, somehow, that a cinnamon roll dough is a white bread dough. (I’ve been studying cinnamon roll recipes like they are the Torah. No one mentioned this.) Strange as it may be for a gluten-free girl, the white bread dough didn’t intimidate me. I’ve figured that out lately.
So I pulled out the scale, and measured out the ratio of flours to liquids to eggs I have figured out these past few months. I chose almond flour for its high protein and slightly sweet taste. Corn flour shows up in all the Italian gluten-free delicacies we ate on our honeymoon. And I pulled out potato starch, tapioca flour, and sweet rice flour, for the starchiness. I turned to Little Bean, babbling and banging the whisk on the countertop beside me, and said, “Let’s begin.”
I knew it under my hands as I mixed and rolled. This was the one.
You can see the pictures here. Let them be the judge if you would like to bake these cinnamon rolls too.
That’s the thing. My cinnamon rolls may not be the ones you like best. That’s okay. Not everyone loves John’s paintings. (I don’t understand those people, but fair enough.) There’s not a single creative expression that will win universal approval. That’s not why we do this.
Years ago, before I moved to New York, John and I talked about why we do what we do, this crazy passion and need to put things on blank canvases. He said something that has always stayed with me: “I just make the paintings I wish I could look at. You should write the books you want to read.”
That’s what I’m always doing, when I write, whether it’s letters or books. I’m just sitting here trying to write what I wish I could read.
And now I’ve created the cinnamon rolls I wished I could eat.
If you enjoy them too, that’s all the better.
Gluten-Free Cinnamon Rolls
You’ll see that I have given the flour measurements here in ounces. I bake by weight, with a trusty scale, spooning out flours to exactly four ounces. It makes baking more precise, which is vital to gluten-free baking. It also, however, makes it liberating. Once you figure out the ratios, you don’t need someone else’s recipes. You can make it up on the spot.
That’s my hope, that enough of you start baking by weight that you won’t even need to look at my recipes. We can just have conversations instead.
I know that some of you will ask about substitutions. I don’t know. If you can’t eat almonds, or have an allergy to corn, or have just run out of potato starch, you can substitute other flours, if you use the same weight as the original. I’ve used brown rice flour, sorghum, teff, and arrowroot powder successfully here too. The ratio is what really matters. Now, personally, I probably wouldn’t use any of the bean flours in cinnamon rolls, or mesquite, or anything that smacks of healthy eating. It’s a cinnamon roll. Let it be starchy and doughy for one day.
(I’ve put the flours into cups, which I measured after I baked these. Keep in mind that how you measure a cup may be different than how I do it here.)
These cinnamon rolls can be dairy-free, as well as gluten-free. In fact, the rolls you see here were made with goat’s milk powder, so if you need to avoid cow’s milk, this is your recipe. You could substitute soy milk powder or rice milk powder, if you can find it.
Other than that, I really don’t know. I’m pretty darned happy with these cinnamon rolls. They’re gluten-free. That’s how I need to eat. If there are ingredients here you can’t eat, then it’s your turn to adapt this recipe and make these the best cinnamon rolls for your kitchen.
1 1/2 cups water
3 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons active-dry yeast
4 ounces almond flour (1 1/4 cup)
4 ounces corn flour (3/4 cup)
4 ounces sweet rice flour (3/4 cup)
4 ounces potato starch (2/3 cup)
4 ounces tapioca flour (1 cup)
1 tablespoon xanthan gum
1 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup milk powder (we used goat milk powder in this batch)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Filling for Cinnamon Rolls
4 ounces unsalted butter (1 stick or 8 tablespoons)
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 teaspoons cinnamon
3 tablespoons agave nectar (or maple syrup)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup walnuts
Cream Cheese Frosting
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 tabelspoons cream cheese, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar
Activating the yeast. Bring 1 cup of the water to 115°. This is a good temperature for yeast — not too hot, not too cold. If you want to be particular about it, you can use a thermometer to measure the temperature. I like to turn on the tap water and run it over my wrist. When the water feels like the temperature of my skin (with no cold splashes or hot pockets), it’s ready. Mix the water, yeast, and sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Set it aside to rise, about 15 minutes.
Mixing the dry ingredients. Combine the almond flour, corn flour, sweet rice flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, and salt together. Whisk them together in a food processor, or in a stand mixer, or with a whisk. Combining them into one flour will help the final cinnamon rolls to be light, rather than dense and lumpy. Add the brown sugar and milk powder. Stir to combine.
Finishing the dough. Bring the remaining 1/2 cup of water to 110°. If you have a stand mixer, move the dry ingredients into the bowl of the stand mixer. (If not, you can make this dough with a hand mixer or by hand.) Turn the mixer on medium-low speed and add the yeasty water, then the eggs, 1 at a time, mixing in between. Mix for a few minutes until the dough comes together. If the dough feels a bit too dry, add the remaining water. (I always seem to need it.) The dough should be soft and a bit shaggy but not soggy. It will NOT be as firm as you expect a gluten dough to be. Instead, you are aiming for pliable and a bit spongy, like a cookie dough.
Yeast doughs will vary in behavior depending on the weather. These measurements are a guide. If you find you need another splash of water to make the dough feel right, then go ahead. If the dough feels too wet (like you need to wipe your hands after touching it), then add a touch more potato starch. Start to trust your instincts.
Letting the dough rise. Move the dough to a large greased bowl. Cover with a clean tea towel and set the bowl in a warm place in the kitchen. Allow it to rise until it has doubled in size, about 1 hour. The dough will have become a bit more pliable, a little more like gluten dough, at this point.
Rolling out the dough. Grab a Silpat (or piece of parchment paper) and lay it on a large baking sheet. Move 1/2 of the dough onto the Silpat and cover it entirely with plastic wrap. Slowly, roll out the dough to the edge of the baking sheet. (You’re rolling out its width, first.) I try to make the dough the width of the rolling pin. Next, spin around the baking sheet and roll out the dough lengthwise. You probably won’t take it as far as the edge. Simply roll it out to about 1/2-inch thick. Take off the plastic wrap.
Making the filling. Melt the butter on the stove, on low heat. Put half the brown sugar, cinnamon, agave nectar, golden raisins, and walnuts onto the rolled-out dough. Drizzle 1/4 of the melted butter on top.
Rolling the dough. Here’s the important part: go slowly. Grab the Silpat on the edge farthest from you and pull it up gently. The edge of the dough should start to roll away from the Silpat and toward the dough. If not, then nudge it with your fingers. Make tight rolls, moving slowly and patting the dough gently as you go. Roll the dough, then press it down with the Silpat, then roll some more, with the dough falling toward you, going slowly. If the filling oozes out as you reach the end, that’s okay. It’s a sign you’re going to have good cinnamon rolls.
(Nothing of this should be about being perfect, anyway.)
Cutting the dough into rolls. Go grab your dental floss. Yes, your dental floss. Cut a long piece of it, longer than two hand widths apart. Slide the piece under the log of dough, then bring the two edges together to cross over the top. By doing this, you should be slicing a piece off the log. This makes for lovely, neat pieces, instead of jagged hunks. Make your way down the log of dough with the dental floss. You should end up with about 8 pieces, with ragged end bits as well.
(Sometimes I bake the ragged ends separately, as little cinnamon swirls. Sometimes I just throw them in.)
Preparing to rise the rolls again. Pour 2 tablespoons of the melted butter into the bottom of a pie pan. Place the sliced rolls into the buttered pan, tightening the rolls if they have begun to unravel. Set them aside to rise.
Repeat this process with the other half of the dough and remaining filling.
Allow the rolls to rise for 1 more hour. Gluten-free doughs do not rise as high as gluten doughs do on the second rise, but they do puff out nicely. It’s worth it.
Baking the rolls. Preheat the oven to 350°. When the oven has come to temperature, slide in both pans. Bake until the rolls fill firm to the touch when you press on both sides of one, but still with some give, about 25 minutes.
Allow the rolls to cool for about 10 minutes, then invert them onto a plate.
Frosting the rolls. Put the butter and cream cheese into a food processor. Whirl them up. While that is mixing, pour in the vanilla extract. Add the powdered sugar in handfuls, looking at the texture of the frosting between batches. It usually takes about 2 cups for frosting to be thick and rich in our food processor, but you may like a different texture. This is only a guide.
Frost the rolls when they have reached room temperature.
Go at it.
Makes about 16 cinnamon rolls.