I may be getting sick of cinnamon rolls.
For the past week, I have made at least seven batches of gluten-free cinnamon rolls. Sometimes I have made them with Little Bean standing on a chair at my side, and I have talked with her as I combined flours and tossed in softened butter. Other times, I waited until she was napping, to go faster, racing against the waning light outside.
Not one of them has been perfect. They’ve all tasted good-to-great. None of them will be the final recipe we will post on this site next week.
However, I have learned something important from every single batch. That’s part of why I love baking the celebration of what is happening under my hands, instead of wishing for something different. None of this has been a waste.
The ones you see above were my attempt at adapting The Pioneer Woman’s famous cinnamon rolls. I love Ree. (Lord, let’s face it, who doesn’t at this point? Did you know that her book hit The New York Times bestseller list? And that one recent post on her website got 28,000 comments? The woman is a powerful small nation on her own.) Meeting her in San Francisco was one of the true delights of that trip. She is as authentic and funny-as-hell as I thought she might be from reading her site all these years.
(I have to tell you that I have this little dream that Ree will invite me, Danny, and Little Bean out to the ranch some day. We’ll experience a life we never imagined living and Danny will cook them world-class meals all week. I wonder if they’d mind being gluten-free for a few days?)
Anyway, Ree’s cinnamon rolls are hugely popular, gooey with glaze, and look like my Platonic idea of cinnamon rolls. She also had this unusual method I had never encountered to put together these puppies. She heats up milk, oil, and sugar, lets the yeast sit on top to bloom, then adds 8 cups of flour. (Yep. 8 cups. Her recipe makes 40 to 50 cinnamon rolls.) After the dough rises for an hour, Ree adds baking powder, soda, and salt, and rolls them out.
What drew me to the recipe, aside from the enticing photographs, is that the ingredients list is structurally the same as the first batch of cinnamon rolls I baked. Add back the dairy and there it is the same recipe, essentially. So I cut the recipe to 1/4 of its original size. (Who needs 40 to 50 cinnamon rolls that don’t taste good, if it didn’t work?) I converted the all-purpose flour to my favorite blend, weighed it out, and started to bake. Full of anticipation, I waited for the dough to rise.
Yeah, that didn’t work. As you can see from the photograph, these were mis-shapen, lumpy, and not at all attractive. The problem was using this method with gluten-free flours. The first-rise dough was too firm for me to easily stir in the other ingredients. When I flung it back into the KitchenAid to get them in, the whole thing collapsed. Gluten-free dough is delicate anyway. No need to beat it up.
Well, Little Bean ate a few bites of these, at least.
I still think the recipe might work, gluten-free. Convert the AP flour to GF flours, in the same weight. And then combine them all together at once, instead of a two-step process. Add an egg, for extra protein and binding. See what happens.
One of the basic problems of gluten-free baking is that you expect the batters and doughs and final products to feel the way you are used to them feeling under your hands. Did you know that gluten-free bread dough, if it’s going to be successful, should be soft, almost like a cookie dough? Took me two years to realize that. After I let the bread be itself, instead of an attempted imitation of gluten bread, then it started to become great.
The same is true for cinnamon roll dough. It took me a couple of tries to remember this: good cinnamon roll dough is essentially a white bread dough.
See that rising dough up there? It’s too stiff for a good gluten-free dough. It looks firm and whole and ready to go, right? (It also looks like a brain to me.) Bake up this dough and it’s impossibly too dry 30 minutes out of the oven.
Good gluten-free dough has to be softer than you would expect. It took me half the week to remember this.
This is a good gluten-free cinnamon roll dough. See how soft it is? It’s not sticky that’s important. You’re going to roll it out, eventually, even if you’ll be doing it in a different way than you expected. It’s a ball of dough, instead of exhausted parts trying to get far away from each other. But it’s softer than you would think. That’s Little Bean pushing the spatula into it.
That’s what you’re aiming for a dough so pliable that a 1-year-old can reach the bottom of it with a kitchen tool.
I learned another trick this week, something vital to good cinnamon rolls in this kitchen. I tried rolling out the final doughs on the countertop, between two pieces of parchment paper or plastic wrap. With those dry doughs, I got length and width, but I got bupkes for rolling-out ability. That fragile dough irritated the hell out of me. When I tried to cut the log of dough into rolls, it fell apart even more.
However, someone, somewhere (and forgive me that I can no longer remember where in this frenzy of cinnamon, almond flour, and softened butter) suggested rolling the dough out on a sheet tray. AH!
If you don’t have a Silpat yet, and you are serious about baking, please buy one. Now. They make any baking easier. More and more, however, I am finding that using these with gluten-free baking is essential in this kitchen.
I began rolling out the dough on the Silpat, covered with plastic wrap. That way, the dough didn’t stretch too wide or too thin. Just right, as Goldilocks might say. And then here is the key part I use the edges of the silicone mat to nudge the dough into rolling.
Remember (and I had to remind myself) that good gluten-free dough has to be softer than you remember gluten dough feeling. This is part of what keeps the final rolls moist and soft. But if you try to roll soft dough the way you would traditionally, it will fall into mush much easier than you wish.
Instead, let the mat be your guide and nudge it into rolling well. Believe me, this makes everything easier.
Ah, cinnamon sugar and melted butter.
I didn’t really learn anything from this. I just like this picture.
Well, that’s not entirely true. As much as I love a plain cinnamon roll, with nothing but butter and cinnamon sugar inside, we found that the best rolls this week were a bit gooier inside. Molasses. Brown sugar. Golden raisins. Walnuts. You know lots of stuff.
By the middle of last week, I had created a recipe from scratch that made these cinnamon rolls. They had a lovely crust, a soft inside, the faint scent of cinnamon worked into the dough. They went fast. Little Bean begged for more. (We didn’t let her eat all the cinnamon rolls she wanted, though.) Danny approved.
However, by the end of the second day, they looked like this. Alluring, at first, but starting to dry out.
You might be thinking, “Who saves cinnamon rolls until the next day? Don’t they all disappear immediately? And you don’t have much frosting on those.”
True. You see, I’ve been pretty spartan about these rolls in the testing. Not too much filling. No frosting, or only a bit. You could put an ooey-gooey goodness in the middle of cardboard and frost it with cream cheese frosting and take a few bites before you decide to put it down. I want these rolls to be good on their own.
And then add the butter and sugar and caramelize the bottoms and fill them with melted gooey deliciousness.
These were the next-to-best rolls, warm out of the oven. Our friends who eat gluten ate three of these each. They loved them. Danny agreed. He said I was done.
Almost, I said. Almost.
Finally, these arrived. With slight tweaks, a new flour, and dogged persistence, I pulled these out of the oven and sighed. Oh yes.
See the crust on the outside? The soft warmth of the inside? These had hardly any filling. No frosting. They were baked on a sheet tray instead of nestled together in a pie pan. And they were wonderful.
Even after all these batches, and failed attempts, and pans of cinnamon rolls sitting on the counter, I wanted these. I could have eaten them all by myself.
I think we have a recipe.
After one more try….