Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cinnamon Rolls

While Matt was deployed to Afghanistan, he lived on a small Army base outside a dusty town close to the Pakistan border. His recall to the Army from the reserves in 2009 had been a complete surprise, and the long months of this deployment—his third—crawled along in slow motion for both of us.

Before I met Matt, I had never known anyone serving in the military. I hadn’t met a single veteran of America’s current wars. I didn’t know the difference between a sergeant and a lieutenant, a corporal and a colonel. I could easily pass over the boldface headlines charting the battles in Iraq or Afghanistan that littered the front page of the newspaper. I could read articles about soldiers wounded in battle or widows left at home and feel something, of course, but a transitory something, a feeling that didn’t cut, one that certainly didn’t last. Honestly? Before I met Matt, I didn’t understand the kind of pride that comes with serving something so vast as a country. I had no idea how far a sacrifice could reach.

I don’t know what all that says about me. Or America at large. But having Matt called back gave me a glimpse into a world I had never known.

Matt departed only months after I signed the contract for my book. At the time, I was living in a studio apartment the size of a breadbox in Brooklyn, where I spent most days of that year writing alone. While he was gone, we communicated through email and short, grainy phone conversations on Skype. I heard stories of Matt’s work on the base, of his patrols in the grim villages nearby. He told me about autumn helicopter rides over the vast mountains of Afghanistan and the hours trudging through deep feet of winter snow. Some of his stories were funny, others disturbing, all of them difficult in some way.

I tried as hard as I could to show my love and support. I sent letters and packages filled with books and socks and homemade zucchini bread. I won’t pretend that I was perfect: over the course of that year I felt alternately angry, lonely, guilty, and depressed. But I knew that Matt—and all of the men and women so far from their homes and their families, fighting multiple tours of duty in the Middle East—had it much worse. And this is why it both surprised and touched me that, despite all of that distance and danger, Matt was able to send me tiny reminders of his love.

One dark, cold morning in February, he sent me an email about cinnamon rolls. A Master Sergeant in the Air Force working at his base in Gardez had made a batch for the soldiers on post. They were the best, Matt said, that he’d ever had. “They were out of this world,” he wrote. “Everyone thinks so.” He continued: “I got [the recipe] for you because I know you love making cinnamon things. And I hope it brightens your day a bit.”

It did.

I’ve made these cinnamon rolls a few times now. Yes, regular readers will be correct in assuming that I have an (unhealthy?) obsession with all things brioche, cinnamon sugar, pecans, butter, butter, and butter. But, hey, we only live once. And these cinnamon rolls, whether consumed on post in Afghanistan or here in Cambridge at brunch with friends, are just as good as Matt promised.

This recipe comes courtesy of the now-retired Master Sergeant Daniel Borca, who I’d like to thank, so much, for his service, and his wonderful pastry skills. He and I have been emailing back and forth, and he's sent me another version of this recipe, one calibrated for a larger batch, which he recently made for his church. Email me if you're interested. I think I could manage to bake, eat, and write more about cinnamon rolls. You know, if I have to.

Gooey Cinnamon Rolls
Adapted from Daniel Borca

These cinnamon rolls are rich and buttery, sticky and gooey, crunchy with pecans and thick with a vanilla-tinted icing—so pretty much the Best Thing Ever. It’s possible to make these in one day. But I like to spread the work out over a few, this way making sure I’m never in the kitchen for more than an hour at a time. I let the dough, and then the assembled raw rolls, each rise in the fridge overnight. This way all you have to do is roll out of bed on a Sunday morning, throw the pan of cinnamon-laden dough in the oven, whip up an easy icing, and there you go: immediate gratification, a decadent morning meal.

¼ ounce package of yeast
½ cup warm water (no more than 110F degrees)
½ cup warm milk
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
3 ½ cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup butter, room temperature, cut into pieces

¾ cup sugar
pinch of ground nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cup pecans, lightly toasted and chopped (or raisins or walnuts) (totally optional)

½ cup butter, melted

4 tablespoons butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 - 6 tablespoons warm milk
pinch of salt

First, dissolve the yeast into the water, and set aside. After a few minutes, it should begin to foam.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer and, using the paddle attachment, mix to combine. Add the softened butter and the egg. Mix until course. Now add the warm milk, and then the yeast and water solution and mix until a dough is formed. Be careful not to over mix: it should be slightly sticky, but pull away from the sides of the bowl. 

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl (turning to coat), and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Here, you can either let it sit at room temperature until doubled in size (around 2 hours), or throw the whole thing in the fridge overnight, and deal with it the next day.

At this point, make the filling by mixing all of the ingredients (except for the pecans; keep those separate) together in a bowl. Set it aside. 

When the dough has doubled in size (or when you've removed it from the fridge and let it sit out for a half hour or so), divide it in two. Roll out each section, one at a time, on lightly floured surface in order to make a rectangular sheet about ¼-inch thick. Spread the the melted butter wash all over the surface of the dough, and then sprinkle the filling mixture, and then the pecans, liberally.

Now, roll up the dough into a long log, and seal edges with a pinch of your fingers. Cut the log into even slices, about 1½-inches each, and place the wheels, cut side up, in a buttered baking pan. Whatever filling mixture falls out in the process, sprinkle over top.

Here, you can let the rolls rise at room temperature until they’ve again doubled in size (about 45 minutes), or cover loosely with plastic and let them hang out in the fridge overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. (If they've been in the fridge, take them out and let them warm up at room temperature for a half hour or so.) Bake the rolls for 12 to 15 minutes. They should end up a light golden brown.

While they’re in the oven, make the glaze: first melt the butter in a saucepan and then, off the heat, whisk in the powdered sugar. Add the vanilla and the pinch of salt. Stir in 3 tablespoons of milk to begin, and add more if the glaze is too thick.

When the rolls come out of the oven, pour the glaze all over their tops. (Make sure you do this when they're still hot, so the glaze can soak right in.) Serve warm. With napkins.


brie. said...

oh. my. word. those look amazing. and are definitely on the menu now for an easter brunch!

thanks. :)

Jess said...

I want one.

Anonymous said...

I love cinnamon rolls and posted about a recipe on my blog a few months back. I am definitely going to give this recipe a try sometime. Congrats on the book as well. I'm in the process of writing one myself, so I truly can appreciate the labor of love that goes into it.

Molly said...

mbb: excellent! i think these will be perfect for an easter brunch.

jess: come on over. i shall make you one. or, like, a dozen. xo

sharon: thanks so much. book writing is certainly a labor of love. best of luck with yours!

Anonymous said...


What you wrote resonated in my heart. I will send you an e-mail, and think I will make these for my husband this weekend. Perfect, and look like they are filled with love! Thanks for the wonderful post.

Unknown said...

My husband, a former army cook 1969, made cinnamon rolls with a recipe similar to yours. The troops went nuts. We look forward to visiting that culinary delight with your recipe. Thank you for sharing.