Why It Works
- Using all-purpose rather than bread flour keeps the dough tender and light.
- Baking soda regulates the dough’s pH, helping it brown in the oven.
- Unflavored dental floss or butcher’s twine cuts through the dough without squishing it flat.
Nothing kicks off a holiday celebration quite like waking up to the smell of cinnamon rolls wafting from the oven, especially when I don’t have to lift a finger that morning except to preheat the oven. That’s the magic of this recipe for overnight cinnamon rolls, which ensures all the heavy lifting is knocked out a day (or even weeks) in advance. Even better, it’s a one-bowl recipe, so I don’t need to dirty every dish in the house just to make a special breakfast.
It’s one of the most versatile recipes in my cookbook, with variations on the dough, filling, and frosting that include combinations like apple cinnamon, banana, brown butter sweet potato, double chocolate, pumpkin spice rolls, and even Little Debbie–style Honey Buns. But if I could share only one recipe, it would be this one: all-American cinnamon rolls with toasted pecans and cream cheese frosting.
The bun itself is tender, soft, and light, with a bit of complexity of its own thanks to an overnight rise in the fridge. It’s dotted with crunchy bits of toasted pecans, perfumed by the buttery cinnamon filling, and brightened by the tang of gooey cream cheese frosting. It’s a festive breakfast that sets the perfect tone for the day, with all the individual components combining into something that’s more than the sum of its many parts.
Happily, those many parts can all be made in the same bowl. The trick is to work backward, starting with the frosting, then moving on to the filling, and ending with the dough. In between these elements, just wipe the bowl down with a paper towel—no need for a proper wash.
For the frosting, I keep things super simple, just beating a bit of cream cheese, vanilla extract, and powdered sugar together in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment.
When it’s light and creamy, I scrape the frosting into a disposable pastry bag, then stash it someplace cool. So long as room temperature doesn’t get warmer than 74°F (23°C), it’s fine to leave the frosting out overnight, but otherwise, I prefer to pop it in the fridge or freezer, depending on how far in advance I’m plotting my meals.
After I wipe out the bowl with a paper towel, I prepare the filling in much the same way, beating up a mixture of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt until it’s fluffy and light, similar to creaming butter and sugar for cookie dough.
Don’t rush this step! Creaming isn’t just about combining these ingredients; it’s about aerating them. When you patiently beat the mixture, its texture becomes increasingly soft and creamy, even as it grows in volume and lightens in color. Creaming makes the filling easy to spread over the dough later on. When the filling is fluffy and pale, transfer it to a disposable pastry bag, and wipe down the bowl as before.
The dough itself is pretty straightforward: a mix of all-purpose flour with a bit of sugar; salt; instant yeast, such as SAF; and baking soda, which I use as a seasoning here rather than a leavening agent. Please bear in mind that this recipe will not work with quick-rise (RapidRise) yeast, and active dry yeast will need to be prepared for use according to the package directions. (Read more about the differences between types of yeast.)
For the liquid ingredients, I warm melted butter, milk, and Greek yogurt (which hydrates the dough while keeping it nice and thick) to about 80°F (27°C). If the mixture is significantly warmer, the dough may overheat while kneading; if it’s significantly colder, the rise will be much slower. So, while there is a bit of wiggle room with the precise temperature, try not to deviate too far from that target.
I fold the dry and liquid ingredients together with a flexible spatula to get the dough started, then let my stand mixer do the rest. Since the dough’s so rich, it’s tricky to knead by hand, and even on a stand mixer, it will take a while to turn elastic and smooth—20 to 25 minutes, depending on the wattage of a given mixer. (Alas, the dough is too soft to be mixed in a food processor.)
Again: Don’t rush this process! If the gluten isn’t well developed, the dough will be soft and difficult to handle, and the rolls won’t rise as they should. When the dough is ready, a small piece will readily be stretched into a thin sheet, much like a piece of bubble gum. This is called the windowpane test.
Once it hits that stage, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise until it’s puffy, light, and roughly doubled in bulk. The exact time can vary wildly depending on the temperature of the proofing environment and the dough itself, but expect about 90 minutes in a kitchen around 70°F (21°C).
You’ll know the dough’s ready when it’s puffy and light enough to retain a shallow impression when gently poked. If it springs back instead, give it more time.
When the dough is ready, turn it onto a well-floured surface and gently roll it into a 13-inch square. Next, snip off the tip of the filling bag, and pipe the filling over the surface of the dough before spreading it smooth with an offset spatula. Cover the whole thing in a generous sprinkling of crunchy but tender toasted pecans—the perfect complement to the fluffy dough.
Roll the log up as tight as you can, ending seam side down, then cut it into 12 portions using a strip of unflavored dental floss or butcher’s twine.
Even the sharpest blade will smash the puffy dough, so it’s worth taking the time to find a spool of plain floss or twine.
With a quick twist, string will make short work of the soft dough and keep each spiral intact.
Once all the pieces have been cut, transfer the cinnamon rolls to a parchment-lined nine- by 13-inch anodized aluminum pan, or two eight- by three-inch anodized aluminum pans. (I like splitting the dough between two pans so I can freeze one for later.)
The cinnamon rolls will do all right in glass or ceramic pans, though they’re not my first choice. What’s important is to avoid dark or nonstick metals, which will cause excessive browning and make the dough tough and dry.
Cover the pan(s) with foil, and refrigerate 12 to 48 hours, or freeze for up to a month and thaw overnight to proceed as directed. In the morning, set the cinnamon rolls out at room temperature, and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). When the oven is hot, bake the covered cinnamon rolls for about 45 minutes, until they’re puffy and firm. Remove the foil and continue baking until they’re golden brown, about 15 minutes more—this will vary depending on the specifics of your oven and baking dish.
The cinnamon rolls can be frosted right in the pan, or you can invert them onto a plate to pull off the parchment, then re-invert them onto a serving platter and frost them there. In either case, the idea is to frost them while they’re piping-hot, so the icing gets nice and gooey.
Snip off the tip of the frosting bag, and pipe the frosting over the cinnamon rolls, using the back of a spoon to spread it into an even layer. Serve immediately, because life’s too short for cold cinnamon rolls.
Having this recipe up my sleeve has made holiday entertaining so much easier, especially since I can write out the baking instructions for someone else to handle in the morning. Me? I’m sleeping in till the smell of cinnamon sugar drags me out of bed.
Reprinted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts with permission from W. W. Norton.
For the Frosting:
4 ounces plain, full-fat cream cheese (8 tablespoons; 115g), softened to about 70°F (21°C)
2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
5 ounces powdered sugar (about 1 1/4 cups; 141g)
For the Filling:
4 ounces unsalted butter (8 tablespoons; 115g), creamy and soft, about 70°F (21°C)
6 ounces light brown sugar (3/4 cup, gently packed; 170g)
1/2 ounce ground cinnamon (about 2 tablespoons; 15g)
1/2 teaspoon (1g) grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
4 ounces toasted pecan halves, roughly chopped (a shy cup; 115g), or more to taste
For the Dough:
16 ounces all-purpose flour (about 3 1/2 cups, spooned; 450g), such as Gold Medal, plus more for rolling
3 1/2 ounces granulated sugar (about 1/2 cup; 100g)
2 teaspoons (8g) instant yeast, such as SAF (not rapid-rise; see note)
1 3/4 teaspoons (7g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1/4 teaspoon (1g) baking soda
4 ounces unsalted butter (8 tablespoons; 115g)
4 ounces milk (8 tablespoons; 115g), any percentage will do
8 ounces plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt (about 1 cup; 225g), any percentage will do
For the Frosting: Combine cream cheese and vanilla with half the powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low to moisten, then sprinkle in the rest of the sugar a little at a time. Once it is incorporated, increase to medium and beat until creamy and pale ivory, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a zip-top bag or disposable pastry bag and set aside until needed, up to 24 hours at room temperature. (If your kitchen is chilly and the frosting hardens in that time, briefly microwave the bag to restore its creamy texture before use.)
For the Filling: Prepare filling with the same bowl and beater, mixing butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt on low speed until moistened. Increase to medium and beat the dark paste until creamy, light in color, and very soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a zip-top bag or disposable pastry bag and set aside until needed, up to 24 hours at room temperature. Reserve the pecans until it’s time to fill and shape the rolls.
For the Dough: Wipe the bowl with a paper towel, then whisk together flour, sugar, yeast, salt, and baking soda until thoroughly combined. Melt butter in a 2-quart saucier over low heat, then stir in milk and yogurt, warming to about 80°F (27°C). Add to flour and stir to form a very dry and shaggy dough. With the hook attachment, knead on low until silky-smooth and elastic, able to be gently stretched into a thin but rough sheet without tearing, about 20 minutes.
First Rise: Cover bowl with plastic and set dough to rise until puffy, light, and doubled in bulk, about 90 minutes at roughly 70°F (21°C). If the dough feels dense, firm, or overly resilient, rest 15 minutes before testing again (this is more likely in chilly months).
Shaping: Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface, dust with flour, and roll into a 13-inch square. Snip a corner from the bag of cinnamon filling, squeeze over the dough, and spread into an even layer with an offset spatula. Sprinkle pecans on top and roll to form a 12-inch log, ending seam side down.
Slide an 8-inch strand of thread, unflavored dental floss, or butcher’s twine under the dough until you reach the middle. Cross the ends over the top and pull tight to divide the log in two. Cut each half into six 1-inch slices and arrange in a parchment-lined 9- by 13- by 2-inch aluminum baking pan (or two 8-inch by 3-inch round cake pans).
Second Rise: Cover rolls with foil and refrigerate overnight, or up to 48 hours. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C); meanwhile, let cinnamon rolls stand at room temperature until oven is hot.
To Bake and Serve: Bake, covered, until cinnamon rolls are puffed and firm but pale, about 45 minutes. (If using darker pans, check on the cinnamon rolls after 30 minutes.) Remove the foil and continue baking until lightly browned, about 15 minutes more. Snip a corner from the bag of frosting, squeeze over the cinnamon rolls, and spread into an even layer with the back of a spoon. Serve immediately, and leave no survivors; life’s too short for day-old cinnamon rolls.
Stand mixer, 2-quart saucier, flexible spatula, digital thermometer, offset spatula, unflavored dental floss or butcher’s twine, 9- by 13- by 2-inch anodized aluminum baking pan or two 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pans (preferably 3 inches deep)
Instant yeast doesn’t require hydration prior to use and is suitable for cold fermentation, making it distinct from both active dry and rapid-rise yeast. My favorite brand is SAF, which is higher-quality than anything found in supermarkets, and dramatically cheaper, too.
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