I was a latchkey kid. I’m not if those still exist but in the 1980’s in the working class neighborhood of Mid City in New Orleans, Louisiana it was a fairly common existence. From the time I was about 9 years old, I wore a dingy shoestring of a necklace with a single brass key hanging from it as a golden pendant. I walked myself home from school, frequently with my friend Jay Ricca by my side. We stopped at the corners, looked both ways (unlike my SON!), and then sprinted past the crazy lady’s house who screamed at us and released her furious hounds to run us children off. Halfway along the route Jay’s house appeared and he peeled off leaving me to complete my journey on my own. I arrived home, at 81 Allard Blvd, every day at 3:15pm. I walked up the 13-steps to the apartment my Mom and I shared and let myself in with the key around my neck. I then was at home, alone, for the next 2 hours.
Because I was a latchkey kid I learned to cook for myself very early on. Anything I could do in the toaster oven was fair game. The invention of slice and bake cookies was a particularly important development to my childhood, and for a while there were also brownies sold in a soft plastic tube (I don’t know if those still exist either). For the brownies you would cut off one end of the plastic and then squeeeeeeeze the insides into a tiny baking dish sized just for the toaster oven. If I was lucky there would be several good licks of goo stuck in the folds of the top of the tube and I could occupy myself by trying to lick out every morsel while waiting the excruciatingly long bake time of 30 minutes for the brownies to finish. For all intents and purposes I was baking from scratch. I clearly remember visiting friends who had bags of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies in their kitchens and thinking how sad it was that they only had cookies that came in a bag. My mother would never go for that. Her philosophy was that if you wanted a sweet then you could take the time to make it. Already a food snob, and clearly a bit judgemental, I pitied my friends who didn’t have such sensible parents. I also vividly recall thinking that it was so easy to make “homemade” cookies, why did more parents not make them? The shortcut and the degradation to quality of life baffled my tiny brain.
A highlight of my early culinary career, was Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls. Never a generic brand, only the fully legitimate Dough Boy would be trusted to deliver on this weekend staple. Saturday mornings would roll around, cartoons would come on and I could not wait to hit the kitchen. The cinnamon rolls came raw in an 8-inch white cylindrical cardboard container. One had to hit the middle of the cylinder on a cabinet corner with just enough force to make it burst open. Then peel the cardboard back revealing the pale raw dough of the cinnamon rolls within. At the very top there was a milky white canister of icing. I would follow the instructions religiously, remove the raw swirls, place them on the foil wrapped baking tray of the toaster oven making sure they were close enough to one another to just slightly overlap and ensure the softest of edges. I baked them for 11 minutes (never more, never less) and occupied myself by drawing dividing lines in the icing. When they were finished I would remove them from the diminutive oven, separate them onto a plate, and frost them one-by-one using exactly 1/8 of the icing on each cinnamon roll. Then I would then dive in, usually before they were cool enough, burning the roof of my mouth, but dissolving into utter ecstasy with my sticky sweet, warm, cinnamon creation.
I have moved on since then. I follow my mother’s lead in not buying bags of cookies but I now purchase ingredients and I have learned the difference between homemade and cooked from a box (or bag, or tube, or cylinder). I make brownies from scratch in my sleep. Chocolate chip cookies are a bi-weekly stable. My children have never had a store-bought birthday cake. Cinnamon rolls though? Those eluded me. Until recently.
I think I was afraid of making cinnamon rolls partially because they look so daunting, but partially because I didn’t want to break the spell. I never wanted to know that there was an alternative for my 9-year-old self. I wanted those Saturday mornings to live in my memory forever. It took me a long time but eventually this recipe came along and promised to gently nuzzle the memories of my 9-year-old self and not to try to replace them. Those Saturday mornings, awake before Mom, opening the refrigerator, pulling over the rickety stool I used to retrieve items from high shelves, to climb up, sifting through various foods and hoping to find my familiar breakfast. This recipe sits warmly next to those memories. Nearly as easy. Nearly as rewarding. Filling my home with aromas of warm baking bread and cinnamon spices and causing my own children’s eager faces to light up when I pull the hot ceramic dish out of the oven.
It may not be me and Mom anymore, but I can still feel her near me. Watching me. Protecting me. Just like she said she was doing every afternoon even though I was on my own those long afternoons.
- 625g bread flour (4 1/2 cups)
- 100g granulated sugar (1/2 cup)
- 10 grams instant dry yeast (1 tablespoon)
- 4 large eggs, cold
- 225ml cold milk (7.75 oz)
- 250g unsalted butter
- 15 grams kosher salt (1 tablespoon)
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 175g unsalted butter, melted (12 tablespoons)
- 125g brown sugar (1/3 cup)
- 115g white sugar (1/3 cup)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 1/3 cup heavy cream, plus more as needed
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1teaspoon vanilla extract
- pinch salt
- In a standing mixer (fitted with a paddle attachment) add flour, sugar and yeast. Mix on low speed until well combined. Add eggs and mix on low to combine. In a small pot, heat milk, butter, salt, and cinnamon over medium-low heat until butter is melted and mixture is between 120 and 130°F (use a meat or candy thermometer to test).
- Add the milk mixture to the mixer and beat on low for 3 minutes stopping twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Then increase the speed to medium and continue to beat for 3 minutes - until the dough is very sticky but well combined and smooth. If it looks too sticky to form into a ball add more flour but only 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Oil a clean, large mixing bowl and set aside.
- Form the dough into ball and transfer to the oiled bowl. Roll it around a bit so the entire ball is lightly covered in oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm, draft-free area of your kitchen for about 3 hours - or until it has about doubled in size.
- Mix the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in the standing mixer. Once it is well mixed move it to a smaller bowl and set aside.
- Using the standing mixer again - but this time with the whisk attachment, combine the whisked powdered sugar, cream, vanilla, water and salt. Mix on LOW to start (or the powdered sugar will end up everywhere) and increase speed once all of the powdered sugar is wet. Blend on high for 2-3 minutes. The icing should end up just slightly thicker than very heavy cream. You want it to be smooth but not as thick as a cake icing.
- Butter the sides and bottom of two pie dishes. Set aside.
- Preheat to 375°F / 176°C and position rack in center of oven. Gently punch down dough and transfer to floured work surface. Roll the dough out to a 16-by-12-inch rectangle. Spread filling evenly over dough, leaving 1/2-inch border on the long sides. (Sprinkle toasted pecan pieces or raisins evenly over the filling now if you want to include them)
- Starting at a long edge, roll dough toward you into a log, pinching gently to keep it rolled tightly. With seam side down, cut dough log into 16 equal slices (the easiest way to do this is to cut the log in half, then cut each piece into half again, then each of those pieces into half and then each of those pieces into half)
- Place the rolls into two the two prepared pie dishes and arrange them cut side up with a small amount of space between them. Cover the baking dishes with plastic wrap and again let the dough rise for 1 hour in a warm, draft-free area. They should nearly double in size again.
- Bake rolls until tops are golden, 18 to 20 minutes. If they are starting to get brown too early, cover lightly with foil and continue to bake.
- Remove from oven, glaze and serve immediately to squeals of delight.
- This is a great recipe, but it is not a quick recipe. The dough needs to rise for 3 hours and then the cinnamon rolls need to rise for another hour. Keep this in mind if you set out to make them.
- You don't have to use wholegrain bread flour - you can use regular bread flour - but the wholegrain flour gives the cinnamon rolls an extra depth of flavour.
- You can do everything up to the second dough rising the day or two days before. Before baking let the cinnamon rolls remove them from the refrigerator and place them somewhere warm (on a window sill, near a heater) and let them come to room temperature and rise for about 3 hours before baking.
Post script for anyone from New Orleans.
I am writing this while sitting at The Electric House on Portobello Road in London. It is a members club in fashionable Notting Hill where I spend a lot of time writing and drinking decaf lattes. It is about 6:30pm and people around me are speaking in elegant accents, they have beautiful long hair and wear shoes that cost our monthly rent growing up. For one of them. I sometimes have to pinch myself to remind myself of the dichotomy of my life now and growing up in Mid-City New Orleans, attending John Dibert Elementary School, walking home to our apartment. My mom, a true daughter of New Orleans, died 3 years ago and as I wrote that last paragraph (about her watching me) my eyes began to tear up and I remembered her wisdom, energy and vibrance. And you won’t believe this, but at that exact moment the Dixie Cups IKO IKO came on the sound system. Long live the magic of New Orleans.