Cinnamon rolls will forever remind me of my mom. Not because she made them from scratch or anything, but because she loved them, and she made them only as a special treat for special occasions.
Every year my mom would buy a can of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls to make for breakfast on Christmas morning. It was something she looked forward to the whole week – and so did I. After opening presents, their sweet cinnamony smell would fill the air, and the anticipation was oftentimes better than digging into the hot rolls themselves. But that’s probably because I never waited long enough to let them cool and wound up brutally burning my mouth on the hot sugary filling. Every. Single. Time.
As a result, cinnamon rolls have become synonymous with Christmas for me. I still remember the look on my mom’s face when she would pull them out of the oven. She had this sweet, vibrant smile, and every once in a while I catch myself smiling the exact same way. I love when that happens – it’s a little reminder that her spirit is still so very much a part of me. I would anxiously hover as she drizzled the packet of icing over the hot rolls, and her smile widened as she recognized my excitement. My mom never loved to cook, but when she realized it was something I was passionate about, she enjoyed it a whole lot more. If something made her kids happy, it made her happy. And boy, I really miss “her happy.”
As I’ve grown in both age and culinary prowess, I no longer enjoy a canned cinnamon roll like I did back in those days. You can call it food snobbery, but it’s really just a sensitivity to the overly processed, preservative-packed taste. But I never delved into making my own homemade cinnamon rolls until this year. Why? Because yeast doughs always intimidated me.
Do yeast doughs intimidate you, too? Allow me to let you in on a little secret: there’s nothing to be afraid of. Seriously! Sure, working with yeast isn’t as certain as working with chemical leaveners (like baking powder, for instance), in that it relies on time, temperature and other factors to work its magic. But I promise, yeast is not out to get you. It won’t break into your house, crash into your car or steal your boyfriend. It might give you a nasty infection, you know, ahem… but I’m pretty sure that’s a different kind of yeast altogether. The worst thing that could possibly happen is you have less than perfect results and you’re out a few bucks in flour.
Once I got over my (stupid, totally irrational) fear of working with yeast, it opened up a whole new world of culinary exploration. Just buy a packet of yeast and make something. Bread, pizza, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, butter cake. Anything! You’ll be amazed once you see that it turned out half decent, and that you didn’t actually die in the process.
These pumpkin cinnamon rolls are a really good place to start. This recipe is not my own, and I’ve only altered it ever so slightly. The recipe comes courtesy of Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman. She calls herself that because she moved from the big city to marry a real life cowboy and live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. But I like to think of her more as a pioneer in the food blogging world. She’s a total OG.
Ree is known for her cinnamon rolls, and makes about a thousand different variations. One of these days I’ll get around to trying the others, but I made this version once and just kept coming back to it. They’re so moist, so perfectly spiced, and oh-so-loaded with cream cheese frosting – the only frosting worth it’s weight in my book. The recipe takes some time, as most yeast doughs to, but it’s virtually fool proof, and totally worth the effort. You need to try it. Really.
If my mom were here today, I’d make her a batch of these pumpkin cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning just to see her smile. But instead, I’ll be making them for all the other wonderful and amazing people in my life because they’re just as deserving. I might even burn my tongue, just for old time’s sake.
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/8 teaspoons (1/2 package) Active Dry Yeast
- 1/2 cup pumpkin puree (canned works great)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
- pinch ground cloves
- 1/4 cup additional all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon HEAPING baking powder*
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- For the Filling
- 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), melted
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- pinch cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup finely chopped pecans (OPTIONAL)
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened at room temperature
- 1/2 pound powdered sugar (I use slightly less to make a slightly less sweet frosting)
- 2 tablespoons - 1/4 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- pinch of salt
- extra flour, for rolling the dough
- extra milk, for thinning the frosting
- extra butter (plenty), for the baking pan
- Combine 3/4 cup milk, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, and 1/4 cup sugar in a medium saucepan and heat until hot, but not boiling. Remove it from the stove and allow it to cool until it's not longer hot, but just slightly warm. Gently stir in the yeast and allow it to sit for 5 minutes, then stir in the pumpkin puree.
- Mix 2 cups of flour with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon ginger and a pinch of cloves in a large bowl. Add the milk mixture and stir until it just comes together. Cover the bowl with a dish towel or plastic wrap and set it in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until at least doubled in size.
- Once the dough has risen, stir in the additional 1/4 cup flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt until totally combined.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Drizzle a generous amount of melted butter into the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish and spread it around until it's fully coated.
- Flour a large work surface and place the dough on top. The dough will be very sticky; sprinkle it with more flour until it's easy to work with. Form the dough into a rectangle, flour a rolling pin and roll it out until it's about 10 inches by 15 inches (roughly)
- Mix together 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and salt. Drizzle the melted 1/4 cup of butter over the dough and use your fingers to spread it all around. Sprinkle the sugar mixture all over the surface of the dough, covering every inch of the melted butter. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup chopped pecans, if desired (they're great with or without).
- Starting at one long edge, begin to roll the dough up tightly into a large log. Once rolled, pinch the seam closed and turn the log so it's seam side down. Slice the log in half, then slice each half in half. Then cut each halved half into 3, so you have 12 evenly thick slices (about 1/2 to 3/4 inches each). Place the rolls in the buttered dish, cover them with a towel and allow them to rise for about 20 minutes. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until they're puffed and golden brown.
- While the rolls are baking, make the frosting. Combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons milk, melted butter and salt in a bowl. Beat with and electric mixer until fluffy, adding more milk if you'd like a thinner icing.
- As soon as the rolls come out of the oven, spread the icing over the top. Sprinkle additional chopped pecans over the top (if using), and let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving (or risk burning your tongue).
- *Be sure your 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder is HEAPING. I forgot to do this once and they didn't rise quite as nicely.
- I cut this recipe in half, because it's HUGE! But feel free to double it if feeding a crowd. That being said, even after halving the rolls, I kept the same amount of frosting. Because there's no such thing as too much frosting. I do find the frosting to be a bit on the sweet side, so I cut back the sugar ever so slightly to make it a bit less cloying. I recommend starting with 3/4 of the amount, and adding in more if you want it sweeter.