The Sweet Tradition of Cinnamon Rolls



Two weeks ago at my side of the family’s annual ThanksChristmasGiving get-together, my mom asked a group of us daughters and daughter-in-laws what we were planning on doing with our families in the weeks preceding Christmas. I have elaborate plans to organize one space every day, so I was sharing those and getting good feedback on how to successfully purge toys with kids helping out, when my mother, the ever ministering spirit and unintentional guilt tripper, interrupted with, “No, how are you planning on reaching out to others during the season?”

Eeek, that’s getting a little harder than tossing out old Paw Patrol crap, Mom! 

So, we did all go around and talk about this idea of being “neighborly” at Christmas time. I shared a hesitation on my part that is usually on my mind when I prepare my neighbors their yearly gift…doesn’t it seem kind of…manufactured? Honestly, we probably talk to most of our neighbors (besides the dear couple behind us who will cut you if you try to do something to our house on their watch) only a handful of times a year. So bringing a pretty basket of goodies and Christmas card from the family-who-lives-twenty-feet-from-you-and-only-comes-over-twice-a-year just seems a little fake to me.

What do they think of us? That we only think about them at Christmas, check them off our list for the year, and get back to our fenced in yard? I hope not.

Being neighborly is huge part of life that has almost vanished, it seems. I remember growing up in rural (read: middle of nowhere) Kansas, and we knew all of our neighbors…who lived miles away from us. If we need a 1/2 cup of sugar, we had to ask one of them, because the closest store was 45 minutes away. We rode bikes down the dirt roads to their houses to play with our friends, but now I am not sure I want to let my kids out of my gate to go make friends with someone down the street. I will never go ask our neighbors for something; Walmart is five minutes away now. Names? I know our watchdog, adopted grandparents’ names, but that’s it. We’d be in trouble if we needed to help the police with any information.

So why should I even try to act like I care because it’s Christmas time? No one wants a friend who only comes around once a year. 

“But of course it’s important” all of the women chimed in together. Christmas is time when people are receptive, are willing to receive from almost-strangers, wanting to join in the celebration of friendly cheer. So maybe this year, our family’s tradition won’t be in vain. Maybe it will spark a friendship that wouldn’t have happened except for homemade, sugary, drippy, steaming cinnamon rolls. 

We have tried to pass a pan out to our neighbors every year since we have been married. I can’t say for sure that we haven’t missed a year, but we do try. Usually it’s on Christmas Eve, or Eve-eve, since the Fireman is usually on during the holidays. When my parents and siblings started the tradition in Arkansas, my mom made us carol, but I struck that from agenda as soon as I married and bore three tuneless boys. It would be painful; no one would want what we brought them. So we just load up a wagon of freshly baked cinnamon rolls and our Christmas cards or whatever I had the boys create, and walk to the houses around us. The boys actually love it because they sometimes get treats back. We like it because people are busy and no one has time to feel like they should invite our crazy into their house. I think our neighbors like it because homemade cinnamon rolls are ah-mazing. And below I’ll show you the fool-proof method! 

Note: My mom’s recipe is my all-time favorite and she and my sister-in-law have even started a tiny boutique bakery  in Arkansas featuring these amazing rolls. But, I need something easier and more flexible with the children I am trying to keep alive, so I have adapted mine from the Pioneer Woman’s recipe, which has yet to fail me. 


For the dough:

1 quart of whole milk

1 cup of oil

1 cup of sugar

2 packages of active dry yeast (or I just measure 2 tablespoons out of my massive Sam’s Club bag)

9 cups of all purpose flour

1 heaping teaspoon of baking powder

1 scant teaspoon of baking soda

1 tablespoon of salt

For the filing:

1 cup of melted butter

ground cinnamon

1 cup of white sugar

1 cup of brown sugar

For the frosting:

1/2 cup of butter, softened

2 lb bag of powdered sugar

maybe 1 cup of milk, use your judgment 

1 teaspoon of vanilla 


1. Dough: Heat the milk, oil, and sugar together in a large saucepan (the one I use is a 7 quart sized one), but do not boil. Just wait to see a little steam and then turn off the heat and set aside until the temperature comes down to about 110 degrees F. I used a thermometer for a while, so do that if you are afraid of yeast breads. Once the temperature is down, sprinkle the yeast on top and let it sit for a few minutes. 

2. Add 8 of the 9 cups of flour, stir until it is all incorporated, and then cover with a towel, and let it sit in a warm place (on top of the oven is usually fine) for 1 hour. 

3. After the hour is up, add in the reserved cup of flour, the baking soda, baking powder and salt. Note: “Scant” means a little less, “heaping” means a little more; don’t let it disturb you, nothing will go badly if it’s not exactly right. Stir it all together and put in the fridge to cool before using. I like to make my dough the night before and cool until I am ready to use it. The dough is much easier to work with cool or cold than when it is just made. 

4. When you are ready to make cinnamon rolls (takes about 45 minutes from getting out of the fridge to taking out of the oven, so there is your timeline), divide the dough in half. Set one half aside and place the other half on a generously floured surface. Roll into a rectangle, with your body facing a long side, the thickness at about 1/4-1/8th of an inch. I think the more swirls the better, so I like my dough on the thin side. 

5. Take the melted butter, and spread a half cup all the way to the edges of the dough. It needs to be covered. If you feel like there isn’t enough butter, add more! More butter is always better in the filling. Cover the butter in cinnamon and a 1/2 cup of each of the sugars. If you don’t get the filling to the edges, the poor end cinnamon rolls will suffer like white crayons. Make a mess and get those edges! 

6. Starting from the long end, which is furthest from you, start rolling the dough into a log towards you. Your log should be about 3-4 inches thick by the end. Cut the rolls at about an inch each. I usually get 20 per log, unless I just want super massive delicious rolls. 

7. Bake in disposable baking pans that you can cover and pass out to each house; you have plenty of dishes to take care of by now, and sometimes the rolls cool and lose frosting in the transfer. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 20 minutes. When the tops are slightly browned, get ’em out. 

8. While the cinnamon rolls are cooking, put the softened butter in a stand mixer and add a cup or two of powdered sugar and the vanilla. Once it’s fully incorporated, add milk, a couple tablespoons to a 1/4 of a cup at a time. Keep alternating milk and powdered sugar until the sugar is used up. This helps the butter to stay mixed in and the sugar to not get lumpy in your glaze. Stop adding milk when you have your glaze at the consistency you like; some like thin glaze, some love thick icing. Note: The Fireman’s favorite is a cream cheese icing with these rolls. You’ll have to go find a recipe for that; I usually just toss in some cream cheese into my normal recipe. 

9. Once the rolls are done, take them out and add the glaze right away. If you like it pretty you can add it later when they are cool, but they won’t taste as soft. Repeat with reserved dough. 

10. Pack them in a wagon, find some cute children to tag along, and visit your neighbors! 

I hope many of you can find ways to spread the hope and joy that the season brings. My way just happens to be sugar, cinnamon, yeast and butter! 


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