When sugar, butter, and cinnamon are mixed together, the result is something many around the world enjoy. But what separates the subpar rolls from the delectable?
By Ellen Sheehy
My mom makes the best cinnamon rolls ever tasted and if you don’t believe it, ask any one of the hundreds of people who have eaten them. It’s not a family recipe, or a secret one–the original version is posted on Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman blog. Granted, my mom has simplified the dough recipe and made a few other modifications, but that doesn’t change the flavor. And it is the flavor that makes them unique–a combination of maple and coffee frosting, with which the cinnamon rolls are drenched when they are still warm so it soaks into the fluffy dough and runs down the edges to coat the bottom, a bottom already covered in caramelized butter and cinnamon sugar that seeps out from the middle. These cinnamon rolls sit high above the average specimen, which is dry and tasteless in comparison.
I’ve only made the cinnamon rolls a few times, and though they are quite simple I would have never attempted if we didn’t have a stand mixer. The dough is basic, with water, yeast, sugar, oil, and salt. After kneading it (well, after the mixer kneads it) and letting it rise, I roll it out on the counter in a large rectangle and spread it with more than a stick of softened–note, softened, not melted–butter. The butter is the difficult part, because if I accidentally put it in the microwave for too long (which I somehow do every time) it’ll get melty and then when I roll up the dough after sprinkling it with sugar and cinnamon, the filling will flow out the sides and puddle on the counter. Then I’m left trying to scoop it up and put it on the top using the serrated knife that I cut the cinnamon rolls with. Despite my struggles with the butter, though, the cinnamon rolls are easy enough for anyone to make with the proper tools.
Which leads me to another reason why the cinnamon rolls are so good: they’re homemade. People spend more time on things when they make them themselves. They use higher quality ingredients and don’t put any preservatives in them. All in all, they often care more about food because they’ve gone to all the effort of creating it.
But the reason that these cinnamon rolls are the best I’ve ever had transcends ingredients. Often the items and foods that are most meaningful are ones that have memories connected with them. And every spring for a long time now, my family has fed these cinnamon rolls to my dad’s AP English classes. He told me that it didn’t start then; the first time he and my mom decided to give cinnamon rolls to students was at the end of his senior Shakespeare class. They thought it would be a fun way to honor the students for choosing the harder way to get their senior literature credit. The year after that he began teaching AP English Language and decided to give them cinnamon rolls too. And now it’s a tradition. I can’t remember a spring where my mom and I and my three younger siblings didn’t journey to Central carrying burning hot pans of cinnamon rolls, a heavy shoebox of silverware, paper plates, and (until recently) my youngest brother. Except last spring, of course.
I’m a junior myself this year, and one of the most disappointing things is that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, when I’m sitting in English class discussing short modernist stories at the end of May my family won’t walk through the door, bringing with them the delicious and one-of-a-kind smells of cinnamon rolls. But that’s okay. I have memories, and every time I (or my mom) makes the cinnamon rolls they will all come flooding back.