I started out cooking with a few books I still treasure today, such as Carol Field’s The Italian Baker, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Flatbreads and Flavors, Flo Braker’s The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, and The Africa News Cookbook: African Cooking for Western Kitchens. I found cooking and baking to be rather easy, and one day it dawned on me — I had never been taught to cook, but I had always spied on my grandmother in the kitchen as she cooked. Reading Dora Charles’ cookbook, A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen, transported me back to those summers at my grandmother’s, to my southern family and our stories, and to many of the foods we ate at home or at family gatherings. Dora Charles did learn to cook from her grandmother who taught her how to use visual cues and instinct to turn out fabulous food. This week, Ms. Charles has shared her recipe for Christmas Morning Cinnamon Rolls (which of course you can eat any time of year!), which reminds her of her childhood as well. —Kristina
Why Ms. Charles loves these cinnamon rolls: I’ve been eating cinnamon rolls since I was a little girl. When we were growing up, we had this little corner store nearby that sold the best cinnamon rolls ever — besides my grandmother’s, of course — but after she passed away, these were second-best. When we got our allowances, my sister, myself, and our friends would each get a cinnamon roll and fifteen cents’ worth of bologna — always with the red skin around it, sliced thin — for our lunch. These cinnamon rolls are good without the bologna, too…but I still like that combination today!
Christmas Morning Cinnamon Rolls
Aunt Laura got this recipe from a coworker at least sixty years ago, and she kind of forgot about it. But I love a good cinnamon roll, and I started fiddling with the recipe when Aunt Laura gave it to me. These rolls aren’t like the ones you find at the airport that are just too much; they are smaller, lighter, and just a little sweet — though, of course, you can suit your own taste about how sweet you want them. I know some people are scared to work with yeast, but really, it’s not hard at all and it’s a lot of fun to play with the dough and get it to feeling stretchy and plump and smooth, like a baby’s bottom. That’s when it’s ready to form into the rolls. I promise you your family will be amazed by these yeasty rolls — and you can make all sorts of variations on the basic recipe, such as cinnamon bread or a cinnamon-raisin ring (see page 52) or Monkey Bread (page 91). They make a fine holiday breakfast treat.
MAKES 24 ROLLS (OR 2 LOAVES OR ONE 9-INCH RING)
2 packets active dry yeast (4 ½ teaspoons)
¼ cup warm water
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, cut into 6 to 8 pieces
1 cup milk, warmed
3 large eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans
¾ cup dried cranberries and 2 teaspoons grated orange zest
¾ cup dried blueberries and 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
½ cup white sugar
½ cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
½ stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted
One nice thing about this dough (which also works for Monkey Bread, page 91) is that you can freeze it all kinds of ways: as dough or as rolls right in the baking pan (bake them after returning them to room temperature), or as baked rolls or bread. All will keep in the freezer, well wrapped, for up to 4 weeks.
1. To make the dough: Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a small bowl, stir, and let sit for 5 minutes, or until the yeast is dissolved and creamy.
2. Drop the butter into the warm milk to melt it, then pour it all into a large bowl. Add the eggs, sugar, and salt and mix together well with a wooden spoon. Stir in the dissolved yeast. (This is the moment to stir in any add-ins, if you like.)
3. Add half the flour and beat with the spoon until smooth. Add the rest of the flour and beat again until the dough holds together; it will look shaggy. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, shape it into a ball, and let it rest for about 5 minutes.
4. Using floured hands, fold the dough in half, lifting the far edge of the ball and folding it toward you. (You don’t actually knead this dough.) Pat it down some and then fold it in half again and once again; it will start to feel smooth and stretchy. (You can make the dough ahead, wrap it well, and freeze it for up to 4 weeks until you’re ready to defrost it and proceed.)
5. To make cinnamon rolls: Set the oven to 425 degrees. Line two 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper (press the paper over the bottom of the upside-down pan to make an outline and cut the circle out).
6. Mix the sugars and cinnamon together.
7. Pat the dough out into a skinny rope shape about 30 inches long, smoothing it gently with your fingers. Cut the loaf crosswise in half and, working quickly, so the dough doesn’t get too soft and loose, cut each half into 12 equal slices, about 1¼ inches thick, to make 24 pieces.
8. To shape the rolls: One by one, take each slice and pat and pull it out until it’s about 8 inches long. Sprinkle 1½ teaspoons of the cinnamon-sugar mixture for the topping along the strip. Starting at one end, roll the strip of dough into a tight little rosebud shape, winding the length of it tightly around the center. Arrange 12 rolls evenly in each pan, setting them in a ring around the edges of the pan with the spiral facing up and butting them up against each other so they’ll hold their shape when they bake; leave the center of the pan empty so they can expand.
9. Brush the rolls all over with melted butter and sprinkle each one with ½ teaspoon of the cinnamon sugar — you’ll have a little left over. Drizzle with the remaining melted butter.
10. Bake until the rolls are lightly brown and springy, bouncing back when you pat their tops, about 15 minutes. Serve hot with butter.
Excerpt from A Real Southern Cook by Dora Charles. Copyright © 2015 by Dora Charles. Photography © 2015 by Robert S. Cooper. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
About Ms. Charles: From a huge Savannah family of accomplished cooks, Dora Charles worked in Savannah’s most famous restaurant for 22 years, where she taught dozens of staffers and managers. A Real Southern Cook is her debut cookbook.