My family loves food. We love to eat food, to prepare food, to talk about food. We love appetizers and desserts. We love food from all parts of the world. We especially love food that you have to unbutton your pants after eating. We are notorious for planning our next meal while still eating the first. When my family gets together, you know that there will be good food and good wine. I break any diet I may be on when I go home for a visit simply because of the food.
Due to our culinary obsessions, we have troves of recipes that have been created and refined over our many years of get-togethers and holidays. Some my grandmother swears are original to our family, and some we stole and made our own. All I know is that they’re tasty.
I think the most popular and frequently requested recipe is that of my mother’s cinnamon rolls. While the inception of this recipe is credited to my grandmother, its current iteration is entirely my mother’s. She will read this and tell me, “No, Ruthie was the one who yada yada yada…” but I disagree. When I was a child, friends would ask about “your mom’s rolls” or their parents would ask me for “Julie’s amazing sticky buns”. My boyfriend, Rich, tasted them once and can still recall their texture and flavor and would frequently tell me “Your mom’s were fluffier” or “Your mom’s had more butter” as I was attempting to recreate the recipe.
They are legendary.
My mother has refined her recipe down to an art form. She stopped measuring her ingredients long ago and goes purely based on sight and feel. So when I asked her for the recipe, she had to get back to me. I’ve made these dozens of times at her side, but I’d never done it solo. Or in my kitchen. My mother uses a very nice and precise modern convection oven for her baking. I have a behemoth steel 1950s stove that defies all laws of thermodynamics. Seriously. I even got an oven thermometer because I wanted to make sure I was baking things at the right temperature and things still come out burned or underdone.
Figuring out how to write down this recipe was interesting. There were many phone calls and text messages between my mother and me trying to make it work. First they were too dense, then overcooked, then not enough butter, then too much sugar, then too much butter, then the wrong flour… Recipes are hard. Finally, I found the sweet spot. They came out golden and fluffy with a good amount of goo. Rich says they’re not quite my mom’s, but they’re pretty damn close.
Momma Julie’s Cinnamon Rolls
Some people think of these as a dessert. We eat them for breakfast. And as a snack. And basically any time the mood strikes as long as they’re in the house. Which is never for very long.
1 packet active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk, scalded then cooled
1/3 cup shortening
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour
2 tablespoons flavorless oil (canola or vegetable)
2 sticks butter, melted (or to taste)
1/4 plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar (or to taste)
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or to taste)
2 tablespoons clear Karo syrup (or to taste, optional)
TIP: Add the shortening to the scalded milk. This will help cool the milk and melt the shortening.
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add the sugar and let sit until the mixture begins to get foamy. Stir in the milk, shortening, salt, and egg. Mix until smooth. Add the flour one cup at a time until the dough begins to form a loose, sticky ball (approximately 3 cups).
Turn the sticky dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead dough, adding flour as necessary (do not add more than listed in the ingredients), until it is smooth and elastic, approximately 5 minutes. Dough is ready when it no longer clings to your hands.
Pour the oil into a large bowl. Place the dough ball in the bowl and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with a towel and allow it to rise in a warm place until doubled, approximately 1 1/2 hours.
Once the dough has doubled in size (dough is ready if indentation remains when touched), punch down. Roll the dough into a rectangle, approximately 15×9 inches, on a lightly floured surface. Evenly brush a layer of melted butter across the surface of the dough, leaving one long edge free of butter. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 tablespoons brown sugar over the butter. Gently press with a spoon so that the sugar melts into the butter and covers the surface evenly. Roll the dough into a pinwheel, starting from one long edge towards the edge that is free of butter. Pinch the butter-free edge into the roll to seal. Cut the roll into 12 pieces.
In the bottom of a 13×9 inch pan, pour the remaining butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, and Karo syrup (if using). Mix well. Place the rolls slightly apart in the pan. Cover and let rise until doubled, approximately 40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center of the oven.
Once rolls have doubled (they will press into one another), bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, until golden. Rolls are ready when they sound hollow when tapped. Let rolls cool in the pan for 5 minutes.
Invert pan onto a plate or cookie sheet so that the sticky side is up. Serve warm.