The secret to cinnamon rolls: It's not actually the recipe

  Tie-cutting individual 
  rolls from a long roll of 
  dough.
(Photos by Eric 
  Crump/H-F Chronicle)
 

Christmas smells like cinnamon.

While I was growing up, my mother made cinnamon rolls at Christmas time. Marking days off the calendar is all well and good, but the smell of cinnamon rolls baking was how we knew Christmas season was getting serious and the big day was nearly at hand.
 
For more than half a century, I thought those cinnamon rolls were made from a recipe mom got from her mom, Eunice Ashland.
 
  Makes two pans of rolls.
  Mix together:
  2 pkgs yeast
  2 cups flour
  1/2 cup sugar
  Add: 
  1 1/2 cups hot water
  Mix well.
  Add: 
  2 eggs
  1/2 cup melted butter
  4 cups flour
  1.  Divide dough in half. 
       Roll one part out
       into a rectangle. 
  2.  Spread with ½ cup
       soft butter and then
       sprinkle with a
       cinnamon and
       sugar mixture
       (3 Tblsp cinnamon
       mixed with ½ cup
       sugar, or to taste). 
  3.  Roll up from wide end. 
  4.  Prepare first cake
       pan by spreading
       ½ cup soft butter
       in bottom and
       sprinkle with
       ¼ cup brown sugar. 
       Repeat for second pan
  5.  Use floss to cut
       into rolls.  (Place
       floss under the
       roll to your
       preferred
       thickness and cross
       floss as if you were
       getting ready to tie
       a knot.  Pull.)
  6.  Place rolls in prepared
       cake pans.
  7.  Repeat for second
       half of dough.
  8.  If desired, you can
       let the rolls rise
       for 30 minutes
  9.  Bake at 350 degrees
       for 20 minutes.
  If desired, the rolls
  can be iced.  The icing
  is made with ½ cup
  powdered sugar,
  1 Tblsp milk and
  1 tsp vanilla.  Mix
  with small whisk
  and drizzle over rolls.

Grandma Ashland grew up on a farm in northern Iowa. She married young and began raising her family on the farm. She was known for the big spreads she put on when our family visited, the holdover habit of feeding hungry farmers, no doubt. She specialized in the solid fare of farmlands everywhere, meat, potatoes, gravy, corn, beans, pickles, bread, jams, pies and more pies. I remember meals at grandma's when I was young, the kind that leave eaters stunned, eyes glazed and belt buckles loosened.

In mid-life, she went to work in a cafe. She got up at 3 a.m. every day for many years to begin baking. "Eunice" was practically synonymous with "good food" in the Clear Lake area.

When I called my mother to find out more about the cinnamon roll tradition, I learned a family secret that left me shocked: The rolls my mother made all those years were not literally from grandma's recipe, which it turns out only ever existed in her head.

"She was a wonderful baker. She developed her own recipes," mom said. "But she didn't use written recipes. She threw in a little of this and a little of that."

  Place cut rolls on butter 
  and sprinkled brown 
  sugar.

 
My mother is no slouch in the kitchen (my wife Amy's award-winning cookies, Dixie Doodles, are named for her), but she prefers to follow written recipes.

She didn't know all the secrets of grandma's cinnamon rolls, but one day she was invited to coffee at a neighbor's house and was served cinnamon rolls.

"I thought, 'These are just like my mother's,'" she said, so she asked for the recipe and used it from then on. Those are the cinnamon rolls I grew up gobbling at Christmas.

Those are the cinnamon rolls we still gobble at Christmas, since Amy has been making them for 30 years.
 
  Done.
 
Now, of course, the terrible secret doesn't really matter. We've enjoyed the warm, comfortable aroma of those rolls as they come out of the oven for so long that they have come to represent the legacy of home, family and love that grandma left us and that Dixie and Amy continue.

They are grandma's cinnamon rolls after all.
 

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A great community deserves a great newspaper. The HF Chronicle was created in June 2014 as an online publication. In December 2015 we began monthly print publication, too. Our mission is to chronicle the life of our community — news by, for, and about the people of Homewood and Flossmoor, Illinois.

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