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Nothing kicks off a holiday celebration quite like waking up to the smell of cinnamon rolls wafting from the oven, especially when I don't have to lift a finger that morning except to preheat the oven. That's the magic of this recipe for overnight cinnamon rolls, which ensures all the heavy lifting is knocked out a day (or even weeks) in advance. Even better, it's a one-bowl recipe, so I don't need to dirty every dish in the house just to make a special breakfast.
It's one of the most versatile recipes in my cookbook, with variations on the dough, filling, and frosting that include combinations like apple cinnamon, banana, brown butter sweet potato, double chocolate, pumpkin spice rolls, and even Little Debbie–style Honey Buns. But if I could share only one recipe, it would be this one: all-American cinnamon rolls with toasted pecans and cream cheese frosting.
The bun itself is tender, soft, and light, with a bit of complexity of its own thanks to an overnight rise in the fridge. It's dotted with crunchy bits of toasted pecans, perfumed by the buttery cinnamon filling, and brightened by the tang of gooey cream cheese frosting. It's a festive breakfast that sets the perfect tone for the day, with all the individual components combining into something that's more than the sum of its many parts.
Happily, those many parts can all be made in the same bowl. The trick is to work backward, starting with the frosting, then moving on to the filling, and ending with the dough. In between these elements, just wipe the bowl down with a paper towel—no need for a proper wash.
For the frosting, I keep things super simple, just beating a bit of cream cheese, vanilla extract, and powdered sugar together with a paddle.
When it's light and creamy, I scrape the frosting into a disposable pastry bag, then stash it someplace cool. So long as room temperature doesn't get warmer than 74°F (23°C), it's fine to leave the frosting out overnight, but otherwise, I prefer to pop it in the fridge or freezer, depending on how far in advance I'm plotting my meals.
After I wipe out the bowl with a paper towel, I prepare the filling in much the same way, beating up a mixture of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt until it's fluffy and light, similar to creaming butter and sugar for cookie dough.
Don't rush this step! Creaming isn't just about combining these ingredients; it's about aerating them. When you patiently beat the mixture, its texture becomes increasingly soft and creamy, even as it grows in volume and lightens in color (check out that transition in the photo above). Creaming makes the filling easy to spread over the dough later on. When the filling is fluffy and pale, transfer it to a disposable pastry bag, and wipe down the bowl as before.
The dough itself is pretty straightforward, a mix of all-purpose flour with a bit of sugar; salt; instant yeast, such as SAF; and baking soda, which I use as a seasoning here rather than a leavening agent. Please bear in mind that this recipe will not work with quick- or rapid-rise yeast, and active dry yeast will need to be prepared for use according to the package directions.
For the liquid ingredients, I warm melted butter, milk, and Greek yogurt (which hydrates the dough while keeping it nice and thick) to about 80°F (27°C). If the mixture is significantly warmer, the dough may overheat while kneading; if it's significantly colder, the rise will be much slower. So, while there is a bit of wiggle room with the precise temperature, try not to deviate too far from that target.
I fold the dry and liquid ingredients together with a flexible spatula to get the dough started, then let my stand mixer do the rest. Since the dough's so rich, it's tricky to knead by hand, and even on a stand mixer, it will take a while to turn elastic and smooth—20 to 25 minutes, depending on the wattage of a given mixer. (Alas, the dough is too soft to be mixed in a food processor.)
Again: Don't rush this process! If the gluten isn't well developed, the dough will be soft and difficult to handle, and the rolls won't rise as they should. When the dough is ready, a small piece will readily be stretched into a thin sheet, much like a piece of bubble gum.
Once it hits that stage, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise until it's puffy, light, and roughly doubled in bulk. The exact time can vary wildly depending on the temperature of the proofing environment and the dough itself, but expect about 90 minutes in a kitchen around 70°F (21°C).
You'll know the dough's ready when it's puffy and light enough to retain a shallow impression when gently poked. If it springs back instead, give it more time.
When the dough is ready, turn it onto a well-floured surface and gently roll it into a 13-inch square. Next, snip off the tip of the filling bag, and pipe the filling over the surface of the dough before spreading it smooth with an offset spatula. Cover the whole thing in a generous sprinkling of crunchy but tender toasted pecans—the perfect complement to the fluffy dough.
Roll the log up as tight as you can, ending seam side down, then cut it into 12 portions using a strip of unflavored dental floss or butcher's twine.
Even the sharpest blade will smash the puffy dough, so it's worth taking the time to find a spool of plain floss or twine.
With a quick twist, string will make short work of the soft dough and keep each spiral intact.
Once all the pieces have been cut, transfer the cinnamon rolls to a parchment-lined 9- by 13-inch anodized aluminum pan, or two 8- by 3-inch anodized aluminum pans. (I like splitting the dough between two pans so I can freeze one for later.)
The cinnamon rolls will do all right in glass or ceramic pans, though they're not my first choice. What's important is to avoid dark or nonstick metals, which will cause excessive browning and make the dough tough and dry.
Cover the pan(s) with foil, and refrigerate 12 to 48 hours, or freeze for up to a month and thaw overnight to proceed as directed. In the morning, set the cinnamon rolls out at room temperature, and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). When the oven is hot, bake the covered cinnamon rolls for about 45 minutes, until they're puffy and firm. Remove the foil and continue baking until they're golden brown, about 15 minutes more—this will vary depending on the specifics of your oven and baking dish.
The cinnamon rolls can be frosted right in the pan, or you can invert them onto a plate to pull off the parchment, then re-invert them onto a serving platter and frost them there. In either case, the idea is to frost them while they're piping-hot, so the icing gets nice and gooey.
Snip off the tip of the frosting bag, and pipe the frosting over the cinnamon rolls, using the back of a spoon to spread it into an even layer. Serve immediately, because life's too short for cold cinnamon rolls.
Having this recipe up my sleeve has made holiday entertaining so much easier, especially since I can write out the baking instructions for someone else to handle in the morning. Me? I'm sleeping in till the smell of cinnamon sugar drags me out of bed.
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