I have a confession: I used to be afraid of yeast.
I think this fear may have stemmed from my mom’s efforts with the bread machine. Not to say the end products weren’t warm and delicious, but it all seemed like a lot of work when chemical leaveners like baking soda were so fail-safe. Why bother with some fickle, tiny living creature’s “burps” to make your dough rise? Until my first Intro to Baking class in culinary school, I had completely avoided working with yeast.
My mom, too, shared this fear when she was my age. She described her first attempts at making bread as dense bricks of dough. And yet, my childhood memories are chock-full of her breads and, more importantly, her famous cinnamon rolls. According to her, this is all thanks to the Tassajara Bread Book. It’s diagrams and descriptions helped my mom overcome her yeast-borne errors.
My own fears were demolished after the first few sessions of my baking class. Day 1 we were assigned to make dinner rolls– lots of them– and into the world of yeast I plunged. During that first quarter I learned the proper water temperature for activating yeast, how to check if you’ve kneaded the dough properly, how to ferment, shape, proof, and bake.
Fond memories of warm cinnamon in mind, I asked my mom to teach me how to make her delightful creations. Out came the Tassajara Bread Book in all it’s butter- and sugar-stained glory.
1. Making the Sponge
The sponge is the base for your bread making. It allows the yeast to wake up and start fermenting without suffocating it with a bunch of ingredients. Pour 1 cup of warm water into a large mixing bowl (The water should be around 90 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, it should be just barely warm to the touch. Remember, your body is at 98.6 degrees!). Whisk in 1 Tbsp of yeast so it dissolves. Add 2 Tbsp honey and 1 egg (at room temp!). Add 1½ cups flour in ½-cup increments, stirring briskly with a wooden spoon after each addition. Once all the flour is incorporated, beat in a circular motion about 100 times to incorporate air into the dough. The dough will become smooth and stretchy. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and let rise in a warmish place for 45-70 min.
2) Making the dough
Melt 3 Tbsp butter and drizzle over the surface of the dough, sprinkle with 1 tsp salt, then fold in gently to incorporate. Start folding in 2 to 2½ cups flour in ½-cup increments, adding more as each addition gets incorporated. This will take some muscle work after a couple additions, so when the dough become too heavy to stir, turn it onto a floured surface and knead with floured hands. Add more flour to any sticky patches, turning and kneading the dough until it is very elastic and smooth. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a damp towel, and set in a warm place to rise 50-60 minutes.
Roll the dough into a rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Brush with enough melted butter to generously coat the dough. Sprinkle to taste (don’t be shy!) with brown sugar, cinnamon, and either raisins, currants or nuts. (I prefer chopped pecans). Roll up tightly and cut into sections. Place cut side up on a greased baking pan or baking dish. Let rise 20 minutes.
Brush with egg wash (1 egg beaten with a splash of water) and bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack as soon as they’re out of the oven, otherwise the sugar will re-solidify and your rolls will be stuck! Flip back over so the rolls are right-side up and let cool (or not!) before diving in.
If you like your cinnamon rolls iced, then go for it! These are very versatile, so add whatever fillings you want and however much you want. The texture is more bread-like than your average roll and the yeast adds amazing flavor. See? It’s not so scary. Give this recipe a try, or any of the others from the Tassajara Bread Book. My mom’s copy may look ancient, but you can buy yourself a new copy at your bookstore or Amazon.com.
Have more yeast-related questions? Ask away!