Weekends in quarantine, or whatever we’re calling it now, have mostly consisted of me sitting on the couch, staring at my cursor blinking on a blank Google document. I have found that taking three classes during this module system has left me absolutely wiped out with work often crammed in during the week, even with less assignments on the weekend. For some reason, this has become more exhausting than actually having work to do. So, I turned to baking (cinnamon rolls in this case) to fill this co-void.
Cinnamon rolls have always been a comfort in my family. Growing up, once a year we would go help my uncle make giant cinnamon rolls for his Italian restaurant (limiting cinnamon rolls to once a year personally seems like a bad business decision, but who am I to judge). We were lucky enough to score a couple rolls that then lived in our fridge until a dark day. However, this recipe is a closely guarded secret of my uncle’s, so I decided to do my own thing. As a perpetually-tired young adult, what else would come to mind but caffeine? Thus, my espresso cinnamon rolls were born. Though, to get something off my chest, these are probably just coffee cinnamon rolls, since I’m not quite sure what establishes something as espresso — but, alas, espresso sounds so much fancier.
The dough for this recipe is magic; it’s smooth and pillowy soft. It practically melts on your tongue and leaves behind the richness of espresso (I’ve used Velvet Moon Espresso from Sprouts as well as cheap coffee grounds). However, my favorite part about this recipe is that it’s really mix-and-match. Don’t like espresso? Brew a couple bags of tea instead — chai would be good! Like gooey or caramelized cinnamon rolls? No problem; we’ve got options. Let’s get started — and, please, put your own twist on it.
Preparation Time: 30 – 45 minutes
Rise Time: approximately two to three hours (separately)
Bake Time: 18 – 25 minutes
¾ cup of milk (plant-based is fine; I used oat) or more, since some may be lost in the brewing process
4 – 4½ tbsp of coffee grounds
2¼ tsp of active dry yeast (one package)
⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon of sugar
⅓ butter, softened to room temperature (again, plant-based is fine, though it tends to be more oily and less creamy)
2 large eggs
3½ cups of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
½ cup of butter, cold
¾ cup of packed brown sugar
2¼ tablespoon of cinnamon
a pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional. I personally feel it enhances the cinnamon; my taste-tester (brother), on the other hand, is a wimp, so he thinks it’s too spicy)
3 tablespoons of coconut cream or heavy cream, chilled (optional)
½ cup of butter (plant-based is still fine)
2 ounces of cream cheese (vegan is fine)
½ teaspoon of vanilla extract
¾ cup of powdered sugar
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder
- Bring ½ cup of milk to a simmer on medium-low heat (alternatively: microwave for 30 – 45 seconds). Add the coffee grounds, stir, and remove from heat, letting sit for approximately 10 minutes. Stir every couple minutes to prevent coffee grounds from caking.
- While the coffee is “brewing,” heat ¼ cups of milk for about 15 seconds in the microwave to about 110 degrees (the key is that the milk should be hot enough to sting your finger, but not so hot it makes you recoil). Mix in 1 tablespoon of sugar and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let sit for 5 – 7 minutes to proof. The mixture should look frothy; otherwise, your yeast may not be active.
- Strain the coffee into a measuring cup. If you are using fine grounds, the only foolproof method I have found is straining through a cheesecloth, but any fine linen cloth (heck, even an old, CLEAN, cotton t-shirt if you don’t care about staining it) should work. A french press may work as well. If you are using coarse grounds, a fine mesh strainer will work, although you may have to pick grounds out with a spoon if you’re picky. Some milk will likely be lost during this straining process, so fill the espresso milk measuring cup to the ½ cup mark.
- After the yeast has proofed, stir to combine, and then add the espresso milk and the rest of the sugar. Mix together the softened, room temperature butter and eggs before stirring this mix into the rest of the wet ingredients.
- Measure out 3½ cups of flour (pro-tip: stir flour gently with a spoon and scoop into a measuring cup to be more accurate in measurements) into a separate bowl, gently mixing in salt. You will not be adding all of this flour to the dough!
- Fold flour into the liquid ingredients ⅔ of a cup at a time. It’s okay if the mixture is lumpy at first — just make s
ure flour is fully incorporated before adding more. After adding 3 cups, add only ⅓ of a cup more, but do not mix in yet. Lightly flour your hands and knead in this last ⅓ cup for approximately 7 – 10 minutes. The dough should be sticky, but it should stick to itself more than your hands (if it sticks to you more than it should after a few minutes of kneading, sprinkle a spoonful of flour and knead it in). The dough should be smooth (you may notice small chunks of butter; do not fret) and elastic. Do not discard remaining flour!
- Collect the dough into a smooth ball. Wipe out the mixing bowl of any flour or flakey bits and lightly grease the bowl (whether with canola oil, coconut oil, or butter) before placing the dough back in it. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 – 2 hours until doubled in size or, when you poke the dough, the indentation stays (for me, this took about an hour and 15 minutes).
- Towards the end of the rise time, begin your filling. Now, we get to the ‘choose your own adventure’ portion of the recipe:
- Soft, flakey rolls with caramelized bottoms: mix together brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and, optionally, cayenne. Mix in 1 tablespoon of coconut cream. You can either add cold butter now, too (beware: this will be messy when rolling and cutting), or add dollops of cold butter before rolling. Either way, chill the filling before spreading it on the dough. If you mix the butter into the filling, leave out about ¼ of the filling when spreading it on the dough.
- More traditional rolls with gooey filling: mix together brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and, optionally, cayenne before stirring in cold butter. Omit coconut cream.
- When the dough has doubled in size, gently punch the dough down and let rest for ten minutes. Dust a flat surface with remaining flour (you may not need to use it all) and flour a rolling pin. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and press into a rectangle. Sprinkle the top side with flour and begin rolling into a 20 – 15 inch rectangle (why this size, you ask? It’s the size of the cutting board I use as a flat surface. 18 – 14 inch would work as well).
- Using a metal spoon or silicone spatula, spread your chosen filling on the dough, getting as close to the edges as possible (potentially adding dollops of butter or leaving out about ¼ of filling, if you choose option 1). When rolling the dough into a log, pull the dough taut before rolling. This will make the rolls easier to cut and keep filling from spilling out. Once rolled into a log, roll the dough back and forth a couple times with your hands to seal (this may lengthen it). Somehow, this always ends up 24 inches for me; but, if that is not the case for you, either use a measuring tape or guesstimate to get 12 rolls.
- Place the rolls into a greased pan. Cover with a towel.
- If following option 1 in the choose your own adventure in step 8 and omitting filling, dollop remaining filling in pan around cinnamon rolls; this will caramelize the sides of the rolls and create this redhot-esque caramel on the bottom of the pan. For this option, it is best to place the rolls into the fridge for the second rise so the filling doesn’t run out. It may take 1 – 1 ½ hours until the dough is puffy.
- If following option 2, leave the rolls on the counter for the second rise. This will take about a half an hour until the rolls are puffy.
- Towards the end of the rise time, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. If your dough is in the fridge, take it out while the oven is preheating so you aren’t putting a cold dish into the oven.
- Bake uncovered for about 18 – 25 minutes. Since the dough is already dark from the espresso, look for browner edges and a little dryness on top.
- While the rolls are cooling, mix together butter and cream cheese for the glaze. Add in vanilla, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder (sift the powders, if possible; otherwise, you may be mixing forever until it is smooth). When the cinnamon rolls are cool enough to touch but still slightly warm, spread the cream cheese glaze on top. Alternatively, just make a simple powdered sugar glaze Eat while warm for peak cinnamon roll enjoyment!
I like to make these on the weekend so I have breakfast throughout the week (I share with my brother). They last for about five days in the fridge covered with foil or in a tupperware, but you may notice slight staleness after a few days. Reminder: caffeine does not cook out! This is not the equivalent of a cup of coffee, but, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, beware.
These rolls have made online classes so much sweeter; please let me know if you enjoy them!
Kristi Weyand is a third-year double-majoring in English and Political Science with a perhaps-too-hopeful plan to pursue a career in journalism. Her time as the Arts & Entertainment Editor has led to her interest in the intersection of entertainment and ideas generally seen as political, inspiring her way-too-many thinkpieces. When she is not writing, she can be found procrastinating by baking, watching bad movies, over-listening to the same music, and crying over succulents she just can’t seem to keep alive.