BOSTON and ST. LOUIS — THE search for the best cinnamon-roll recipe is fruitless unless you know what kind of cinnamon roll you like to begin with.
For simplicity's sake, rule out raisins and nuts, for a true cinnamon roll is usually a simple combination of cinnamon and sugar bound into sweet dough.
First the texture: Do you like it soft and gooey, spongy and springy, or sturdy - where the outer rings serve as a fortress to protect the precious middle?
Second, the taste: More sugar than cinnamon or vice versa? Lots of yeast or pour on the butter? Then there's the issue of to frost or not to frost.
No one, however, can dispute that the aroma of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven is one of life's great pleasures. Even in the malls and airports, one can get a whiff of the sweet pastry, compliments of Cinnabon, the bakery-retailer that introduced cinnamon rolls to the fast-food world.
One thing is certain: Cinnamon rolls need to be eaten hot.
In Conway, N.H., Cinnamon Tree restaurant keeps customers coming back for the signature homemade cinnamon rolls, which weigh about half a pound and cost $1.
At the restaurant, the waitress asks if you want it heated or grilled. (Go grilled.) High-gluten flour and eggs are what account for the cinnamon rolls' winning formula, says co-owner Wendy Heintzelman, who adapted her own grandmother's recipe.
In St. Louis, the Junior League boasts that 5 million of its popular cinnamon rolls have been "joyfully consumed" since 1927. These are more the dainty table-roll variety than the gargantuan, dripping-with-icing-style cinnamon roll.
The dough is a simple mix of milk, shortening, salt, flour, water, yeast, butter, and eggs. The rolls are formed into crescents and smothered with cinnamon and sugar. The result is a delicious bundle of cinnamoned sweet bread that is compact enough to allow multiple indulgences.
The Junior League Cinnamon Rolls came from a member's personal recipe and were introduced in the Tea Room some 60 years ago, says league member Sharon Boranyak. The recipe was a closely guarded secret until last year, when it was published in the Junior League of St. Louis cookbook.
"We're known for our cinnamon rolls," says Sally Ledbetter, a league member who helped put the cookbook together. "So we decided it was time to let the recipe out of the kitchen."
Before that, Pearl Gairy, the Junior League's chief cinnamon-roll maker, was one of the few people who knew the secret recipe. Ms. Gairy, who has been rolling cinnamon pastries in the Junior League kitchen for 15 years, makes up to 50 dozen of the crescent-shaped delicacies a day.
While she explains her technique, Gairy's hands massage the dough expertly. "It's like putting a diaper on a baby," she says, cutting a strip of dough and kneading in the cinnamon sugar as she twists the roll into shape. "You just pinch and roll."
On top of the dozens of cinnamon rolls the Junior League serves each day, many people order takeout rolls for special occasions. Ms. Ledbetter has started a family tradition of serving the League's cinnamon rolls every Thanksgiving morning. And she always has a dozen of them on hand for emergencies. "Cinnamon rolls are a universal love," Ledbetter says. "And it's a true heartland food."
Junior League of St. Louis
1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (about 1-1/2 packages)
3-1/2 to 4 cups flour
2/3 to 1/2 cup (about 1 stick) melted butter
3/4 to 1 cup sugar (or to taste)
3 to 4 teaspoons cinnamon
In a small saucepan, melt the 1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon butter in milk; add sugar and salt.
When mixture is warm, take a glass measuring cup and remove about 1/4 cup.
Dissolve yeast into the liquid in the measuring cup; set aside to foam.
Pour the warmed milk mixture from the pan into a large mixing bowl. Mix in the egg and flour. Use an electric mixer with a pastry hook or paddle, or mix by hand with a wooden spoon.
Add the yeast mixture to the dough. Dough will be sticky. (You may need to add up to 1/2 cup more flour for ease in handling.)
Cover the bowl with a damp cloth. Let dough rise in a warm place until double in bulk (about 1 hour).
Meanwhile, prepare a 9-by-13-inch pan by brushing or spreading a small portion of the melted butter.
Punch dough down. Roll out dough onto a lightly floured surface, 1/4-inch thick.
Spread on about half of the remaining melted butter and half of the cinnamon mixture.
Cut strips of dough 3 inches wide and 3 inches long. Roll into cigar shaped rolls, 1 inch wide and 3 inches long.
Dip rolls into melted butter and then roll them in cinnamon mixture.
Arrange rolls, seam-side-down, into pan. Rolls should touch each other without being crowded.
Bake at 350 degrees F. for 25 to 30 minutes.
Makes about 30 rolls.
Note: To make lighter rolls, let them rise a second time before baking.