Recipe: apple cider caramel apple cinnamon rolls
While in the throes of testing this recipe last Thursday, I realized a partial solar eclipse had been marked on my calendar. Sure enough, it was that day and it was about to start in 20 minutes. Eclipses, be they solar or lunar, are fascinating events. I learned about the science of eclipses in grade school, but only really appreciated watching them as an adult. I toggle between the joy of staring at the sun through solar glasses or watching a pinhole projection on the ground and the view you get from photographing the sun through (baader) solar film and seeing the remarkable details that a telephoto lens can provide. Despite the additional work of shooting an eclipse, the best part is that I can share it. So here ya go.
high clouds moving past the eclipsed sun (shot through solar film)
tail end of the eclipse as the sun sets on the continental divide (shot through solar film)
composite of the solar eclipse (shot through solar film)
For two and a half hours, I ran between my studio and the deck – shooting this recipe, then washing the flour, butter, or sugar off my hands and shooting the eclipse. Luckily, I managed to capture the eclipse, but these cinnamon rolls required another run through because I wasn’t satisfied with the results of the first attempt.
the dough: milk, sugar, egg, salt, butter, flour, yeast
mix the yeast and flour together
combine the salt, sugar, butter, and milk in a pan
heat it to 120-130°f
I like cinnamon rolls very much, but rarely make them because it’s dangerous to eat more than one. Now add fruit to cinnamon rolls, and I get unreasonably excited about both making and eating them. It’s autumn, so everyone is making pumpkin this and pumpkin that. I am all about apples right now. Apples are a perfect travel snack – on the road, on a plane, on the trail. Every time I reach into my pack and pull out an apple to nosh by an alpine lake, I exclaim to anyone or to no one, “I love apples!” Kaweah loved apples too and would sit patiently next to me with the knowledge that the apple core was hers. Sometimes, we would split the apple.
stir the warm milk mixture and an egg into the dry ingredients
stir in the rest of the flour
knead the dough
let it rise in a greased bowl
My first batch of apple cinnamon rolls followed the original recipe instructions. I have to admit that I am generally underwhelmed by the butterscotch-style caramel that most of these recipes pair with the cinnamon rolls (brown sugar, butter). They always harden into a grainy “caramel” when cooled and these did just that. On my second round of apple cinnamon rolls, I increased the apple by 50% and I switched out that sub-standard “caramel” for a traditional caramel – made from caramelized sugar, cream, and flavored with reduced apple cider.
the filling: brown sugar, butter, flour, apples, granulated sugar, pecans, ground cinnamon
stir the brown sugar, sugar, cinnamon, and flour together
cut the butter into the sugar
it should resemble coarse crumbs
cinnamon-sugar-butter, diced apple, chopped pecans
There are three main parts to the apple cinnamon rolls: the dough, the filling, and the caramel. Start the dough because it takes about an hour to rise. Prep the filling while the dough is rising and then start on the caramel – or start the caramel and then prep the filling. Actually, there is no reason you couldn’t make the caramel a day ahead. One thing I liked about this recipe was how the butter is cut into the cinnamon sugar which makes it so much easier to spread on the dough as opposed to spreading soft butter on a very pliable dough. I did worry that increasing the apple quantity in the filling would make the rolls too wet, but that wasn’t a problem. It just made them more awesome.
apple cider caramel: vanilla extract, sugar, salt, cinnamon, heavy cream, apple cider
reduce the cider from 2 cups to 1/4 cup
it doesn’t have to be exactly 1/4 cup, but not more than 1/3 cup
Caramel can be a frustrating beast. I know this because I have bricked SO MANY batches of caramel via the wet method (water and sugar). It was only after I had mastered the wet method that I tried the dry method – that is, melting the dry sugar in a pan. I was skeptical at first, but it really does work and I have yet to brick a batch from the dry method. The trick is to be patient. You are going to stare at dry sugar in a pan for several minutes and then you start to see meltage. It looks wet, but for crying out loud DON’T TOUCH IT WITH YOUR FINGER! It’s hot. Really hot. Just don’t touch. You can pick the pan up and swirl the sugar around, if you like. Meanwhile, heat the cream in another pan and keep it warm. Eventually, all of the sugar will melt and then it will get darker. Watch it carefully here. When it is JUST about to turn the right shade of dark amber, turn off the heat and stir in the hot cream.
heat the cream in a small saucepan
melt the sugar over medium heat
bring it to a dark amber color
stir in the hot cream
When you stir in the hot cream, there will be sputtering and bubbling and the whole thing will look like it’s about to boil over. Keep stirring – just keep stirring. The caramel settles down and you will find caramelized sugar hardened onto the bottom of your pan. There may also be rafts of hardened caramelized sugar lurking in the liquid. This is all okay. What you do is return the pan to low heat and stir, stir, stir. Keep stirring until the caramel has melted. It may seem like it will never melt, but it does – it just takes 20 or 30 minutes. You’ll notice that the liquid gets thicker and becomes more sauce-like. Good stuff. When all or most of the hard caramel has dissolved, take the pan off the heat and stir in the reduced apple cider, cinnamon, and salt.
stir in the apple cider reduction
add the salt, cinnamon, and vanilla
pour it into the buttered pans
With the pans ready, you can address the dough. Turn it out onto your floured work surface. This work surface should be larger than 24×16 inches. Punch the dough down and let it rest for 10 minutes. Roll it out to 24×16 inches. The dough will naturally take on an oval shape, but if you work to distribute the dough from the center to the corners, you’ll get pretty close to a rectangle.
the dough, doubled in size
roll the dough out to a 24×16-inch rectangle
sprinkle the apple over the cinnamon-sugar-butter on the dough
distribute the filling over the dough except the top inch or two of the long edge
Be sure to leave the top long edge of the dough free of filling. It just makes it much easier to pinch the roll closed along the seam when you roll it up. Because the dough isn’t rigid, you will need to roll it incrementally, in sections. Or you could grab a friend and have them help you roll it all at once. Once sealed, slice the roll into equal-width pieces. If you want to eyeball it, go for it. I tend to trust math, so I’ll measure the length and divide by 14 (because you will have 7 pieces for each round pan).
roll up the dough like a jelly roll
pinch the seam to seal it
slice the roll into equal-width pieces
set the slices cut-side down in the prepared pans
Cover the rolls and let them rise for another 45 minutes or until they are doubled in size. Then pop them in the oven for 40-45 minutes. I’m using 9×3-inch round pans here. If you use 2-inch high pans, you might want to keep an eye on the rolls as they bake because the caramel and melty juices from the rolls themselves may bubble over the edges. To avoid setting off the fire alarm in your building, you can try catching the drips with foil or a baking sheet underneath the pans.
The dough was a little worked over in my second attempt (trying to do too many things at once), so it wasn’t as tender as the first round. That’s entirely user error (me). But the filling and the caramel sauce were much improved over the first batch, so we declared it a success. Even when cooled, the apple cider caramel is a viscous fluid rather than hard as a rock. Both the apple cider caramel and the additional apples give these cinnamon rolls a spunky tartness and added fruity texture. Good stuff all around and a perfect way to start a good morning.
invert the rolls onto a serving plate
Apple Cider Caramel Apple Cinnamon Rolls
adapted from this recipe
6 1/4 – 6 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 tsps (or 2 pkts) active dry yeast
2 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 tsps salt
flavorless vegetable oil
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup butter
3 cups apple, peeled, cored, and small dice
1 cup pecans, chopped
apple cider caramel
2 cups apple cider
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsps vanilla extract
1/4 tsp sea salt
Make the dough: Combine 2 1/2 cups of flour and the yeast in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Place the milk, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup butter, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir together to dissolve the sugar until the mixture is just warm (the butter should be *just* melted). Pour the milk mixture into the mixing bowl containing the flour and yeast. Add the egg. Beat with paddle attachment for 30 seconds on low speed. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Stir in as much of the remaining flour as the dough can take. Knead 3-5 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic (you can do this with a dough hook and finish by hand or knead by hand). Grease a large bowl with the vegetable oil. Shape the dough into a ball and place in the large greased bowl. Turn the dough over to coat the entire thing with oil. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 45-60 minutes or until the volume has doubled.
Prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, and 1 tablespoon cinnamon. Cut 1/2 cup butter into the mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.
Make the apple cider caramel: Pour the apple cider into a medium saucepan and warm over medium-high heat. Let the cider boil down until it has reduced to 1/4 cup in volume (doesn’t have to be exact, but no more than 1/3 cup). This took me about 20 minutes. Pour the heavy cream into a small saucepan and heat until just boiling. Cover the pan. Place the sugar in a clean medium saucepan over medium heat. When the sugar begins to melt (this takes several minutes, so be patient), gently swirl it around to distribute the rest of the unmelted sugar. When completely melted, let the liquid sugar turn a medium to dark amber color (depending on how dark you like your caramel). This happens quickly, so keep an eye on it. Slowly pour the hot cream into the caramelized sugar while stirring. It will splatter and bubble, that’s okay, keep stirring. You will likely have hardened caramelized sugar at the bottom of your pan and the liquid will be watery. This is okay. Return the pan to low heat and stir until all of the hard caramelized sugar has melted and your sauce has thickened. This took me 20 minutes. Stir in the reduced apple cider, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt, and vanilla. Yield: 1 1/4 cups.
Assemble and bake the cinnamon rolls: Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a lightly-floured large (bigger than 24×16 inches) work surface. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest for 10 minutes. Butter two 9-inch round pans (preferably 3-inch high, but 2-inch high pans will also work – just bake with foil underneath the pan to catch any caramel drips during baking). Pour half of the apple cider caramel in each pan. Set aside. Roll the dough out into a 24×16-inch rectangle. Sprinkle the cinnamon-sugar filling evenly over the rectangle, leaving a 1-inch margin bare along the long side furthest from you (this is to make sure you can pinch it closed when you roll it up). Do the same with the diced apple and chopped pecans. Starting with the long side closest to you, begin rolling the dough up like a jelly roll or a carpet. You’ll have to go in increments to make sure the entire length gets rolled up properly. Pinch the clean edge onto the roll to seal it. Cut the roll into 14 equal-width pieces (about 1.75 inches in width). Set the slices cut-side down in the baking pans (about 7 per pan), cover and let rise for 45 minutes until doubled in volume. Preheat oven to 350°F. Uncover the rolls and bake for 45 minutes until lightly browned. If using 2-inch high pans, you may want to set foil or a baking sheet under the rack to catch any caramel drips. Invert the baking pans onto a serving plate. Makes 14 rolls.
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