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you’re a good apple

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
[print recipe]
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
1 egg
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.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

strawberry cinnamon rolls apple cider doughnuts apple cider pancakes apple fritters

19 nibbles at “you’re a good apple”

  1. Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar says:

    Holy delicious! These are stunning. And are such a cool flavour!

  2. Kristin says:

    I really want to make these, but I need some house guests who will eat apples in things. My wacky kids love them, but only in their original state. These sound and look amazing. Thank you for sharing your eclipse pictures. I love it when you share composites.

  3. Katie says:

    Those look amazing! Do you have any tips for making them a day in advance? Thank you!

  4. Alanna says:

    Oh wow, these look like they’re worth every step, like fall epitomized and rolled up in a gooey bun. Yum! Those eclipse pictures are just stunning.

  5. Jan says:

    Oh God… I want one of these so BAAAD!!! They look fabulous. Also your eclipse pics. Spectacular!!!

  6. Bette says:

    Yum! I love apples, too. I noticed your Le Creuset spoon — I can’t tell you how excited I was to find left-handed versions of these on Amazon — I bought several, for myself and another leftie friend. ;-)

  7. Joy says:

    I am definitely making these this weekend! If I wanted to start making these the night before, where would you suggest is a good stopping point? I was thinking of either putting the dough in the fridge overnight for the first rise or after they’ve been shaped….

  8. jill says:

    Oh my…..these look like a lot of work! But they look so yummy. Love the eclipse shots…especially the last one. wow.

    We had an apple tree in the backyard when we lived in Illinois. Our dog, Anna, would love to play apple ball. Unlike a Lab, she tired of the game…I always knew it was over when she ate the ball.

  9. farmerpam says:

    Wow, just wow. Been on a serious ass reduction plan and really have not been interested in sweets lately. But these, these I’d take a bite out of, I will be making them, today. I have everything needed and it’s rainy, damp and grey out. And to think I was going to force myself to put on the rain gear and hike. My family will thank you.

  10. farmerpam says:

    Okay, I’m sitting here right now with a hot cup of coffee and one of these buns. Wow, just wow. Tomorrow I’ll hike it off. Very, very good. (I loaded it up with extra apples, the illusion of healthy, right?) And I had never done the sugar thing, “be patient and keep stirring” was my mantra, it worked, and my fear of having to sandblast the pan to remove the stuck sugar bits was unfounded. Fun technique, fun recipe, thanks Jen.

  11. Audrey says:

    The only time I tried to bake cinnamon rolls, the filling was butter cut into the cinnamon sugar…but when I put it in the oven, the butter started melting very quickly and the rolls were soaked in 1 inch of butter for the whole cooking time. In the end the rolls were too greasy, really nauseating…I was so disappointed. I must say that I had never tasted it before (I’m French) but it looked so good, just like yours. Do you think there was something wrong with proportions (3/4 cup of brown sugar instead of 1 cup of both sugars for your recipe) or is the filling meant to be cold? I’m really frustrated as I am a fan a cinnamon but I’m scared now to try it again!

  12. jenyu says:

    Katrina – :)

    Kristin – you’re welcome!

    Katie – For a day in advance, I’d probably make the caramel sauce and dough the first day (refrigerate the dough). Then do the rest on the second day. Or you can assemble them and place them in the refrigerator to slow the rise, then take them out to rise and bake them the next morning?

    Alanna – totally tastes like autumn!

    Jan – thank you :)

    Bette – :)

    Joy – Like I said to Katie, you can either make the caramel and dough the night before (place dough in the fridge) or make it all the way to assembling and placing them in the baking pan and then covering and refrigerating. Take them out in the morning and let them rise before baking.

    jill – unlike a lab, she didn’t try to eat every single apple on the ground! ;)

    farmerpam – so so so happy you like them and really glad it worked out. Totally love loading it up with apples too.

    Audrey – hmmm, I don’t know what might have gone wrong? I think the presence of flour in the mixture helps to keep it within the bun rather than at the bottom. Perhaps try a half batch to see if it works?

  13. ailo says:

    Oh man. I live in Sydney so I’ll have to wait till April to try this. The ONLY way I’ve found to get real, unfiltered, non-alcoholic cider is was to go to a orchard with a juice press and have them give me the raw unfiltered cider before they went on to filter and pasteurize and bottle everything. I had to explain the whole concept to my coworkers, but they were a fan when I brought jugs of it in and made everyone try it! I had to rent a car to do it, but it was so worth it :)

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  15. Leigh says:

    I’m going to attempt to make these tomorrow. What kind of apples did you use?

  16. jenyu says:

    Leigh – I used honeycrisp apples (it’s all I had), but granny smith would probably be good too.

  17. Gabrielle says:

    Oh my goodness. I just made these and I couldn’t wait for my boyfriend to get home before I dug into one–which was a mistake, because they’re so good that I need to tell someone about it and there’s no one here. I’ve resorted to texting tantalizing cinnamon roll photos to my parents across the country, which seems unfair.

  18. Magpie says:

    Made this for Christmas breakfast. Yum! I did skip the step of boiling the cider down and used bottled boiled syrup which someone had given me. King Arthur has it. Thanks for the recipe.

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