Recipe: Spicy Sticky Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing

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I come from a generously-sized family, the sort that prompted wide eyes and under-the-breath counting from strangers who glimpsed our brood at the library or grocery store. I'll spare you the counting and say that I have five brothers and two sisters, so eight of us, plus parents, and now assorted spouses and in-laws. Christmas is an all-day affair for us, with stockings and enough presents to necessitate an intermission about halfway through unwrapping. But as we've grown up and gotten married, things have shifted; last year we did Christmas in the evening, instead of in the morning, and every holiday now has a marked absence of a sibling (or two) celebrating with someone else's family.

But there is one inviolable tradition that still binds our Christmases together, and that is my mother's cinnamon rolls.

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My mother's cinnamon rolls are warm and yeasty, prepared ahead of time but baked Christmas morning, enticing people out of bed (since we're now mostly too old to spring out of bed at 4:30am, or camp under the tree). My brothers anticipate them eagerly and devour them instantly.

On Christmas I leave the roll duties to my mother, since, you know, tradition. But I love her recipe and use it too, especially when we have overnight guests, since these rolls are so easy to make ahead and bake off in a few minutes. This recipe makes two dozen rolls, and I like to make a full batch but freeze half of them for impromptu brunches.

I do add my own twists; I like to go beyond cinnamon and add a few extra spices for aroma and taste. Star anise, cardamom, coriander — they add a little something special.

These cinnamon rolls are sweet, spicy, and decadent, and they can satisfy those who want a crunchy sugar glaze on the bottom and creamy icing on top. All it takes (all it ever takes, really) is a little extra butter and a little extra sugar. These are not a breakfast for those on a diet; these are not to be made every weekend. But when you're making cinnamon rolls, in my opinion it's best to go all out — they're a generous treat for family mornings, a tradition from my family to yours.

Par-baked cinnamon rolls about to go back in the oven.
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Spicy Sticky Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing

Makes 24 rolls

For the dough:
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
1 1/4 cup milk, lightly warmed
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 - 5 cups flour

For the filling:
4 small cinnamon sticks
1 star anise pod
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds or powder
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft

For the icing:
4 ounces cream cheese, very soft
1/2 cup milk or cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar, plus more as desired

To make the dough, sprinkle the yeast over the warmed milk in a large bowl and set aside for 5 minutes until slightly bubbly. With a whisk or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, beat in the sugar, softened butter, eggs, vanilla, and salt. Stir in the flour 1 cup at a time, until the dough is very thick.

Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and warm, or switch to the dough hook and knead in the stand mixer. Knead for about 5 minutes in the mixer, or 7 minutes by hand, until the dough is taut and smooth.

Wipe out the bowl and spray lightly with vegetable oil. Shape the dough into a ball and place in greased bowl, turning it to make sure it's coated in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 2 hours.

For the filling, grind the spices in a spice grinder until fine and mix with the brown sugar. (If you want to skip the extra spices or use powdered cinnamon instead of whole, substitute 3 to 4 tablespoons cinnamon for all the spices.) Cream the butter with the spices and sugar in a mixer or with hand beaters.

Lightly grease two 9-inch cake pans (a 9x13-inch pan works fine as well). On a floured surface roll the dough into a large rectangle, about 14 inches by 24 inches. When the dough is rolled out, slather it thickly with the creamed butter and sugar, making sure to spread it nearly to the edges. Roll up along the long side, stretching and pulling the dough into a taut and tight roll. Use a bench scraper or knife to cut into 24 individual rolls.

Divide the rolls among the prepared pans and let rise in a warm place until the rolls double in size — about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bake the rolls for about 20 minutes or until just beginning to brown.

Make-Ahead Instructions: To make the rolls ahead of time, follow the recipe up until baking. Par-bake the rolls for just 10 minutes. Remove the rolls and let them cool, then freeze them in their pans or in freezer bags. To finish baking, remove them from the freezer and let them thaw in the fridge overnight. Then bake in the morning at 350ºF for 10 to 15 minutes. Frost and serve warm. For more detailed instructions, read our tutorial on How To Freeze Cinnamon Rolls and Bake Them Later.

For the icing, beat the cream cheese, milk, vanilla, and sugar together, adding more powdered sugar as necessary to get the consistency you prefer. Drizzle over hot rolls with a fork. Serve warm.

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(Image credits: Faith Durand)

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