What Southern Folks Eat - Homemade cinnamon rolls with Mrs. Classen
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” - Laurie Colwin
I know I’ve proclaimed this before, but it bears repeating: I was raised by a wonderful Southern cook. Not gourmet Southern, just good ol' buttermilk-biscuit-fried-chicken-mashed potatoes-and-gravy Southern. And it was good. However, mama never baked breads with yeast, to my knowledge, when I was a child. I thought making one’s own rolls and breads was exotic and difficult, something only real chefs could do, as a result of her not having tried her hand at it early on.
That misconception was corrected years later when I met Mrs. Classen. She is the mother of my husband’s best friend, Kevin. The Classens are a Mennonite family; I had never encountered Mennonite folks before, either, when growing up in Port St. Joe. They were very hospitable and kind to me, and had a simple, neat home, which I really admired. And oh, the food. The food Mrs. Classen prepared was amazing, and no one left her home hungry. I’m certain it’s still that way today, especially when all the children and grandchildren are home.
Mrs. Classen was very kind to me from the start. I was a young wife who knew just a handful of things to cook. One Sunday their family was going to join our little family for Sunday dinner after church; Justin, now nearly 24, was just a baby then. I had been given a set of enamel-coated pots and pans with strawberries on the sides as a wedding gift, but hadn’t used them much at that point. I decided to make the one thing in those pots that I was pretty certain I couldn’t mess up: spaghetti.
I made my spaghetti sauce in the pretty Dutch oven, using the best ingredients: fresh tomatoes and herbs, and tomato sauce that had been canned by a neighbor. I wanted to keep it warm for lunch, and decided it would be ok to leave the pot simmering on low heat for the hour or so I’d be at church, which was right next door.
That was a mistake.
The sauce scorched on the bottom in that inexpensive enameled Dutch oven, and the whole pot of sauce tasted burnt. There was nothing I could do to correct it! However, with characteristic graciousness, the Classen clan, and following their sweet mother's example, said it was delicious and ate it all up. Mr. Classen even asked for seconds.
That enamel Dutch oven went into the garbage can the next day; I was not amused. But I have kept with me the memory of how kind they were to me that day, putting my feelings ahead of their own. I try to do the same for others, though I fail too often.
Mrs. Classen also taught me to make her homemade cinnamon rolls. She patiently explained it all on the phone to me, as I wrote down all her words on a blank page in my Good Housekeeping cookbook. I still refer to it, though the ink has faded quite a bit. Every time I do, I think of her helping me on the phone that day, and it makes me smile.
This is part of what I love about cooking and baking: the connection to the past it affords us, and the reaching forward into the future. By patiently teaching each other, we give each other ideas and encouragement, we feel useful, and we are inspired. We who cook and bake should always keep our eyes open for others who would like to learn. It’s part of preserving our region's heritage.
I enjoy sharing recipes not only with you in this paper and on my television segment in Texas, but also with random individuals who approach me in grocery stores, at church, or on the phone, to ask questions about how to make bread, or what the best way to freeze peas might be, for example. Passing down what we know not only preserves our food heritage, but it also shows another human being that there is kindness in the world. That kindness can be shared whether your craft is cooking, carpentry, writing, drawing, gardening, or working on cars. Just share.
I will pass on to you now the recipe Mrs. Classen shared with me years ago. It makes a nice large batch of rolls, so make sure to have someone in mind to share them with. Alternatively, if you would like to freeze them, just roll them up, cut them, and then freeze them on a sheet pan. Once frozen, place them in freezer bags until ready to use. Then you can thaw them, allow them to rise, and proceed with baking and icing them.
Mrs. Classen’s Cinnamon Rolls
1 1/2 cups scalded milk, cooled
2 packets yeast (I use Fleischman’s Rapid Rise)
1/2 cup warm water
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup shortening or oil
2 teaspoons salt
7 cups plain flour
Dissolve yeast in the warm water. Set aside in a warm spot to “proof,” which will be evident when it becomes bubbly and foamy on top.
Cream eggs, sugar, shortening, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add yeast mixture. Mix well with warm (but no longer HOT) milk.
Add flour, two cups at a time, to make soft dough. (Some days, seven cups seems like it will make the dough too dry. Once you get to six cups, judge whether the dough is really wet and sticky, and if it is, add 1/2 cup more, and see if that’s enough. If it still seems too wet, add the last 1/2 cup.)
Place ball of dough into large, oiled bowl. (just a teaspoon or two of oil, spread around the surface of the bowl.) Flip the dough over so all sides are lightly coated with oil. Cover loosely with a clean dish towel, or with a sheet of plastic wrap that has been sprayed with Pam. Place bowl in a warm spot to rise until double; this may take up to two hours.
Punch down the dough after it has doubled. Then, let it rest for five minutes.
[NOTE: At this point, you can use this dough to make dinner rolls with the dough by pinching off walnut-sized pieces of dough, rolling each piece between your hands into a smooth ball, and placing on a lightly greased or parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Cover these again with clean cloth or plastic wrap that you’ve sprayed with Pam to keep it from sticking to the rolls. Allow to rise until double, about one hour, and then bake at 350 until brown on top. I then rub butter on their tops when they’re still hot from the oven. Serve warm, or cool on a baking rack if using later.]
To make the cinnamon rolls:
Once the dough has rested, divide in half, and place one half on surface which you’ve sprinkled with powdered sugar.
With rolling pin, roll dough out until it is about 1/2 inch thick. (With practice, you can make this a nice, uniform rectangle of dough.)
Completely cover the dough with softened butter, preferably room temperature. Cover every inch of it! Then sprinkle it generously with ground cinnamon, then completely cover with brown sugar; light or dark brown, whatever you prefer.
Now, begin rolling the dough from the longest side, keeping it nice and tight, not floppy. When you have it in a nice long log, you can use a serrated knife to gently slice the log into rolls, about 1 1/2 inch thick. Alternatively, you may use unflavored dental floss to slide under the log, then lift through the dough, then criss-cross the floss at the top of the log to cut through the dough.
Place the rolls on a non-stick baking sheet (or line sheets with parchment paper) to rise in a warm spot for about an hour. Cover loosely again with the clean cloth or sprayed plastic wrap. (Sometimes we don’t wait the full hour; even in 30 minutes they will rise enough to be wonderful and they’ll rise even more in the oven as they bake.)
Bake the rolls at 350 degrees for about ten minutes, or just until lightly browned. You don’t want to overcook them, or the edges will become hard.
Cinnamon roll icing:
2/3 cup melted butter
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
4-8 tablespoons hot water, as needed
In medium-sized bowl, mix melted butter, powdered sugar, salt and vanilla; add hot water 1 tablespoon at a time until glaze reaches desired spreading consistency. Spread over slightly-cooled rolls.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I have had these turn out perfectly on many occasions, and have given them as gifts to happy receivers. On the other hand, some of my batches have not been as perfect, and the reasons for that have varied: too much flour, too much humidity in the house, or baking too long. It definitely takes practice. When they're perfect, though, they're extraordinary: tender, flaky, and full of cinnamon flavor! My boys have always devoured them happily whether they were too crisp, not as high as usual, or just right, so it's always worth it to me to try again.
I hope you and your loved ones enjoy them, too!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com and at Facebook.com/whatsouthernfolkseat. You can email her via firstname.lastname@example.org.