Deb's Mom's Sweet Rolls

Geri Sullivan asked me to write down this recipe for sweet rolls, but she hadn't really bargained on what that would mean.  "Do you mind giving people the recipe?" she asked.  "Well, no, not at all," sez I.  The problem is that I'm not a recipe writer, and in order to do the sweet roll thing right, you really need to have watched my Mom make them for about 25 years (as I did) before trying them yourself.  Mine are good; Mom's are still better.

I believe the original recipe for the dough (from which all sweetrollness flows) appeared in the 1955 version of the Joy of Cooking (which should be subtitled "Primer for the Kitchen").  Now, I wouldn't give you two hoots for a lot of the actual "cooking" recipes in there (which involve instant this and canned that), but the baking recipes should never have been messed with by subsequent editions or editors.

This is a yeast dough.  Making sweet rolls is really an all-day occupation, so I never bother to make a single batch.  (One of Mom's kitchen lessons:  it takes almost as much energy to make 12 pies as it does to make 1.)  They freeze spectacularly well (baked), and that way you have sweet rolls for those cold, nasty, snowy winter mornings.

Deb's rule:  never use substandard ingredients.  This calls for butter, sugar, and real eggs.  Use them.  Screwing around and trying to cheap out will result in a substandard product.  I don't waste my time making substandard products.  My time is more valuable than that.

Yeast dough

Make starter sponge of:
Whisk yeast into milk (or vice versa -- this is very forgiving).  Stir in flour, mushing down lumps and stuff.  Cover with a towel or with plastic wrap (plastic wrap does better), and let it do its thing for 15 minutes or so in a warmish place.

In mixing bowl, beat

Beat the butter until it's fluffy, add in sugar and beat that until it's fluffy again.  Add the eggs 1 at a time. 

 [Digression #1:  the eggs.  I always buy extra large eggs, since they're nearly the same price as the large.  And I always use 3 eggs in this recipe, since I believe in being at the top of the range.  Your mileage may vary.  Remember: this is a very forgiving recipe.] 

 Sprinkle in the salt while beating, and ditto the grated lemon rind.  

[Digression #2:  the lemon rind.  You can buy either grated lemon peel or grated citrus peel in the grocery store's spice section.  Either works fine.  Or, if you have no memory and leave the store with everything you need except the lemon peel again, as usual, you can use a grater and make your own.  It will impart a more assertive lemon tone.  Orange can also be used.]

Beat in the sponge you've had rising.  If you can't figure out why it's called a sponge, it's not ready to add.

Beat in, in 1/2-3/4 cup increments, ~3 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour.  (I use King Arthur flour.  I've discovered that if I use the bleached kind, it seems to impart a strange overtone to my sweet rolls, but this is possibly psychological.)

The dough will be sticky, but it will have body.  Plop it into a good-sized metal bowl (at least three times larger than the dough blob) and cover with a towel or with plastic wrap.  Let rise until doubled.

Making the Sweet Rolls

You will now have the basis for about a bazillion kinds of sweet rolls.  The kind I most often make for large crowds are a filled, rolled sweet roll that's then slathered in a farm-style frosting.  I'm going to give you the general information, but you'll have to experiment with proportions (which are never really exact).  You may also use this dough to make cinnamon pull-apart or sticky buns or others of your own devising.

Rolled Sweet Rolls

These are filled with any number of flavors of filling.  I've made them filled with almond paste, poppy seed paste, apple, apricot, cherry, and raspberry.  And I cheat.  As my mother before me did cheat.  We use a line of fillings called Solo.  With the wonders of the internet, you can find these fillings online.  If you're even luckier, your grocery store will carry them.  They're in unassuming cans, and they'll either be in the Kosher foods section or in the baking section of your store. Use one can per sweetroll.  Stir 'em up first.

Take a blob of dough.  For each batch you make (above), this will be about 1/3-1/2 of the dough.  Spread it out to form a rectangle, slightly wider than it is deep.  It'll be roughly 10 x 14 inches or so.  Don't spread it too thin.  (You can use a rolling pin, but this is easier done by hand.  It's a very butter-heavy dough, so it won't stick to your hands.)  Spread the dough out on waxed paper.  It's much easier to handle the finished product by hoisting it on the paper.  Smear one can or slightly less of the filling on the dough, and spread evenly, leaving about 1.5 inches as an uncoated border all around the sweetroll.

Starting at the back (it's easier for me), roll toward you like a jelly-roll.  When it's tightly rolled, transfer the roll to a greased baking sheet (11 x 17), preferably seam-side down.  (If the seam's at the top, don't worry.)  Curve this roll around until you have a single loop, and mush together to form a seal.  Using a sharp knife, you will make a series of cuts all around the perimeter of the dough, going about 1/3 of the roll deep, and spacing the cuts about 1 to 1.5 inches apart.  When all of the cuts have been made, take each of the sections formed and curve toward you so that you make a decorative, consistent pattern with the filling showing.

Cover the sweet roll with a towel and allow to rise about 1 hour.  Bake at 350 F.  Urm.  For a while.  About 1/2 an hour.  They'll turn a light golden brown on the top.  Press inside the circle to ensure done-ness.  Remove from oven, leave on pans, and allow to cool.

Frosting for Rolled Sweet Rolls

Until I was in graduate school, I only knew two kinds of frosting:  Mom's and store-bought.  A friend of mine showed me "boiled icing," and my country heart quailed at all of that work for something that didn't taste like much of anything.  This frosting is easy.  Why do people use canned? It's a vanilla frosting, and I make no apologies for vanilla in this case.  It's rich enough.  Don't mess with it.

Allow the butter to soften while the sweet rolls are rising.  After you take the sweet rolls out of the oven, but before you go to bed (large window of opportunity), beat the hell out of the butter.  Add some confectioner's sugar and continue beating the hell out of it.  Dump in the vanilla.  Beat the stuff some more.  You're going to use up all of the confectioner's sugar, but only as much cream as you absolutely have to have.  Don't add in cream until you see how stiff the frosting is.  Then add it by teaspoons, and slowly.  Beat between teaspoons.  You want this to be firm, spreadable, and not mushy.  I love my KitchenAid.

Frost the sweet rolls (it is not necessary to cover every square inch.  In fact, you want to frost the insides of that circle and leave the oozing outsides unfrosted.  It's more attractive.).  Don't be faint-hearted about this; thin frosting layers are a sign of a weak mind.  Once it's frosted, you can decorate as you wish.  At Christmas, Mom always made these large, round sweet rolls into something looking like a holly wreath by sprinkling green colored sugar around the white frosting and decorating with red hots (holly berries).  Use some blanched almonds on the almond filled ones.  Sprinkle poppy seeds on the poppy-seed filled. Maybe some cinnamon on the Dutch apple.  Etc.

Cut the finished product like a pie.  Serve wedges with lots of fresh coffee or tea. 

Here's the finished product (in raspberry):

Cinnamon Pull-Apart

You see this done in stores a lot.  It's pretty sad.  The first time I ever had grocery-store bakery pull-aparts, I almost sobbed, missing Mom's.  Why?  Well, it's really all about the butter.

To make this, start with the dough.  Grab a hunk out of the bowl after it's risen.  You're going to chop slices off of this hunk, dunk them in melted butter, dunk them in cinnamon sugar, then toss with great elan into a pan.  Melt a stick of butter.  (No, not margarine.)  Mix up some cinnamon sugar (heavy on the cinnamon).  If you grew up in a family that didn't put cinnamon sugar on toast, I'm very sorry.  You'll use granulated sugar and good ground cinnamon.  I'd say about a cup of sugar and about 1-2 tablespoons of cinnamon.  Maybe more.  Go with what you like.

Lop off a slice of dough.  Dunk in melted butter (immerse that sucker) and dribble off the extra butter.  Dredge in cinnamon sugar.  Put in a loaf pan or ring pan. You're going to want to put subsequent pieces in after, not on top of, the first.  You're sort of stacking side-ways.  As you work, remember that this will rise to double its bulk.  You'll want the pan to be roughly 1/2 full of dunked, dredged dough.  When you've got the pan filled to that level or a bit more, cover with a towel and let rise about 1 hour.  Bake at 350 F. until the smell drives you wild and the sweet roll is firm to the touch.  That's about 1/2 hour or a bit more.

Remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack until you can handle the pan.  Invert the pan onto the rack.  The pull-apart should hold its shape, more or less.  You can wrap it up or eat it standing at the counter.  Your choice.

Sticky Buns

These are really the most evil of the bunch in many ways.  Mom always made them in a brick, using an 8x8 or 9x9 inch pan, and you'd break off or neatly slice yourself a roll.  Then she started using muffin tins for individual rolls.  I think the brick-style are more evil than the singletons.  I'm sure there are reasons for it.  I don't know what they are.

In a pan on low heat, place:

Put the butter at the bottom.  Then the sugar, then the syrup.  Leave on low heat.  Do not touch, stir, or mess with it.  When the butter is melted completely, stir it all together thoroughly and remove from heat.

Put an even amount of this syrup in the bottoms of muffin tins, or pour into the bottom of an 8x8 or 9x9 inch pan.  Don't fill to more than about 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep.  Drop whole pecan halves into the syrup, face down.  Try not to leave many gaps, but do not overlap the pecans.  (You may also use chopped nuts sprinkled on the goop.)

Take one hunk of sweetroll dough, about the amount you'd used for a filled sweetroll.  Pat it out to a rectangle, as above for filled sweet rolls.  You're going to spread the top of the dough with melted butter (don't be stingy), then sprinkle (with a heavy hand) with cinnamon sugar.  Roll up like a jelly roll.  Cut into slices about 1.5-2 inches thick.  Place one slice in each of the muffin tins.  If using a square pan, plan on about 9 slices.  Mush them in.  This is also forgiving.

Cover rolls with a towel and allow to rise for about 1 hour.  Bake at 350 F. for about 1/2 hour (square pan) or 15-20 minutes (muffin tins).  Sweet rolls are done when the dough is lighly firm to the touch.  You'll probably have some spillage, and you'd best plan to run the oven-cleaning program that night.

Now comes the yecky part.  You've got to invert these to get them out.  That means some of the goop is going to become migratory.  If you haven't overfilled the pans, you're golden.  Unlikely.

Before inverting onto wire racks, I suggest you lay down waxed paper or something expendable to catch the excess syrup.  (You may also invert directly onto waxed paper.)

Allow to cool roughly 5 minutes in pan; invert pan.  Cool completely.  (Or at least until you won't burn the hell out of your mouth "sampling" the sweet rolls.)

These can be made without nuts, of course.


This is the single best dough I've ever found for using as a basis for sweet rolls.  It is forgiving, rich, and relatively easy.  Don't be threatened by the sponge, and just go with it.  Unfortunately, I can't tell you how it smells, looks, feels...after 25 years of observation and another 20 of making them myself, I know when it's right, but I can't describe it that easily.  If you're at Minicon 39, you can watch the process and taste the end results.

I have been told that people have confidence in my sweet rolls.

Deb Geisler
Middleton, Mass.
1 July 2003 (with notes added 9 December 2007)