Recipe: Grandma’s pecan cinnamon rolls

Dough before the first rise.
Dough before the first rise.

I have very fond memories of Grandma A.’s pecan rolls as a particularly Christmas-y treat. I know it’s now past Christmas, so posting this recipe is arguably unseasonal, if that’s even a word, but I made these for Christmas and I don’t see why every discussion of food after December 31 has to switch from cookies, roasts, and fried stuff to salads, “detox” smoothies, and broth. I like to see some lighter fare in December, and there’s room for treats in January as well!

Dough after the first rise and mixed-up filling.
Dough after the first rise and mixed-up filling.

Anyway, back when my Dad’s parents lived across the street from my immediate family (in the house my parents now live in), we would often receive a Christmas tree-shaped tray of breakfast rolls, filled with a sugary pecan-cinnamon swirl and covered with a thick caramelized pecan, brown sugar, and cinnamon topping. We’d usually heat them up for breakfast on Christmas morning, after the opening of the stockings but before we got to open our presents. I absolutely loved them.

Rolled-out dough is spread with filling, then rolled widthwise.
Rolled-out dough is spread with filling, then rolled widthwise.

So, of course, I tried to re-create them this year! Since I didn’t want to bother Grandma too much, I just worked with my memory (and my parents’ memories) and a rather sparsely-written recipe; I think Grandma basically knew the recipe and just wrote down some notes, so I had to make up some of the proportions for the filling. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to make the topping, so I just baked the rolls on Christmas Eve with a brushing of butter on top to prevent them from drying out. In the morning, I mixed up some more cinnamon, brown sugar, and chopped walnuts (we didn’t have any pecans), sprinkled it over the pan of rolls, topped each roll with a pat of butter, and stuck them in the oven until the topping melted together a bit. Meanwhile, my parents were telling me, “You know, I think Grandma used to put the topping on the bottom of the pan, then put the rolls in, then let them rise again [something I also didn’t do, because I missed that part of the recipe], and then flipped them onto a tray.” I’m sure they’re right; the improvised topping I made wasn’t nearly as rich or stuck-together as I remember.

Buns brushed with butter, about to go into the oven.
Buns brushed with butter, about to go into the oven.
Baked, but not quite done...
Baked, but not quite done…

Regardless, they tasted nearly as awesome as I remembered, despite my mess-ups! I think I’d try making them as my parents suggested next time, with the topping on the bottom and the extra rising time. Spelt doughs don’t seem to do as well as wheat doughs in their second rises, but having them packed together in a pan should keep them from spreading too much.

Christmas morning prep: we mixed up some more chopped walnuts, brown sugar and cinnamon, spread it over the rolls, and topped each with a tiny pat of butter. (This is making up for me forgetting about the original topping, which is supposed to caramelize on the bottom of the pan and  get flipped on top at the end).
Christmas morning prep: we mixed up some more chopped walnuts, brown sugar and cinnamon, spread it over the rolls, and topped each with a tiny pat of butter. (This is making up for me forgetting about the original topping, which is supposed to caramelize on the bottom of the pan and get flipped on top at the end).

Thanks, Grandma!

Done, and tasty despite my slight, unintentional changes to the recipe!
Done, and tasty despite my slight, unintentional changes to the recipe!

Pecan Cinnamon Rolls

Adapted from family recipe.

Yield: ~ 15 rolls (2 8×8 inch pans)

Dough:
1 Tbsp yeast dissolved in 1.25 c warm water
6 Tbsp melted butter
6 Tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt
4-5 c flour (I did 2.5 c wholegrain spelt and 2 c white spelt)

Filling (make 3-4x this amount for a bottom-baked topping):
1 c pecans (or walnuts), chopped
3 Tbsp melted butter
6 Tbsp dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp cinnamon

Extra butter for greasing and topping

Combine all dough ingredients in a large bowl and knead until well combined and springy. Cover in bowl and let rise until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

For the filling, combine all ingredients in bowl and stir to combine.

After rising, move dough onto floured work surface and shape into rectangle. Roll out into a large rectangle, about 1/4-1/2 inch thick and the size of a baking sheet. Spread evenly with filling (it should be a relatively thin layer). Roll width-wise (so that you get a longer roll rather than a shorter one). If necessary, stretch roll out until it is about 3 inches in diameter. Slice with a sharp knife into equal-sized pieces (mine were about 1.5 inches thick). I laid them in the (greased) pans at this point. If you want to try the bottom-baked topping, spread remaining filling mixture evenly over the bottoms of the well-greased pans, then add the sliced rolls.

At this point, I did not do a second rise, but I would recommend letting them rise at least 30 minutes in the pan for additional volume.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Brush tops of rolls with melted butter and move to oven. Bake 15-20 minutes, until tops are golden brown but rolls are still soft.

If you did make the bottom-baked topping, invert rolls onto a baking sheet/serving tray.

If you didn’t do the caramelized bottom-baked topping, make 1-2 more batches of the topping and spread that over the top of the rolls. You can either do this before baking, or (if you want to make these the night before, say, and heat them up in the morning) about 10 minutes before serving, followed by about 10 minutes in a 375 degree F oven or 3-5 minutes under a broiler, until topping starts to caramelize and rolls are hot.

Serve warm. Goes very well with tart cranberry jam.

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