UPDATE (10/1/11) - America's Test Kitchen took a look at this post and tried to figure out what I did wrong. You can read their response here: Exploding Cinnamon Rolls
I'm still not sure what went wrong. What was supposed to be quick and tasty cinnamon buns (or, according to the recipe, Everyday Cinnamon Buns) turned into…well, that mess you see above.
It shouldn't have ended like this. Baking is mostly a precision science, which is why most bakers prefer using recipes that use weight instead of volume. It ensures a more consistent outcome with little surprises. So how did this recipe, which had weights for the dry ingredients, become so crazy? Better yet, this was a recipe from America's Test Kitchen! And it failed! Is nothing sacred anymore?
It started out innocently enough. I put my measuring bowl on the scale and weighed my flours and my sugars. I even converted the ounces to grams so I would be more accurate. I combined the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet in another, and the cinnamon sugar filling in a third. I was supposed to combine the wet and dry ingredients and stir until the dough looked shaggy. Leaving aside the problem that I'm not totally sure what "shaggy dough" looks like, I gave everything a good stir until it looked like everything was combined.
I turned the dough out onto a baking sheet which I had floured liberally. See, my baking sheet is 12 x 18, and I eventually needed to pat the dough into a 9 x 12 rectangle. "Perfect," I thought, "I'll just pat the dough into half of the baking sheet and I'll be good to go!" I was so pleased with myself for devising this plan. In the end, it's probably the best decision I made because it allowed me to salvage the end product…but I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was warned in the recipe that the dough would be sticky, and that I "should not be afraid to add more flour" if it was difficult to manage. That one line did not prepare me for just how sticky this glob was. When I think of sticky dough, I imagine small amounts adhering to my hands. This dough covered my entire hand every time I tried to do something with it. The goal was to knead it just a few times until it came together, but I was having enough of a problem just picking it up. Each time I tried, it took the whole baking sheet with it.
Every minute or two, I washed my hands off in the sink so I could grab more flour from the bag and throw it onto the baking sheet and the dough. As my wrestling match with the dough progressed, I started to worry. By my estimation, I had used at least half a cup of flour, if not more, and the dough was only starting to get easier to handle. I was worried about adding too much flour and overworking the dough. In retrospect, this was a stupid concern, because if I had overworked the dough, there would have been high gluten development and the dough would not have been a sticky mess. But you can probably guess this was not my time for wholly rational thought.
Eventually, I reached a point where the dough could be molded without coating my palms. I gave up on the kneading, and began to pat the dough into shape, throwing a little bit more flour here and there as I worked. Once I reached the right dimensions, I brushed on some melted butter and spread the filling mixture on top. I pressed the filling in as best I could, though there was a lot of loose sugar and cinnamon on the surface that was less enmeshed with the butter and dough. With that done, I prepared to roll the dough up.
That's when things began to fall apart. Literally. As I used a spatula to lift the dough up and roll it, tears appeared everywhere. Filling began to spill out through the bottom like sand in an hourglass. And no matter how hard I tried to seal the holes with more dough, the dough (ironically) wouldn't stick together (I assume because of the butter). In the end, I somehow managed to make something that was vaguely log shaped but was torn on one side. I'll confess that I didn't follow instructions exactly; the recipe suggests using a metal spatula or a bench scraper to lift the dough, but I used a silicon spatula. Still, I don't think it should have made such a difference with this step.
I ended up with a log of dough that had one side completely in shambles. The place where I was supposed to seal the dough shut had become a mess of dough, butter, and filling, and was barely holding together. When I tried to roll the log down the sheet so the seam would be on the bottom, I ended up with more tearing. I threw my hands up, hoped for the best, and started cutting individual slices off the log for rolls. That didn't last very long. The dough tore even more, and the first two slices I made left me with dough scraps and some filling while a mess of cinnamon sugar remained behind in the pan.
At this point, I wasn't sure what to do. Keep on cutting and hope that subsequent rolls would be easier? I didn't have much faith in that, given the first couple of slices. Throw the whole thing away? That didn't make much sense either, because the taste of the log was (presumably) still good, even if the final assembly was disastrous. So I said, "What the hell," and decided to try baking the whole log (now deemed a loaf) in the oven. I didn't know how to adjust the temperature for the loaf from the original bun recipe, so I left it as it was. In my final act of attempting to make sense of the whole thing, I tried moving the log off the sheet onto a piece of parchment paper, but the log started to tear even more, so I let it be. I covered it with foil as the recipe instructed and threw the whole thing into the oven. When the time came to remove the foil midway through baking, it stuck on and pulled a layer of dough with it.
As the baking continued, it occurred to me that the loaf might be in danger of "exploding." There was a fair amount of baking powder and soda in the dough, and I believed that in the loaf shape, it could expand too quickly and release a burst of cinnamon sugar filling all over my oven. I ran out from my room to the kitchen and yanked open the oven door, only to see that the various tears in the dough had taken care of my problem for me. All around the loaf were puddles of burning sugar, leaking from various locations. So I guess the tears were helpful after all.
After about 30 minutes of baking I pulled the loaf out of the oven and put it on a cooling rack. Of course, the loaf couldn't resist one last shot at me, and promptly tore in two when I tried lifting it off the sheet. Torn, slightly burnt, and with a bottom soaked in melted sugar, the "exploding" cinnamon loaf lay on my cooling rack with the air of a beached whale. When it was cool enough to eat, I tried a piece. Thankfully, despite every effort to thwart me, the end result tasted quite good.
So where did I mess up in this recipe? I haven't been able to figure it out. The only thing I can think of is that I didn't knead the dough enough before shaping it. But the reason I didn't knead it that long was because I couldn't imagine a recipe essentially leaving out a cup of flour from the recipe. So I'd lay the fault with the recipe's construction. Either add some more flour at the beginning or state clearly in the recipe that a large amount of flour may be needed towards the end. And I'd probably reduce the quantity of the filling, too.
Making this recipe has taught me a few things. One, America's Test Kitchen can make mistakes. Two, even some of the most hopeless messes can be turned into great successes. And third, the next time I want cinnamon buns, I should just make a cinnamon swirl loaf of bread. It's basically the same thing as this loaf but with less sugar.
And, hopefully, less danger of exploding.