Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Non-Exploding Cinnamon Rolls!

Last month, I wrote a post about attempting to make cinnamon buns using a recipe from America's Test Kitchen. Needless to say, it didn't go very well (let's face it, I named it "Exploding Cinnamon Loaf" for a reason.) In response, America's Test Kitchen wrote a post on their site in an attempt to figure out where I went wrong. They suggested two things that might have contributed to my failure: 1) Converting the measurements from ounces to grams, and 2) Using a baking sheet instead of the countertop when working with the dough.

I'll address the countertop issue later in this post, but I want to talk about the gram/ounce conversion right away. (Warning: math lesson follows) My kitchen scale is accurate to one decimal place when using ounces and to zero decimal places when using grams. 1 ounce is equal to 28 grams, so 0.1 ounce is equal to 2.8 grams. This means when I have to deal with really tiny fractions like 1/8 ounce, it's much more accurate for me to use grams instead of ounces. 1/8 ounce is 0.125 ounces, but it's 3.5 grams. If I use grams, I would only be off by half a gram, which is about 0.017 ounces. Using ounces, I'd be off from anywhere from 0.025 to 0.075 ounces. So I highly doubt that using grams instead of ounces played a significant role in the cinnamon rolls failing. (Math lesson over.)

As I prepared to make my second run at the cinnamon buns, I decided that there was no way I would do this half-assed. The last time, I used a silicon spatula when rolling the dough, despite America's Test Kitchen's directions to use a metal spatula or bench scraper. So I went out and bought myself a bench scraper, just in case. I have to say, as someone who's never had a bench scraper before, it's pretty awesome. Though I don't recommend walking around town holding one; you look like you're carrying a large razor blade.

I began baking the same way I did before. Measured out my dry ingredients (this time with ounces), combined my wet ingredients in a separate bowl, then mixed the two together with the wooden spoon. Immediately, I noticed the dough come together much better than the last time. I finished the stirring, then floured my counter and turned out the dough.  I started kneading the dough and discovered that it was nowhere near as sticky as the last time. Could the problem really have just been the ounces/gram conversion? As I thought about it, I realized it was something much simpler: last time, I used the wrong flour.

This recipe uses whole wheat flour in an attempt to make the cinnamon buns healthier than the average cinnamon bun. Last time, I used the only whole wheat flour in my pantry: white whole wheat flour. This time, I remembered to get "real" whole wheat flour for the recipe. It may not seem like a big deal, but it all comes down to water absorption. Whole wheat flour (the brownish stuff) can absorb up to 13% more liquid than white all-purpose flour. While I don't know what the percentages are for white whole wheat flour, I imagine that it also cannot adsorb as much liquid as whole wheat flour. So the reason my first attempt was so sticky was that it didn't absorb all the liquid in the recipe. And if you're asking why America's Test Kitchen didn't catch that in their response, it's because I didn't mention it in the original post. Above all else, I think this is why my first cinnamon buns failed so miserably. 

That being said, I must admit that using the counter helped a lot as well. It was much easier to knead on the counter than on a surface that moved around. The dough was still stickier than I would have expected or liked, but it was nowhere close to the ungodly mess I was trying to work with before. Soon, I shaped by dough into a 9 x 12 inch rectangle (with help from the bench scraper's ruler). I spread some melted butter on the surface and sprinkled on the filling. 

Now was the moment of truth: could I roll the dough up without al the tears and spills from the last attempt? Well, sort of. Using the bench scraper did make things much easier, but  at the last roll of the dough log it tore. I did a slightly better job at patching things up, but it still wasn't great. What I was able to do this time around was roll the entire log so the tear was on the bottom where I'd cut through it anyway. I used the ruler on the bench scraper to figure out where I'd need to cut the log and made corresponding indentations. I cut the individual rolls, but discovered that my serrated knife wasn't long enough and the resulting rolls where a little uneven and torn. Still, they remained cohesive enough to arrange in the pan without too much difficulty.

I covered the pan with foil and stuck it in the oven. Midway through the baking, I removed the foil and kept a close eye on their progress. I had some problems figuring out whether they were brown enough, but I eventually made a decision and pulled them out. I inverted them onto the cooling rack and let them sit there for a moment. This seems like another time to pull out the "beached whale" metaphor I used last time, but I want something more upbeat, so let's say that they lay there like…a giant block of cinnamon awesomeness. Yeah, that's it.

Eventually, I turned them right-side up and marveled at the awesomeness. Abandoning the idea of frosting again (really, I don't need more sugar), I carefully removed a roll from the block and took a bite. It was very, very good. I didn't discern too much of a difference in taste from the exploding cinnamon loaf, other than the loaf was drier. But I was glad to have something I could share with others that didn't require me to rip off random sized pieces and scrape off burnt sugar.

In the end, I still think there's some procedural issues with this recipe, but it was a significantly better experience than the first attempt. One thing I might try if I do this again is using dental floss for the cutting instead of the serrated knife. I also think I need to work the dough some more on the counter before shaping it. But with the use of the right flour and the some additional equipment, I can move this recipe from the "complete and utter failure" category to the "pretty good but needs a bit of tweaking" category. 

Not bad, if you ask me.