Plus, eight pro tips for making remarkable cinnamon rolls at home.
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Hummingbird Cinnamon Buns
Credit: Darcy Lenz

When I was first finding my footing as a baker, the idea of making cinnamon rolls from scratch intimidated me like nothing else. I mean, I could bake a decent enough loaf of bread. But... I also knew what it was to have your eyes roll back into your skull upon first biting into a warm Cinnabon. How was I, a mere mortal who wasn't even entirely sure how to write a check correctly, ever supposed to create yeasted, glazed magic like that? 

I'll tell you, my first stab at it wasn't the most encouraging experience. My buns were dense, tough, and severely lacking in the gooey-sweet charm department. However, with time, I continued to build baking confidence, skillful intuition, and a panache for research. Before impatiently hitting the kitchen, I first try to gain a certain understanding of what I'm going in to bake — what are the signatures of doing it well and what are the common mistakes to avoid?

So now, I stand before you today, not only quite comfy with making cinnamon rolls, but totally in love with experimenting and creating custom buns for all occasions. I don't say that to toot my own horn — after all, I still mess up writing checks on a regular basis — but to encourage any of you that may have homemade cinnamon bun phobias that you absolutely can do this.

The most recent installment in my own series of sweet bun adventures are these Hummingbird Cinnamon Buns. Inspired by the classic layer cake (which traditionally features banana, pineapple, pecans, and cream cheese frosting) these sweet dough swirls kind of just scream, spring is here let's have some bruuuuuuunch!! to me. 

Hummingbird Cinnamon Bun
Credit: Darcy Lenz

With a buttery banana-brown sugar filling, a pineapple-cream cheese icing, and plenty of toasty pecans throughout, the decadent twist on classic cinnamon rolls embodies all of the signatures of a Hummingbird Cake in a most delightful breakfast-appropriate packaging. They're perfect for any springtime occasion, and I have full confidence that both cinnamon roll savants and beginners alike can master this recipe on the first go. Here are eight tips to get you started on the right foot:

1. Be attentive to your yeast.

First thing, if you're pulling a packet of yeast from the dark depths of your pantry, double check the expiration date. While dry active yeast does have a substantial shelf life (up to two years if stored properly), I have certainly attempted to activate a package of yeast that I was sure "I bought not too long ago" only to discover it was dead. 

That said, even if you're working with yeast that you just recently purchased and feel confident about, you do still need to be considerate during the activation process. You'll need warm milk and a bit of sugar to bring your yeast to life. And this is one of those cases where temperature really does matter. If your milk isn't warm enough, your yeast may not fully activate; if your milk is too warm, it could very well kill the yeast. The ideal temperature range to stimulate your yeast to foamy life is 110 to 115 degrees F. 

Warming your milk over medium heat on the stovetop, you'll hit that range more quickly than you might think, which is why it really does pay off to break out a cooking thermometer for this. I genuinely hate telling people to go out and buy new equipment, but honestly, if you don't currently have one, this really is a worthwhile purchase — and for kitchen tasks far beyond bun baking. 

2. Allow your ingredients to come to room temp.

I'm specifically referring to your butter and egg yolks here. So you know how you just warmed your milk to the ideal temperature in order to make the yeast happy? That's because yeast thrives best in a gently warm environment, so allowing refrigerated ingredients to come to room temperature before incorporating them into your dough will ultimately create a more comfy, happy environment for your yeast to work in. And when your yeast is happy, you'll get a more powerful lift in the final product. Plus, having the butter cubes needed for the dough itself at room temperature will make it easier to incorporate them during mixing, helping to prevent over-working your dough. Softened butter is also necessary for creating the cinnamon buns' filling.

3. Don't underestimate instant potatoes.

That's right, that box of dehydrated potato flakes hanging out in your pantry for when you need a last minute side — it's a total hero when it comes to certain baked goods. I always include some in my sweet roll doughs because the instant potato flakes help to lock in moisture, which makes your buns more tender and keeps them fresh longer.  

4. Mix it good, but then stop.

Of course you need to mix your cinnamon bun dough thoroughly; it should pull away from the sides of the bowl, forming a smooth-ish looking, slightly tacky wad. Once you reach this state, immediately stop mixing. As with all glutinous dough, the more you work it, the tougher it becomes. You want to activate the gluten enough to form structure within the buns, but not so much that they're unpleasantly chewy. 

Hummingbird Cinnamon Buns
Credit: Darcy Lenz

5. Let the dough rise in peace.

Most of us don't have a professional proofing box in our home kitchens (if you do, more power to you), but you can work with the next best thing you have. You want your covered dough to rest in a warm, generally draft-free place. Create a peaceful environment, if you will. I often pop mine into the (turned-off) oven, just because it feels like a safe, fairly cozy environment. But if you have a counter space area that receives a little sunlight from a nearby window and you're confident your dough won't be disturbed (by a curious cat, significant other, etc.), that would work great, too.

6. Break out your ruler.

Trust me, I've seen recipes that call for dough to be rolled out to specific dimensions and thought to myself, "Oh, I can eyeball that." And I certainly don't want to underestimate your abilities, but my experience has told me, no… you really can't. Beyond helping you nail the correct dimensions for your dough, using the straight edge to occasionally push the expanding borders of your dough into straight lines as you continue to roll will allow you to create a (basically) perfect rectangle — versus a wonky, uneven-edged shape that loosely resembles a rectangle.

7. Roll tight and pack tight.

When it comes time to roll up your dough, try to roll the spiral as tightly as you can. This will make the individual rolls easier to slice cleanly from the log (I like to use a serrated knife for this, but any sharp knife will do) and will make them more structurally stable once baked. 

I would also suggest arranging the rolls snuggly together in your greased baking dish. Allowing them to "hold on" to one another during the final rise and baking will help the buns grow taller.

And as a personal preference, I really enjoy the gooey interior factor that occurs when cinnamon rolls bake all up next to each other. That said, if you prefer a crisper edge and care less about height, you can bake your rolls on a larger pan (such as a rimmed baking sheet) and place them further apart (one to two inches). 

8. Avoid over-baking.

Straight-up, it's better to have a slightly under-baked bun than an over-baked, dry one. So keep a close eye on your buns towards the end of their stay in the oven. As soon as they're nicely golden brown, pull them on out and allow them to cool slightly before frosting. 

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