The Genius Recipe Tapes

Cinnamon Yums Always Win

Episode Summary

Guess who's back, back again: King Arthur Baking Company's Charlotte Rutledge and cinnamon-roll-in-crime Chris McLeod talk with Kristen about KABC's 2021 Recipe of the Year and why "yum always wins."

Episode Notes

Referenced in this episode:

Genius-Hunter Extra Credit:

Special thanks to listeners Richard (@richofthekings), Kat, and Alik (@aliktamar) for your bun-tastic riffs.

Have a nostalgic treat you'd like to share? Email it to me at or tag me @miglorious.

Episode Transcription

Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi, I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong genius hunter. For almost a decade, I've been unearthing the recipes that have changed the way we cook. Now on The Genius Recipe Tapes, we go behind the scenes with the geniuses themselves, and we get to hear from you.

This week I'm talking with Chris McLeod and Charlotte Rutledge from King Arthur Baking Company. Chris is the one who scours the baking landscape and helps the team figure out what the next recipe of the year should be; birthday cake or chocolate chip cookies, sourdough, or no-knead. And Charlotte brings the recipes to life, along with the variation she knows bakers will want, and then tests the heck out of them. Also, If you're an avid listener of this podcast, first of all, you're the best. And secondly, you'll remember Charlotte from our December episode about the number one Genius Recipe of 2020: King Arthur's Crispy, Cheesy Pan Pizza, which the Internet had fallen for, hard.

So maybe because I'm sometimes unapologetically predictable. Or maybe because I love a recipe that works above all else. Or maybe because I just really wanted to eat a lot of cinnamon rolls. I had to make the Recipe of the Year for 2021 a Genius Recipe too. Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls. It's so smart, especially for right now.

One of my own most vivid memories from childhood is when my family made cinnamon rolls from scratch. The happy smells, a glorious mess of it all, but we made them exactly once because they tasted amazing warm from the oven. But the joy was fleeting. They didn't keep well for longer than a day. Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find people who would turn down a soft, gooey homemade cinnamon roll. And yet, most of us aren't in a position to eat a whole tray of them before they go stale.

So this recipe uses a simple method for what feels like eternally fresh baked goods called tangzhong. You might have heard about this technique fluffing up Japanese milk bread or other super plush baked goods. I get into all of us more in the Genius video and an article on Food52 this week. But for now, I'll say that Taiwanese cookbook author Yvonne Chen popularized the technique in her book 65 Degrees C. And tangzhong has origins in a similar Japanese process called yukone (or yudane). This technique has become so popular because by pre-cooking a little bit of the recipe’s flour in liquid, you pre-gelatinize the starches. Pre-gelatinized starches can hold up to twice as much moisture as if you were mixing them at room temp or even lukewarm, as in your average bread or cinnamon roll recipe.

All of this means taller, fluffier, not-at-all dry baked goods. And that moisture hangs on long after baking, too. So you get perfectly pillowy cinnamon rolls not just right now but for days on end. So here's my behind-the-scenes chat with Chris and Charlotte on how the cinnamon roll gets made at King Arthur. And some of the shocking feelings unearthed from their very passionate audience. Plus, at the end of the episode, some ways home bakers are already making this recipe their own.

Chris McLeod: I think there's a level of nostalgia to cinnamon rolls in general. There is an indulgent quality to them that you love the idea of licking your fingers after you grab that first one, of having a little too much icing over the top. And that that sense of indulgence ties back to when you were a kid and were just over the moon. “Wait, we could eat cinnamon rolls at home? That's amazing!”

I don't think this is as consciously nostalgic as the Classic Birthday Cake we did two years ago, one where “classic” is right there in the name. We were trying to get a sense of something like a box cake mix from childhood. We were trying to bring up some baking elements that would improve the cinnamon rolls and your baking skills in general. And the education that could come from walking through a recipe like this doesn't necessarily tap into nostalgia in quite the same way but would lead you to an exciting future of cinnamon rolls and what else you could do with cinnamon rolls,

Kristen: Got it. So how was it that you decided that cinnamon rolls were the recipe of 2021?

Chris: We started trying to figure out what we wanted to do for 2021 back in March of 2020. We had just started to head into quarantine. We knew we had a very strange year ahead of us, but we wanted to think through what would be something that would fit well to an uncertain homebound baker who was looking for a little bit of escape, a little bit of indulgence. As always, we came in with a massive list of other recipes we wanted to narrow down. I know we were thinking about pie, flavored bread, Dutch babies. We needed to narrow that down to three specific things. So in May of 2020, we went around to co-workers, a mix of bakers, people in the creative team, people on the sales team. We said this is what we're thinking about: biscuits, pancakes/waffles, and cinnamon rolls. It was entertaining to talk with them about the pros and cons of each and figure out how much nostalgia we wanted to infuse into a recipe like this. And I remember after going through the pros and cons of all three recipes with one colleague, they said, “But guys, come on, let's admit it. Yum always wins. It needs to be cinnamon rolls.”

Kristen: That could be on a T-shirt.

Kristen (voiceover): This is the Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back.

Kristen: Was this recipe a new one, or was it already in your archives and got an update?

Charlotte Rutledge: There were a lot of trial and error moments. The cinnamon rolls we were starting with had an ingredient called non-fat dry milk in them. And that was something we wanted to steer away from because we felt like people were quarantining. They only have so much in their pantries; non-fat, dry milk may not be one of them. We wanted to eliminate that ingredient. And then honing in on the various components—we wanted this to be a complete package. We were fine-tuning each element in the process–the dough, the filling, and the frosting.

The trial and error process is a little cumbersome because you can only change one thing at a time as you're testing. When you have three separate components, sometimes you can get away with changing one thing within each element. But sometimes, you want to make sure that component A works with component B in a specific iteration, and then component C is layered on top of that. At one point, we were deciding do the rolls need to have milk in them? It turns out yes, they do because that was a critical factor in making them as soft as they were. I was then fine-tuning the tangzhong method, making sure that the correct ratio was in the tangzhong and that the tangzhong was the proper ratio to the dough. There were just all these little bits and pieces that had to come together to make it what it was.

And as far as the filling was concerned, we started with a dry filling—cinnamon and sugar straight onto the dough. But we found that the dry filling made it difficult for the dough to roll up. And so we changed course. I had worked on a different cinnamon roll a few years back that had this hybrid of a wet spreadable filling and a dry filling. It was like wet sand in texture and would stick to the dough better. And you could also pat it down so that there was a minimal shifting of the filling as you were rolling the dough. And then the frosting, we went back and forth on cream cheese versus a glaze. There are people in either cream cheese camp or glaze camp. Ultimately we settled on the more straightforward glaze method because we didn't want the frosting to overshadow the total package. But then we also added a tip on how to make cream cheese frosting, for those who are adamantly camp cream cheese,

Kristen: I'm pretty adamantly camp cream cheese. That's one thing that I love about this recipe and your Recipes of the Year in general. This recipe is the template for exactly what you see here and exactly what you need to do to get there. But here are a few well-tested variations if you decide you want to switch up the icing or various other parts.

Charlotte: I love that about Recipe of the Year too. As a recipe developer, one of the things that I appreciate is that we hone in on this is THE recipe. If we're going for one Recipe of the Year, this is what we want you to make. Then, offer suggestions on how you can change it up and jump-start the creativity wheels for every person. You can feel comfortable saying I've made the recipe once, but now I want cardamom in my filling or cream cheese in my icing. Or I want brown butter icing! All of these options are iterations that we tested, but not the perfect cinnamon roll. Let's let people have that creativity in their kitchens. And let's give them the ultimate version to start.

Chris: Start the year with our favorite, but then by the end of the year with your favorite. I'm glad you picked up on that, Kristen, because one thing we've often talked about with Recipes of the Year is that we want them to be blank canvas recipes. Parts of each recipe that people can go in all different directions on. For the Classic Birthday Cake, it was the frosting. It was frosting. How do you frost in the way that excites you most? For the Crispy, Cheesy Pan Pizza, it was toppings. And I love seeing people come up with not savory but sweet versions of that pizza. I love that within a week or two of posting these Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls, and someone said, here's my savory version of the cinnamon roll. It's so good! I'm excited about some of the other examples we will be seeing from the community and our test kitchen throughout the year.

Kristen: I have to say, whether or not you have time to bake cinnamon rolls, if you need a pick-me-up, read the comments on this recipe on King Arthur's site. And then once this is up on our site, I'm sure the comments will be pouring in, too. But the variations that people have done: the garlic knots variation, a cinnamon roll Bundt cake, and of course, people who want to make them squished together. Which I think is going to be the next version I try.

Chris: I didn't realize that was such a contentious issue! That some people like them spread out and people who say that some sinister way of preparing them. I want them shoved together!

Charlotte: That that fascinates me too. That was absolutely something that factor factored into testing. We wanted a smaller batch, but what does that mean for the pan and the dimensions? Do we want it to be in a square pan so that you end up with semi-circular rolls, but they're still kind of square? Or do you want that to be in a cake pan so that you have one in the middle that's round, but the other ones are this weird trapezoidal shape? I was like, let's just put him on a sheet pan! They're guaranteed to be round, and that enables them to rise and expand in the oven to their ultimate pillowy texture. For other people, that detracts from the softness, so I understand that. We want this to be that blank canvas that people can take with and make the recipe their ultimate cinnamon roll.

Kristen: Well, it's so interesting too, because of the technique you use in this recipe, tangzhong makes them extra soft and extra pillowy. You can spread them apart, and they will still be super soft and pillowy, where other cinnamon rolls might get dry or crunchy if they didn't have each other to snuggle with. It's interesting to see that improvement in this recipe. But then, for some people, it's not an improvement to take them apart like that.

Charlotte: Have you tried it yet?

Kristen: I haven't yet. I think when we bake them live later in February. I think that's what I'm going to try. Because I've only done them spread apart so far.

Kristen (voiceover): This is the Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back.

Kristen: Do you keep track of how many times you've tested something, Charlotte?

Charlotte: You know, I should keep track because of the number of times I've gotten that question. But no. I can certainly guess at having made these at least a couple dozen times. Probably upwards of three or even four dozen times.

Chris: And since it was peak quarantine, how much of that was at home versus in the test kitchen?

Charlotte: Let's see. I think I did many side-by-side comparison tests in the test kitchen because I didn’t want all these cinnamon rolls at home. I also introduced a cooler of grab-and-go baked goods by the entrance of the cul de sac in the neighborhood. I would throw everything in the cooler at the start of a day or the beginning of a week and said have at it; I don't want these in my house anymore. Neighbors still stop me in the streets to tell me those cinnamon rolls were so good.

Kristen: So it's like those farm stands where you drive by and pick up a jar of jam and leave a few bucks? Except yours was free.

Charlotte: Yes, totally free.

Kristen: Most popular neighbor ever! I made these with my daughter both when I tested them and made them in the video. She was there for the part where you're patting it out, sprinkling, and then rolling. And then the floss trick, where you cut each slice with the dental floss. All of those are great entertainment for my toddler, and I assume for children of many ages. They seem very magical, and they seem like steps kids could help with. Sprinkling is one of the verbs she knows when it comes to cooking, like sprinkling things over her oatmeal, and that's something that she can do. She probably only did about a two-inch square in one corner, and then I handled the rest. But that also brings me to the troubleshooting section. When I've made these, I've made these with my daughter, and they've always come out delicious. But I can't help but think that I have gone slightly off course–both times, I may have over-proofed the dough. So I wanted to ask some questions for our listeners. Many people making these cinnamon rolls might be making and working with a yeasted enriched dough for the first time. What are some of the common mistakes that you see with new bakers and yeast?

Charlotte: That is a great question. As you've alluded to, the resting, proofing, fermentation timing can be challenging. As possible, we try to rely on visual cues in our recipes instead of waiting this many minutes before it's ready. Your home situation is going to be so different than anybody else's home situation. And I think the most significant variable is the temperature of your home or your kitchen. And you know that can drastically change how long or how quickly something rises and proofs. What we've noticed with this recipe, in particular, is that there there's a good amount of wiggle room. Even if you over-proof, you're not going to get a lousy cinnamon roll.

Kristen: That's so comforting.

Chris: We've also seen some people over tighten them as they roll, which can cause it both to pop up in the center as it bakes, and for some of the filling to come out as you're doing it. I know some people like to have the millimeter-tight rings as they're doing it, and unfortunately, this isn't that recipe. I think kind of a looser roll is ideal and will hold in the filling better,

Kristen: Especially once you tuck that little tail under, too. I love that step. It keeps it from unfurling as it bakes.

Charlotte: Another controversial step.

Kristen: Oh really?

Charlotte: A lot of people want to pinch that tail to the outside of the cinnamon roll, and you can do that. No one is telling you that you can't, but we found that tucking the tail under was a better way to ensure that the roll wouldn't unravel as it was baking.

Kristen: Have there ever been any underdog recipes that you really wanted to turn into Recipe of the year but couldn't make work?

Charlotte: I have always been excited by scones. I worked in a restaurant in England, and we made scones for High Tea. And they've always been this elusive texture to me. I think everybody, like biscuits, perhaps has a different notion of what an ultimate scone will be. But we've never elevated that to Recipe of the Year. One, because I think they're probably not iconic enough in this country. And two, there is that element of what is the ultimate scone? And how would we determine that? We don't necessarily have one on our website that stands out over the others. The category, in general, is pretty popular, but it's a hard thing to nail. And so I will forever, at home, be on a quest to find my ultimate scone. And hopefully share it with King Arthur when I do. But I don't know that it would ever be a Recipe of the Year.

Kristen: It's tough when it's one recipe for the year. You have to commit. You can't get sick of cinnamon rolls.

Chris: What do you think? Recipe of the Year 2022: the same cinnamon rolls, still good! We've got another year, right?

Kristen: Yum always wins!

Chris: Yum always wins!

Kristen: And now, here are some of the riffs that homemakers have already been spinning into this recipe.

Listener Cat: Hello. My name is Cat, and I'm from New Zealand, and my recipe inspiration is the fresh passion fruit sold at my local farmers market towards the end of summer. So I made a tangy passion fruit curd and used the curd as a filling for my rolls and then make a silky and rich white chocolate glaze for the topping.

Alik Barsoumian, Genius Video Producer: When Kristen sent me this recipe, I knew I had to make these rolls right away. They were so good that I ended up making a second  batch within 24 hours. But it was pretty late at night and I had run out of instant yeast, so I used active dry yeast instead. They ended up even more fluffy and pillowy, and I added a hint of cream cheese to the frosting for tang. These cinnamon rolls are the best cinnamon rolls I've ever had.

Listener Richard: Hi, My name is Richard de Los Reyes. I'm from Jersey City, New Jersey, and I am of Filipino descent. That's where my take on the King Arthur cinnamon roll comes from. I skip the cinnamon and use ube jam as a filling. It's a nod to when I used to visit my grandmother in the Philippines because she would make us big batches of ube jam for us to bring home. Sometimes I'll also take inspiration from another Filipino delicacy called ensaymada, and I'll top the rolls with margarine, granulated sugar, and shredded cheese.

Kristen: I wanted to mention one more thing. Did you know that the King Arthur Baking Company's All-Purpose Baking Companion, which won the James Beard Award for Cook Book of the year back in 2004, is getting its first update in almost two decades? There are more than 450 recipes in there, and it still has the classics from the original edition. But with new recipes and Intel gathered over the last couple of decades of testing, tweaking, and feedback from their dedicated community of home bakers. It’s coming out in March, and I can't bake from it soon enough.

Kristen: (voiceover): Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Emily Hanhan, and me, Kristen Miglore. And if you have a genius recipe tip, I would always love to hear from you at And if you like The Genius Recipe Tapes, do take a second to rate and review and subscribe if you haven't already. It really does help. Talk to you next time.