Cinnamon Rolls by Atiqah Mokhtar

For the dough:

¾ cup of milk

55g of butter, softened

3 ¼ cups of all-purpose flour

¼ cup sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

7g instant yeast

1 egg

¼ cup water

For the filling:

115g butter, softened

1 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon


Like many baked goods, the recipe for cinnamon rolls come in uncountable variations. Some require using bread flour, others don’t. Some are accompanied by a glaze, others have things like pecans or raisins or orange zest thrown in. A few insist on a bread machine, others call for making up the dough by hand, with a mixer, or with a food processor. There are those that say the dough has to be proofed overnight. Some recipes demand butter that has been hand-churned on a farm, while another one swears success only if baked at dawn, as per ancient cinnamon customs*.  Ask anyone who likes to bake, chances are they’ve done cinnamon rolls before, and they each used a different recipe.

This is mine**.

You start by heating up some milk in a small saucepan, and you wait until you see bubbles forming at the edges. Turn off the heat, take the saucepan off the stove and then add in some butter, stirring it in so that it melts into the milk. Inhale that scent of warm milk and butter and childhood nostalgia, genuine or otherwise. Set this aside to cool until lukewarm.

While that’s cooling off, gather up your dry ingredients. Measure out two and a quarter cups of flour and heap it into a big bowl, add in some sugar, a pinch of salt and the crucial ingredient that is yeast. Ponder for a minute whether you should take out the standing mixer and just lazily flick it on and let it do the hard work, but concede that you are reluctant to lug it out of the cupboard, and get a whisk instead.

Pour in your milk and butter mixture into the dry ingredients. Crack in an egg, add some water, and using your whisk, stir it all together. See how it becomes a lumpy batter? Look how all that flour becomes dampened by the liquid, see the yolk break when you prod it with the whisk, watch the ribbons of egg combine with the mixture and bind it all up.

Add in some of the remaining flour, stirring well. This is the point where it gets harder to mix as the ratio of dry ingredients to wet increases, and you start to wonder if it would have been better to use the mixer after all, because doesn’t that come with a handy dough hook meant to do this task? Shouldn’t technology be taken advantage of? But no matter. Soldier on.

At some point you’ll see the dough start coming together, and from here on out, you should proceed with adding the flour more cautiously. Too much will just have you ending up with rolls meant to be thrown at thieves or catapulted at enemies; they will be tough and solid. At some point, I suggest switching from the whisk to a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl, folding and poking and prodding the dough to take in leftover speckles of flour. You can even use your hands; it will be sticky, but don’t be afraid, revel in it. Add in more flour and work the mixture until you feel it firming up to a point it’s no longer clinging to the bowl or your fingers anymore.

Scatter your counter with some flour and turn your dough out onto it. Then knead, baby, knead. Work the dough with the heel of your palm, turning it over, pushing it away from you, turning it over, pushing it away from you. Put your back into it. When you get used to it, you’d be surprised how you can sink into the reassuring repetitiveness of kneading dough, leaving your mind to leisurely wander around, thinking of conversations or ideas or daydreams.

Once the dough becomes smooth, form it into a ball, cover it with a damp tea towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes. At this point, you may choose to look at the mess you’ve created in your kitchen; perhaps you have smudges of flour on your shirt, within the crook of an elbow, in your hair, on your left cheek. It’s okay. Leave the cleaning up for later and move on to making the filling for the rolls. Let’s keep it simple. You basically take a lot of butter, a lot of brown sugar, a spoonful of cinnamon, and mix them all up to form a paste of sweetness and joy and sugar-highs.

Now we assemble. Scatter some more flour on your counter, grab a rolling pin, and reveal the dough that has been resting. Admire it for a second, in all its smooth undimpled glory, and then cut the dough in half. Take one of those halves and roll it out in a rough rectangular shape (if you’re like me, your rectangles tend to look strangely like oblongs), then get your previously made paste-of-goodness and spread half of it out over the dough, making sure you get to the edges and that it’s all evenly covered. Once that’s done, start rolling up the dough from the bottom upwards, ending up with a nice plump cylinder. Pinch the edges to seal it up, take a knife or dough-cutter, and cut off rounds of about, say, an inch in width, maybe? Place these rounds, cut-side up, in a baking pan, leaving some space between each roll. Repeat with the other dough halve; you should end up with a couple pans of rolls, which you suspect might be ready to be baked.

But a-hah! No they’re not! You have to cover them with the damp tea towel again and let them rest for about half an hour. Don’t ask me why, it’s a bread thing. But you will, no matter how many times you make these rolls or any bread in general, be slightly (but pleasantly) freaked out when you see that the rolls have expanded and practically doubled in size from when you left them half an hour ago. Yeast is a many splendoured thing.

Put your trays of rolls into the oven you have thoughtfully pre-heated, and set the timer for 15 minutes. Walk away. Clean-up. Read a book. Brush the flour off your clothes. Stare at the cat staring at a bird.

Somewhere around the twelfth minute, you’ll smell it. It will waft through the kitchen and into your living room, making its way out the front door, seeping into bedrooms. The scent of cinnamon and baked bread and all-around goodness. It will smell warm and friendly, it will beckon other dwellers of your home to come up and ask what you’re making. And it will smell comforting. Of course it will.

When the timer goes off, peer through the oven door for a bit, then open it up and see how your rolls are now golden brown, the melted brown sugar bubbling up between the circular folds of the buns. Take them out and set the pan on the table. You may choose to stare at them for a while, fervently hoping they’ve turned out okay. You can wait for a bit to let them cool slightly, but don’t do the foolish mistake of missing the opportunity of eating one while they’re still warm. Tear a piece off one of the rolls and take a bite. There may be the chance that something went wrong and you end up with rolls that are tough and chewy, and that will feel like heartbreak, like the pin-pricks you get behind your eyelids when you’re about to cry, and the rolls will just sit there mocking you. They will be pretty but disappointing, seemingly inviting but just a sucker punch to the stomach.

But more often than not, you will chew that piece of bun, and it will be soft, and it will be delicious. Well done. You will sit there, perhaps with a goofy grin, chewing on this piece of edible warmth and fuzzy feelings, and things will be okay. Regardless of how disorderly your life may be, for the moment, while the roll in your hand is still warm and the kitchen still emanates the heat from the oven and the smell of sugar and cinnamon, things are okay.


*This is not true. I made this up.

**When I say it’s is mine, I don’t, unfortunately, mean it in the sense that I actually came up with it from scratch, excruciatingly experimenting in the kitchen until I concocted that perfect alchemy of flour and sugar and butter and cinnamon. I am no Ina Garten. I came across this recipe a few years ago on the net, and I say it’s mine merely because familiarity and habit gives you an illusion of ownership, and because I’ve done it so many times and have so much faith in it such that I fear I may never try a different recipe.

Atiqah’s favourite baking implement in the kitchen is a red spatula bequeathed to her by a friend who was moving and needed to get rid of stuff. She once baked something that was supposed to become a Swiss roll, but ended up being a very large cookie. These things happen.

5 thoughts on “Cinnamon Rolls by Atiqah Mokhtar”

  1. YAY! Atiqah’s Cinnamon Rolls!! 😀
    I love how you made this piece into a recipe/narration, it just made it that much more painful that I don’t have some rolls with me to munch on.
    It communicates really well what baking means to you, how the rituals of making food-things make you feel at home with yourself and with the space around you. The unpredictability of whether the lovely rolls of edible warmth will turn out right was like a reminder that reality sometimes doesn’t like to make things easy for people. That’s how it felt like to me, but it made the whole thing just more believable. I love the quirkiness you’ve laced into the language throughout the piece, it does not have that intimidating ring of reading a food article by someone who knows what they are doing and won’t have you say otherwise – it’s easily relatable, even if you’re not much of a baker.
    Also, the photos! Damn I could really go for some Rolls right now…

    1. Dhi, you always say such lovely words 🙂 Actually, that bit about you thinking of the rolls as being a reminder that reality doesn’t make things easy for people was actually spot on, every time anything I bake comes out awry, I actually glumly remind myself that things will not always work out, for my cupcakes as well as for anything else in life. I’m glad you liked the piece, and of course I shall bake you these again some time, whee.

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