Up until meeting Micah and hanging out with his family I'm not sure I had ever eaten a homemade caramel roll before. I'm sure my mom can offer a rebuttal on that one but other than maybe something at a restaurant, I don't remember eating a homemade caramel roll before age 20.
How on earth was I alive??
Who kept these things away from me? How did I grow up on canned sweet rolls and think that was living?
Now don't get me wrong. I do enjoy those little canned rolls of sweetness. They are soft and gooey and practically melt in my mouth, just like Krispy Kreme donuts. I pick one up and before I know it they are gone.
But they are NOTHING compared to the real deal.
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Micah's mom passed this recipe on to me at my bridal shower and it stayed magnetized to my fridge for the longest time. I was terrified of making yeast dough. I don't know why it made me so nervous but it did. As soon as I worked up the courage I had two missions: make pizza dough and make sweet rolls.
I had several not so great batches. They weren't bad, they just weren't as great as they could have been. After countless tries I finally started making consistently great rolls. Melt in your mouth, super gooey, how did I eat three and swear I only took one bite type of rolls.
These are now my favorite treat for birthday breakfasts, special occasions, or simply because. No longer do they feel daunting. Yes, the recipe technically takes FOREVER. And by forever I mean long rise times. Long rise times are what allow the dough to get so fluffy and incredible. Less rise time tends to result in stiff or less tender rolls.
One of the best parts of making this recipe over and over is that I figured out something even my Mother-in-law hadn't learned - how to make these rolls ahead of time and bake them fresh in the morning. Yup! Do the work the night before and have fresh, hot, gooey rolls for breakfast. My next goal is going to figure out how to freeze them. It can't be that different, right?
A few tips/tricks I've learned over the years -
Go for the longer rise time if you can. Again, those rise times are what allow the gases from the yeast to really explode and it results in a much fluffier roll.
Add in a splash (about a tablespoon or so) of heavy cream, half & half, or even coffee creamer to the caramel sauce. It's not necessary, I've made it without it, but I really enjoy the way it turns out. For the batch pictured I used Coffee-Mate Cinnamon Vanilla coffee creamer. It's Micah's favorite so we frequently have it on hand. I've also used any brand of vanilla caramel, Cold Stone Sweet Cream, and Cinnabon, both by International Delight.
Don't roll out the dough too far in either direction! If you roll it too flat it will take a while to roll up again and the rolls won't be quite as soft. I usually try to get 4-5 loops in my rolls by rolling the dough into a 6"x18" rectangle. I'm not super precise though. It should still be at least 1/4 of an inch thick.
Use glass pans if you have them. I'm sure there is some scientific reason behind this but both my mother-in-law and I agree that the glass pans produce better caramel and better rolls. She usually uses one metal and one glass because it's what she has and the glass pan always turns out better.
But enough blabbing - let's bake!
Homemade Caramel Rolls
Makes two 9x13 pans - about 24 large rolls
1/2 cup warm water
2 TBSP dry active yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups warm milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
7-7 1/2 cups flour (added in two batches)
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter
1-2 tbsp cream, optional (I've used half & half and coffee creamer!)
I know there are a lot of steps - but I promise it's not hard! I simply broke the steps down into small bits to make sure nothing was missed.
In a measuring cup, mix together warm water, yeast, and 1/2 tsp sugar. Allow to rise for 5-10 minutes while you get started on the rest of the dough.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook pour the warm milk over the butter and to get it melting. Add in the eggs and sugar and mix.
Once the yeast mixture has grown add it to the bowl of the stand mixer along with the salt and 3-4 cups of flour. Mix with the dough hook.
Slowly add in the remaining flour until the dough comes together. It should be soft and not overly sticky. Knead for several minutes to bring it together.
Put the dough in a large bowl coated in oil or cooking spray and let rise for 2-3 hours, or doubled in size.
Once the dough has doubled, punch it down and allow to rise for an additional 1-2 hours.
After punching the dough down, start the caramel sauce. Add brown sugar and butter (plus optional cream) to a sauce pan and melt over low heat. You do not want this to boil!
Stir the sauce continually until the sugar is completely dissolved. There will be butter remaining on the top of the sugar - do not add more sugar! The caramel sauce will become too thick if extra sugar is added.
Pour the finished caramel sauce into two 9x13 glass pans. You can use metal pans but I've always had the best luck using glass. Allow the caramel to cool while you continue with the rolls.
After the second rise, split the dough in half and on a floured surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle, about 6"x12". This doesn't need to be perfect, but you do want the dough to stay about 1/4" inch thick.
Spread softened butter over the dough. I usually start with a few tablespoons up to half a stick for each half of dough. You need enough butter for the filling to stick. Spread brown sugar and cinnamon over the butter. I usually use about 1/2-3/4 cup per half of dough because we like them really full of filling, but you can cut back on this if you'd like.
Starting at one side, roll the dough evenly and somewhat tight. Not too tight, or they won't have room to expand! You can pinch the end closed, but I never do and don't have an issue.
Cut the log into even sized rolls. I start by cutting it in the middle, lining the two sides up side by side, and cutting those in half, then each half into three rolls for a total of 12 rolls. You could cut them thinner if you want more small rolls. I've used both a bench scraper and a pizza cutter for slicing my rolls - both work fine.
Place the rolls into one pan of caramel then repeat with the second half of dough into the second pan of caramel.
Let the rolls rise on the counter for 30 minutes while your oven preheats to 350*. Make ahead directions are below!
Bake the rolls for 20-25 minutes or until the tops are starting to brown.
Remove from oven and place a large flat cookie sheet on the top of each pan. Very, very carefully flip the pan to invert the rolls on to the cookie sheet. This will allow the rolls to release from the pan and all the caramely goodness to ooze all over the rolls. This may or may not be one of my favorite steps ;) But be careful! That caramel is hot and can burn you.
Use a rubber spatula to scrape out any lingering caramel. Let cool just long enough to be safe then enjoy! Rolls will last on the counter up to 3 days.
Make ahead directions:
Follow steps 1-14 above.
Once you've put the rolls in the pans, cover and place in the fridge to rise overnight.
Remove from the fridge and allow to rise on the counter for 30 minutes while the oven preheats to 350*
Continue following steps 16-18 above. Enjoy!
Do you prefer classic cinnamon rolls with frosting or caramel rolls?