Dorie Greenspan is my hero. I’ve read her food magazine articles for years and a couple of summers ago bought her gorgeously photographed/beautifully written cookbook Baking.

She’s a woman after my own heart. She spells out recipes for breads, cakes, cookies, pies and confections then — gasp! — tells you to play with them!

Do you know how revolutionary that is? Conventional wisdom says play all you want with your savory food but never stray from recipes for baked goods. Baking is, after all, chemistry, and we all know what happens when you start messing around with science.

Now, to be fair to the chemists among us, I must confess that Dorie’s playtime suggestions are pretty tame. She doesn’t mess around with flour-to-leavener or liquid-to-dry-ingredient ratios. But by loosening the strictures just a bit, she opens up a whole new baking world.

rolls1During this week’s cold snap, I decided to start experimenting with one of my favorite sweet roll recipes. If you’ve never made yeast rolls before, this is the recipe to start with. It’s baking with training wheels: Everything mixes up in one bowl, no kneading is required, and the dough hangs out overnight in the refrigerator for a cold, slow rise.

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The Basic Recipe (courtesy Bon Appetit)

Place 1/4 cup warm water in a bowl and sprinkle 1 envelope active dry yeast over it. Let the mixture sit until the yeast is frothy (about 8 minutes).

Course-meal stage ... just flour, sugar, salt & butter.
Course-meal stage.

Whisk together 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon salt.

Cut 1 stick cold, unsalted butter into 1/2-inch cubes, then rub it into the dry ingredients with your fingers. Rub until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

The dough before its rest in the fridge.
The dough before its rest in the fridge.

Stir in 1 large egg, 1/4 cup evaporated or plain milk, 1/4 cup raisins and the yeast mixture. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and plop it in your fridge overnight.

Next morning, make a filling by rubbing together 1/2 cup golden brown sugar, 1/2 cup chopped pecans and 1/4 cup chilled unsalted butter in a bowl. The mixture should end up looking like wet sand.

Brown sugar filling on dough.
Brown sugar filling on dough.

Line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and divide it in half. Roll out each half to a rectangular shape, about 1/8-inch thick. (The rectangles will probably be a little craggy. It’s fine.) Sprinkle each rectangle with half the filling.

The filled logs before cutting.
The filled logs before cutting.

Starting at the longer side, roll the rectangles into logs and seal the ends. Place the logs on the baking sheet.Using a sharp knife and starting at one sealed end, divide each log into 1-inch sections, cutting to within 1/2 inch of the opposite side.

The cut rolls, ready for the oven.
The cut rolls, ready for the oven.

Shape each log into a ring; turn the cut sections onto their sides.

Cover the baking sheet with a kitchen towel, and let the rings rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake the rings for 20-25 minutes, or until they’re golden brown. Be warned: Some of your brown sugar filling is going to ooze out and bubble away on the parchment. Don’t worry about it!

Cool for 30 minutes on the baking sheet, then remove the rings and drizzle with a glaze made of 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons milk.

Variations On The Sweet Roll Theme

These rolls are divine — flaky, chewy from the raisins, crunchy from the pecans. But you can change them any number of ways:

  1. Use walnuts instead of pecans and substitute maple extract for the vanilla. Voila! Maple-walnut sweet rolls.
  2. Omit the raisins, use almonds instead of pecans and sub in almond extract for the vanilla. A totally different taste.
  3. Flavor the glaze with something a little stronger than extracts. Amaretto is yummy; so is bourbon. (Keep these versions away from the kids!)
  4. For a tropical flare, use chopped dried apricots or dried pineapple in place of the raisins. Substitute macadamia nuts and shredded sweet coconut for the pecans.
  5. Add 2 tablespoons of cocoa to the flour mixture. (Your dough will be drier, but it will still yield tender, flaky rolls.) Use dried cranberries or cherries for the raisins and almonds for the pecans.
  6. Substitute dried cranberries for the raisins and add the zest from one orange to the brown sugar filling. Grate a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate on top of the filling before rolling into logs. Use orange extract or liqueur in place of the glaze’s vanilla.

I love to double or even triple my basic sweet roll recipe and turn out all these variations at once. It may not be science … but it’s just the kind of chemistry I want!

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