No-Frosting Spiced Sweet Rolls—Just Like My Mom Made

December  8, 2017

The holiday season is peak baking season, from cookie swaps to homemade candy to just-because-it's-the-holidays sweets. To inspire you in your holiday baking, we've partnered with SunSpire, makers of organic, fair-trade chocolate, to bring you recipes that will satisfy your sweet tooth while still keeping your desserts wholesome.

The best part of the holiday season—hands down—is the cinnamon rolls. When December arrives, my mother starts baking her classic recipe. She starts early in the month because so many people have come to expect a foil-wrapped round of her rolls. Thinner and unfrosted, they don’t look as decadent as the puffy, oversized cinnamon rolls you find in bakeries. But they exceed the flavor of any I’ve ever tasted, and here’s why.

A holiday gift we'd happily receive...or give. Photo by Rocky Luten

The key to a superlative sweet roll is in the filling. Make your filling really flavorful, and then coil the dough tightly around it, so that the center of each hides a sticky-sweet swirl of spices and butter and sugar. Frosting? No need when the interior of each roll is so absurdly, addictively delicious.

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My mom’s rolls are heavy on the cinnamon, which has taught me that spicing up your sweet roll filling is a surefire way to make a killer dessert. I stick with the same simple dough recipe—one that’s so soft and yielding, you don’t need extra flour or a rolling pin to shape it. Just press it out with your fingertips. It’s such an easy dough to work with; perfect for novice bakers.

Then I play around with the filling. It’s important to use plenty of butter (hat tip to Ina Garten) to make sure the filling adheres to the dough. I’ve played around with all sorts of spice combinations, but my favorite this year is a unique and creative version made with Chinese five-spice powder.

Five-spice powder is a blend of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn, and fennel. Aromatic and fragrant, it’s similar enough to classic holiday spice blends to feel familiar, but still pushes this recipe into more creative territory. The flavors—licorice-like fennel and sweet cinnamon and spiced clove—pair beautifully with chocolate. You’ll see five-spice powder in cooking a lot, but it’s really underutilized in desserts, in my humble opinion.

I use bittersweet chocolate in these rolls. Bittersweet chips make the rolls ideal for both breakfast and dessert. And snacking! And lunch! Okay, fine: You’ll want to eat these all day long. Leaving the chocolate chips whole will give you little pockets of chocolatey goodness, but if you want a smoother filling you can chop your chocolate chips roughly; this filling is delicious either way.

Do as my mom does, and start a gifting tradition with these rolls. Set aside a chilly winter afternoon to bake. Put on some music. Make a few batches at once. Wrap the cooled rounds of rolls tightly in plastic wrap and then foil, then tie each with a jaunty red bow. Drop them off with friends, or colleagues, or your mailman, or that guy you keep exchanging shy glances with at the coffee shop. Accept all accolades that come your way for your baking prowess. Remember how good it feels to spread the love by sharing something you made with your own hands.

Oh, and save at least one extra batch for yourself.

What's your favorite unusual filling for sweet rolls? Let us know in the comments!

When baking for family and friends (and even yourself), ingredients matter. We've partnered with SunSpire—crafters of certified organic, fair-trade chocolate, made with the simplest of ingredients and no additives—to bring you recipes that will satisfy your sweet tooth while still keeping your desserts wholesome. For more chocolatey inspiration, check out their Instagram!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jennifer
  • Deedledum
  • AntoniaJames
  • Posie (Harwood) Brien
    Posie (Harwood) Brien
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Jennifer December 10, 2017
Oh gosh, I have to disagree. I am 57 years old--first baked cinnamon rolls ("sweet rolls," my mother called them) when I was 14. For decades I baked them every week, dozens and dozens of them. I agree that the frosting is at best beside the point, too often a distraction from poor pastry. (I respect other good bakers who use frosting, but I never do.) But the secret is NOT the filling--there are better and worse fillings, and filling is more important than frosting (better skipped, as noted). The secret is absolutely the quality of the dough. Make the tastiest yeast dough you can--splurge on ingredients, use your favorite techniques for kneading dough and letting it rise. Then you can either use a decadent filling or a rich coat of butter dusted with cinnamon sugar. It won't matter. The "secret" is in the quality of the yeasted pastry itself.
Deedledum December 9, 2017
This is the way it's supposed to be. Not with chocolate though, ok? Really, it doesn't have to be in everything!
AntoniaJames December 8, 2017
How do you prevent the chocolate chips from burning into bitter bits on the bottom of the baking pan? I haven't had success using chocolate chips in sticky buns. Thank you. :o)
Author Comment
Posie (. December 8, 2017
Hm, I haven't had that issue much! I'm assuming you're already lining your pans with parchment? If not that will help! Another suggestion would be to definitely chop the chocolate rather than leave it as chips or chunkier, this should help the filling "adhere" more and ideally stay in place a bit better.