Thinner than your usual roll and unfrosted, these sweet rolls 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.
The filling features Chinese five-spice powder—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. And the flavors—licorice-like fennel and sweet cinnamon and spiced clove—pair beautifully with chocolate (I used SunSpire organic). Frosting? No need when the interior of each roll is so absurdly, addictively delicious. —Posie (Harwood) Brien
To make the dough, heat the milk until just lukewarm. Stir in the yeast and let sit for 5-10 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or by hand in a large bowl, mix together the milk/yeast mixture, flour, butter, sugar, egg yolk, and salt. Mix until the dough comes together, and then knead until the dough is very smooth and elastic—don't skimp on this step. It should take about 10 minutes in a stand mixer. If the dough is still pretty sticky, carry on kneading until it feels quite smooth.
Lightly grease a large bowl and place the dough in it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until puffy and almost doubled.
Gently press down the dough to deflate it, and turn it out onto a counter. The dough is buttery enough that you shouldn't need extra flour—it shouldn't stick.
Press/roll/stretch the dough out into a large rectangle, about 12" x 18" in size.
Brush the melted butter evenly over the dough, leaving a little space around all the edges (about 1/2"). Whisk the five-spice powder into the sugar to combine, then sprinkle the mixture evenly over the butter. Sprinkle the chocolate evenly over the surface.
Starting with the long edge closest to you, roll the rectangle into a long log. Pinch the seam closed firmly. Using a serrated knife or a piece of unflavored dental floss, slice the dough into 2-inch rounds (or a little thinner).
Place the rolls into a greased 9-inch round cake pan. (I like to grease the pan, then line it with parchment, and then grease it again because then the rolls pop out easily.) Cover the pan with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and let rise until puffy, about 20 minutes. Towards the end of the rise, preheat the oven to 375° F.
Bake the rolls for about 25 minutes (start checking after 20, and then may take as long as 30 -- just take them out when they are golden brown on top). Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes.