Ultimate Cinnamon Buns

Words Harriet Boucher, Images Ashlee DeCaires

Mum’s cinnamon buns are iconic in our family. They have been used as bribery, to say thanks, for birthdays, and just for a decadent weekend treat. It was a no-brainer to do this season’s ‘how to’ on the trendy sweet bread.

What is a cinnamon roll (or bun, or scroll)? According to bakerpedia.com, it is sweet baked dough, filled with cinnamon-sugar filling. It is made with rich dough leavened with yeast; the characteristic form is due to rolling a dough sheet containing the sweetened cinnamon filling. Cinnamon rolls are thought to have originated in Sweden and are celebrated there on October 4th every year.

There are so many options for the perfect cinnamon bun. Even when you think you’ve nailed it, it still can come down to personal preference: thick cream cheese icing or a thin glaze? Brioche, enriched or basic dough? A cinnamon sugar sprinkle or a buttery paste? After six rounds of testing (such a hard job), I think I’ve found my pick!

The dough:

This is the most important part of the cinnamon bun, so I felt the pressure to get it right. I started with professional baker and patissier Dean Brettschneider’s Swedish cinnamon bun dough, flavoured with cardamom. It was a cold day but even after finding a warm spot, my dough struggled to rise. Admittedly I used active dry yeast instead of instant dry which the recipe calls for, so that may have been my downfall. I also tried Dean’s NYC Sticky Buns which uses the same dough, without the cardamom. This time I activated the yeast in the warm milk, and it rose perfectly. Dean’s doughs are sticky to start, which requires a little extra flour, but they knead into a silky-smooth product that are a breeze to work with.

My mother Tracey Gunn’s cinnamon buns use her basic bread-maker dough that gets turned into bread rolls, pizza bases and scrolls in our house. I made this dough by hand but used the Surebake yeast that you would typically use in a bread-maker.

It worked a treat and resulted in soft, pliable dough. Mum also recommended an old recipe from the American magazine Good Housekeeping, which had a similar rising issue as the Swedish cinnamon buns. It was a strange method, as you gradually beat in the flour to the milk mixture over a five-minute period, before turning it out to knead. The yeast never dissolved into the milk, which left it with little yeast granules throughout the finished product.

I also tested Erin Clarkson’s brioche dough for her brown butter cinnamon rolls (from cloudykitchen.com, a New Zealand baking blog). This recipe used a stand mixer with a dough hook. It started out a bit dry but eventually kneaded into buttery soft dough. This brioche had vanilla essence in the dough which gave it a subtle scent. I’m not sure this came through in the cooked cinnamon bun though. I had great success with the yeast this time around and it proved perfectly.



The filling:

My filling preference is a buttery brown sugar and cinnamon paste (just like Mum makes) over a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, but I was willing to try all options. For the Swedish buns, Dean Brettschneider sprinkles a brown sugar and cinnamon mix over his dough that has been rolled out and brushed with water. He adds white sugar into the mix for his NYC sticky buns, which doesn’t make a huge difference in flavour. The Good Housekeeping recipe uses a similar sugar mix, but the dough is brushed generously with butter before being coated in sugar. These three sugar mixes were lacking that warmth and spice that cinnamon brings.

The Cloudy Kitchen brown butter filling was quite fiddly: you brown the butter, cool it down to a spreadable consistency and then beat it with brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. The generous amount of cinnamon was inspiring though, everyone else should take note! Mum’s paste is similar, minus a lot of the effort, and she too is generous with her cinnamon quantity.

The shaping:

To me, the best cinnamon rolls are the iconic tray of perfectly touching buns, rolled into tight spirals and baked cut side up; they’re oozy with filling—and icing—when you finally pull them apart. These are how buns by Cloudy Kitchen, Good Housekeeping and Mum are shaped. Even though this is my personal favourite, the middle buns lack the crust that the outer buns achieve. But some people love the sticky middle buns so choose wisely who you share them with.

Dean Brettschneider’s Swedish cinnamon buns have a traditional knot shape. These can be twisted a few different ways, but you start by rolling the dough into a sheet, spreading it with filling, then folding it in half and cutting strips. These strips are then twisted and stretched out. Dean ties his buns into a double knot, but they can also be twirled around your thumb to create a tight spiral. Traditionally, they are also sprinkled with crunchy pearl sugar instead of a glaze, but that was impossible to find in stores so we skipped that step.

Dean’s NYC sticky buns start off with a log of filled dough that’s cut into 12 buns but instead of sitting cosy on a tray, they are placed into Texas muffin tins that have a dollop of a caramel-like glaze in the bottom of each hole.

The icing:

Cloudy Kitchen uses an American-style cream cheese icing that was slathered over each bun. The icing was delectable, but it was definitely too much when paired with a brioche cinnamon bun. A few of my taste-testers ended up wiping most of the icing off.

The glaze that sits beneath the NYC sticky bun is made with honey, sugar, butter, vanilla and salt. It bubbles into a caramel as the dough bakes around it. When the buns are flipped out, they have a toffee-like topping that is to die for. However, since we were making cinnamon buns, I found that the honey overpowered the cinnamon flavour.

Mum’s and the Good Housekeeping’s buns have a basic icing sugar/water glaze over top which adds naughty sweetness to the bun while the cinnamon flavour stands hero.

The test taste:

Good Housekeeping’s dough came out spongy and airy. If it wasn’t for the filling and glaze, it would have been very dry. I’d give these ones a miss.

Cloudy Kitchen’s brioche-based bun was a dessert in itself. For the amount of effort that goes into a brioche, it wouldn’t be my pick for an everyday cinnamon bun, but they are worth it when impressing a crowd. They are very sweet, and the icing is a bit too generous, but that’s part of the glory of a cinnamon bun, isn’t it?

Dean’s Swedish cinnamon buns were my least favourite, but the version made by Whangamata’s Port Road Project cafe is out-the-gate-good, packed with cardamom flavour and always with pearl sugar on top. I love the intricate shaping of these buns and being less sweet, they are a bit lighter than Cloudy Kitchen’s buns, and NYC sticky buns.

Mum’s cinnamon buns were just how I remember them growing up. The dough is quite savoury, which I personally love. The filling is packed with cinnamon and the sweet glaze brings it all together. For me, the winner was a close call between these and Dean’s NYC sticky buns.

The NYC sticky buns were fluffy and moreish, and the toffee glaze was an enticing change from icing. The filling on the first test of these lacked cinnamon and the honey in the glaze was quite overpowering.



The final:

To create my ultimate cinnamon bun, I have used Dean’s NYC sticky bun dough, removed the honey from the glaze and used Mum’s brown sugar paste filling. This is my winning combo that encapsulates the cinnamon bun definition.


3½ tsp active dry yeast

500g strong bread flour

1¼ tsp salt

100g butter

½ cup sugar

1 medium Otaika Valley egg

260ml milk, warmed to 30°C


140g butter, softened

¾ cup brown sugar

2½ tbsp cinnamon


200g brown sugar

100g butter

pinch of salt

½ tsp vanilla extract

¼ tsp cinnamon


Sprinkle the yeast over the warm milk, along with a large pinch of the sugar. Give it a whisk with a fork and allow to activate for 5–10 minutes until foamy.

Place the rest of the dough ingredients, along with the yeast/milk mix, in a large mixing bowl and give it a stir with a wooden spoon to bring it together. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 15 minutes, resting for 1 minute every few minutes to allow the dough to relax. Have a small bowl of flour handy for dusting as the dough can be quite sticky.

Once the dough is soft and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap, for 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

Tip the dough out of the bowl and gently deflate by folding it on itself 3–4 times. Place the dough back in the bowl, cover and leave for a further 30 minutes.

While the dough is rising, make your filling by beating the butter with the brown sugar and cinnamon until it becomes a smooth paste. It doesn’t need to be light and fluffy, just evenly mixed.

To make the glaze, very gently melt all of the ingredients together in a saucepan over a low heat until the sugar is dissolved, making sure not to boil it.

Grease two, six-hole Texas muffin tins well with butter or spray oil. Place 2 tbsp of the glaze in the bottom of each muffin cup.

Tip dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll out to a 45cm x 35cm rectangle, with the long edge facing you. Spread the cinnamon filling evenly over the dough, then tightly and evenly roll the dough into a log. Lengthen the log slightly by gently rolling it, then cut into 12 even pieces, approximately 4cm thick. Place each dough piece into a muffin cup with the spiral cut facing up. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise for about 1 hour until doubled in size.

When buns have risen, remove plastic wrap and place into a preheated 200°C oven. Bake for 15–20 minutes until light and golden brown. Remove from the oven, wait 1 minute then tip the muffin pan upside down and allow the buns to gently fall onto a baking tray or rack. Be careful as the glaze will be hot. Allow to cool slightly then serve.


Note: You can skip the glaze step and follow the recipe as usual, then ice with an icing sugar/water mix if you prefer that way!

Once mastered the sticky cinnamon bun you might want to try a twist with these Cinnamon Bun Knots.


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