Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rematerializing to Riff on the Pioneer Woman

You may have inferred from my prolonged absence that either I had (prematurely) gone on to my reward...or I was languishing in the throes of finals. My reappearance confirms two things: I ain't dead and SCHOOL IS OUT! YIPPPEEEEEE!! Ok, so I have only finished five out of seven of my classes' final grades, and I'll have to return to work one afternoon next week. Still, the hard part is done. And that was a ROUGH semester, let me tell you, but it really flew by! It seems like I was just picking tomatoes out of my garden, and then--POW--it all screeched to a halt. And as is my way at the end of the semester, I have been comatose most of the weekend, trying to recuperate. I can't seem to stay awake for more than four hours at a time! Case in point, I woke up at 5:30 this morning, sitting straight up in my big chair, hands still on the keyboard of my laptop (forgive me if I sent anyone an indecipherable email last night or stopped instant messaging mid-conversation!).

Not only did I have finals to contend with last week, I also wanted to make some holiday treats for my divisional co-workers. Fortunately, I had just one final on Thursday morning, so I was done by 1pm and headed home early to start the insane baking frenzy! I first saw the recipe for the Pioneer Woman's cinnamon rolls in the summer of aught-seven, and I immediately made seven pans of those decadent suckers. (Actually, I was trying to make half the recipe, but I forgot to halve the flour! So I ended up making the full recipe and sold the extras at the farmer's market. Problem solved.) They were good, but I had a few problems making them, so I never did blog about it. I wanted a chance to improve on my first efforts, and Christmas seemed like the ideal excuse.

This time, I think I've got it! In fact, my friend Vicky said that she tried to show restraint by eating just a half of one roll, but she had gobbled down the whole thing before she could stop herself, asking me if I had put crack in them?! I told her no, just lots and lots of butter. Tee hee. I love that this recipe is a no-knead affair which yields a very soft, tender roll. Maybe it's the vegetable oil in the dough (instead of butter or shortening) or maybe it's the addition of baking powder and baking soda? Who knows?! All I know is the resulting roll is light as a feather...until you drown it in butter and sugar, that is!

Now the Pioneer Woman is a delightful person, but she may be trying to kill us. I have never been one to shy away from butter, but she might be crazy, instructing us to pour up to FOUR CUPS (two pounds!) of butter onto the dough. That's just ridiculous, and because she also has you using melted butter, it's inevitable that most of that butter is going to run out of the dough and end up all over your counter and floor. Plus, the butter that's left in the rolls bakes out and fills the pan, so that your rolls sort of fry rather than bake. Moreover, it tends to overflow the pan, and then you have butter burning on the bottom of your oven and smoking you out of the kitchen! Thus, I have cut the total amount of butter used by almost half (which is still PLENTY!), and I advise that you soften it until it's almost melted, but not all the way to liquid and translucent. (If you go too far, pop it into the fridge or out onto the cold porch like we do in my neck of the woods, until it solidifies a little.) Then use a pastry brush to brush on the very soft butter. This works much better and makes the rolling-up process much more humane. And a pound of butter still makes for a scrumptiously sinful cinnamon roll! Trust me on this point.

Secondly, I advocate using brown sugar for at least half of the sugar in the filling to give it a gooier texture and more of a caramel flavor. Also, I don't think I prefer as much cinnamon in my rolls as Ree does, though she doesn't specify how much she uses. I like a generous tablespoon inside each half of the dough, but most people may prefer two tablespoons or so (to taste). Next, I don't prefer to measure my rolls individually as I cut them and then potentially end up with an uneven amount and inconsistent size of rolls. I just divide each roll (that's half of one batch) into thirds using a ruler to help make it equal, then cut each third into half (eyeballing it), then each of those halves into thirds (also eyeballing), for a total of 18 big rolls. That works best for me. I also bake them at a slightly lower temperature for a little bit longer to aid them in their rise, as my house is so cold in the winter!

The only thing that could make these rolls any better or more decadent would be the addition of some nuts in the filling. Some people don't like nuts or are allergic, so when I make these for gifts, I leave the nuts out. But for myself and other nut lovers, I like to add about a cup of very finely chopped pecans (walnuts would be good, too) sprinkled over the cinnamon sugar. I usually like big pieces of nuts in my baked goods, but you want these almost pulverized, or your rolls will be very hard to cut and roll, and the nut pieces will also pierce the tender dough as you roll. Then again, you needn't be too worried about the rolls looking just so before baking, because they will puff up and hide any imperfections, and the maple frosting also covers a multitude of sins.

Speaking of the frosting, I made another couple of minor changes. First of all, a two-pound bag of sugar makes a frosting that's AWFULLY sweet! I prefer about a pound and a half per batch of frosting. And in addition to the maple extract, I like to throw in a little touch of real maple syrup, too, because living in maple country, I always have some on hand. One last note, for those of you afraid of the coffee in the frosting, DON'T BE! It doesn't really make the frosting taste like coffee. It just adds a layer of flavor that sort of punches up the maple-y goodness. You can always omit the coffee and add more milk, but I don't advise it. Also, if you don't have or don't prefer the maple flavor, use two teaspoons of vanilla instead. But again, you'd be making a mistake. The maple frosting is the way to go!

However you choose to make them, MAKE THEM! These things are TO. DIE. FOR. Slap-yo-mama good. Throw your head back and groan at the first bite good. Sure, they take some time and effort, but most of the best things in life do. This would be a terrific family tradition to make for your family on Christmas morning (or for Hannukah or Kwanzaa or Festivus). And it would be an even nicer tradition to make these as gifts for your friends, neighbors, or co-workers as I did this year. And it's only Dec. still have plenty of time! So get to rolling! Here's my take on the recipe:

Maple Cinnamon Rolls
(Source: adapted from
The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)
Yield: six pans of six large rolls

1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast (I used instant)
9 cups flour, divided
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1 scant teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon salt

2 cups (one pound) butter, almost melted but still opaque
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
generous sprinkling of cinnamon (1/8 to 1/4 cup)
2 cups pecans, very finely chopped, optional

1 1/2 pounds powdered sugar (3/4 of a bag)
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon maple extract (if using maple syrup, if not, use 2 teaspoons maple extract)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Grade B maple syrup, optional
1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix whole milk, vegetable oil and sugar in a large pot and scald bring just to the boiling pint). Let cool until lukewarm (100 degrees or less--this will take 45 minutes to an hour). Sprinkle in yeast and let sit for a minute or two to get frothy (if you use instant yeast, you can skip the wait). Add eight cups flour and stir mixture together. Cover and let sit for about one hour in a warm, draft-free place.

Punch down and add another cup of flour, along with the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir mixture together. (At this point, the dough can be refrigerated overnight or even for a few days--just keep punching it down if it gets unwieldy.)

Divide dough in half (cover and reserve the other half of the dough), then sprinkle a long, flat surface generously with flour and form the first half of the dough into a rectangle with your fingertips. Then with a rolling pin, roll the dough out thinly, maintaining a rectangular shape (on my butcher block kitchen island, mine ends up to be about 24 inches long and about 18 inches wide). Using a pastry brush, brush one cup of the very soft butter all over the dough. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup each granulated and brown sugar, 1 to 2 tablespoons cinnamon, and one cup crushed pecans, if using. Roll up the dough, jelly-roll style, as tightly as you can. Pinch the seam to seal it. Spray three foil cake or pie pans with nonstick cooking spray. Cut each log into thirds, and then each third into six equal pieces, for a total of 18 rolls. Place five rolls around the outside of each greased pan and one in the middle. Cover the rolls and let sit for about 30 minutes. Bake at 375 for 20-22 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Repeat with the second half of dough.

Combine all frosting ingredients in a bowl and whisk thoroughly. Generously drizzle frosting over warm rolls after they come out of the oven. Make sure to put some around the perimeter of the pan so that the outside edges of the rolls get coated.

Cook's Note: These rolls can be frozen before baking, then thawed, baked and frosted. Or they can be frozen after baking, even with the frosting on them! They defrost beautifully and taste freshly-baked. So while you're going to the trouble of making them, you might as well make a bunch!

After grading mountains of papers and speeches, and baking THREE batches of homemade cinnamon rolls (that's 18 pans' worth or 108 cinnamon rolls in total), you might understand why I've been down for the count this weekend. But I did manage to find the energy to rouse myself from slumbering in the big chair long enough to prepare yet another Pioneer Woman recipe last night, Pasta alla Vodka. In a word, DELECTABLE! In another word, easy-peasy. And like everything else Ree makes, shamefully rich. On the plus side, though you might choose to add some grilled chicken breasts or shrimp or spicy Italian sausage to this dish, you needn't. It's plenty hearty and filling and satisfying without any meat involved--even your most devout carnivore might agree. This recipe is a keeper, especially during this busy holiday season. It's special enough to honor the magic of the season, but it's quick and easy enough so that you can get back to wrapping presents, trimming the tree, delivering all those faint-worthy cinnamon rolls, or napping in your own big chair!

Ok, some notes before the recipe. First, I had a half a large red onion sitting on the counter, waiting to be used. So I decided to chop up a few shallots that I also had on hand to make the equivalent of a whole onion and to add another layer of flavor. I also upped the garlic amount to about six cloves, as is my way. I also did not have tomato puree in my pantry, so I drained a jar of whole tomatoes that I put up this fall, and whizzed them up in the blender with a small can of tomato paste, which worked perfectly. But when the sauce was done, it seemed to want for something herb-y, and if I had had any fresh basil, I would have used that. But I opted for a scant teaspoon of dried thyme instead which did the trick. Finally, though I used my favorite pasta, pappardelle, it had the tendency to break apart as I stirred it together with the thick sauce. So I would definitely recommend a sturdier pasta (penne, rigatoni, farfalle, etc.), and make sure to just cook it to al dente. Lastly, don't worry about getting drunk on this pasta or feeding it to kids. Much of the alcohol burns off anyway, and the whole purpose of using the vodka is to "unlock" some flavor components in the tomatoes that are only alcohol-soluble. If you are a tee-totaller and opposed to cooking with alcohol, then go make yourself spaghetti instead. Sheesh! Ok, here's the recipe. Enjoy!

Pasta alla Vodka
The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)

1 medium onion, chopped finely (or a mix of onion and shallots)
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, chopped (or 4-6 for the garlic lovers!)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 to 1 cup vodka (I used the lesser amount)
1 (8 oz.) can tomato puree
1 cup heavy cream
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme, optional (or herb of your choice)
1 pound pasta
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions, being careful not to overcook.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and butter. When butter is melted, add in chopped onions and garlic. Stir and allow to cook for two minutes. Remove pan from the burner and pour in the vodka. Stir and cook for three minutes. Add in tomato puree and stir.
Reduce heat to low and stir in cream. Allow to simmer, but do not boil once the cream has been added. Stir in red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and herbs if using.

Drain the pasta, reserving one cup of pasta water in case sauce is too thick. Add cooked pasta to the sauce, tossing to combine. Splash in a little pasta water if it needs it. Stir in the parmesan cheese. Pour mixture into large serving bowl. In the holiday spirit, try to share your pasta with others. ;-)


Just the Right Size said...

Gina, I've been eyeing these two recipes for a while. Thanks for giving them a try. I've also been wanting to try her Apple Dumpling thingies that are made with Mountain Dew! Ree sure knows how to lay it on!

Glad you made the adjustments with the butter. I'm gonna have to try both!

Joy Bugaloo said...

I hope you haven't already printed off the recipe...I realized that I omitted some of the instructions in my initial post. I think I've fixed it now, though!


Anonymous said...

Hi Gina, good thing I read your post before I used all that butter in there :)That really looks delicious. I also would like to invite you Gina to drop by at Foodista. We have launched an online food and cooking encyclopedia ala wikipedia. Add a recipe and you can win a $100 gift card to Sur la table. Thanks, See you there!