It’s easy to forget that citrus has a season unless you live among the trees, somewhere warm where you can catch its daydream scent with the winter breeze. If you know that magic, you want to capture it. If you don’t, you want to experience it. There’s a hint of it when peeling an orange, but its full embrace comes in the warmth of sweet rolls.
Recipe: Orange Rolls
Perfumed with fresh orange zest in the dough, filling and glaze, these citrusy cinnamon rolls come together in less than an hour, thanks to a fluffy, tender base that doesn’t require yeast. The fruit’s tangy juice blends with cream cheese for an icing that slouches, then sinks, into the spiced spirals.
The most commonly known orange rolls come from Pillsbury and inspire intense nostalgia in those who woke up to them on Sunday mornings. But long before they were sealed into popping blue tubes, orange rolls came from made-by-hand recipes.
I don’t have an attachment to the Pillsbury rolls, but I’ll never forget the sugary orange rolls I had in Alabama, where they’re widely beloved, at Bogue’s Restaurant in Birmingham. To recreate anything approximating those crackling yet melting buns requires hours and the talent and muscle memory of Ella Irby, the longtime baker at Bogue’s, which closed last fall after 84 years in business.
But, to capture the citrus sunshine of orange rolls and make them doable for anyone (especially non-morning people like me), I started with a quick biscuit technique that relies on baking powder. Unlike yeast, which requires hours to work, baking powder puffs dough instantly. On her website, The Food Historian, Sarah Wassberg Johnson writes that there were recipes for orange rolls with biscuit dough from 1916 onward.
My version has that old-fashioned feel, an easy-like-Sunday-morning breakfast from simpler times. But it also includes modern additions to help the short-dough bun end up as soft as any yeasted treat. The trick is to rub cream cheese along with the butter into the flour and also to add more milk — or, even better, half-and-half. Rich cream cheese keeps the dough tender and gives it a sweet tang, and more liquid prevents the dough from drying out. Freezing the sticky dough while preparing the pan and filling helps it firm up for smoother rolling.
The most important part of these rolls is the fresh orange zest, plump with fragrant, flavorful citrus oils. Lightly grating the fruit directly over the brown sugar ensures that the spritzes of oil don’t end up wasted on a cutting board or bowl. (Avoid hitting the white pith beneath the skin, as it’s bitter.) Gently rubbing that zest into the sugar further releases its aroma. A few spoonfuls sweeten the dough itself, while the rest is blended with cinnamon or a combination of cinnamon and cardamom, and snailed into a roll. When that filling melts in the oven, the natural moisture in the brown sugar creates gooey centers and caramelized bottoms.
To complement the fleece-blanket comfort of the buns, a mound of orange zest freshens up a cream cheese glaze and tints it the color of a sunrise. As the icing runs rivulets over the hot rolls, its aroma intensifies, filling the kitchen and stirring nostalgia or the promise of new memories.