Christmas Cinnamon Rolls

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Sometimes a memory comes with a taste. And for me, holiday memories will always taste like a gooey warm cinnamon roll packed with raisins and nuts.

Growing up, one of my fondest memories was sitting on the kitchen counter, the Christmas tree glittering from the living room, watching my father patiently roll out the dough for these special rolls, begging him to let me sprinkle the cinnamon or raisins.

In our family, this recipe is made only during the holiday season and can’t be tasted until Christmas morning. No exceptions.

My grandmother’s chicken-scratch handwriting is still barely legible on the three index cards she used to write down the recipe. Today, those cards are worn and tattered after years of being splattered with melted butter and flour.

In the last couple years, I’ve taken over roll duty in my family, and its one I take seriously. The only change I’ve made is we get to sneak a bite or two before Christmas morning. We call them cinnamon rolls, but purists might call them a sticky bun; either way the rolls are sweet and delicious, decadently buttery and oh so satisfying.

To make the dough:
• 1 cup milk
• 2¼ teaspoons dry active yeast
• ¼ cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
• ½ cup granulated sugar
• 2 large eggs, room temperature
• 4 cups all-purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon salt

Heat milk in a small saucepan over low heat until warm but not hot (about 105 degrees). Pour into large mixing bowl. Sprinkle yeast over milk and let sit until dissolved — approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Melt ¼ cup butter and let cool slightly. Whisk butter, sugar and eggs into milk mixture. Stir in the flour and salt, mixing the ingredients until well combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or kitchen towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
Proof the dough. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for several minutes. Return dough to an oiled large bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a towel to let the dough rise to twice its volume — about 30 to 40 minutes.

To make the filling & form the rolls:
• ¼ cup butter, melted
• ½ cup brown sugar
• 1 tablespoon cinnamon
• ½ cup raisins
• ½ cup chopped pecans (optional)

Once the dough has risen, punch it down and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a large, ¼-inch thick rectangle. Spread ¼ cup butter evenly over the dough using a spatula. Sprinkle the brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins and pecans evenly over the dough. Starting at one long side, roll the dough onto itself, forming a log. Pinch the seam and ends to seal. Use a serrated knife to cut the dough crosswise into 16 equal sections.

For the glaze:
• ¾ cup butter
• 1 cup brown sugar
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon vanilla

Melt butter, brown sugar, salt and vanilla together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Mix together using a whisk. When sauce has congealed, divide sauce between two greased, 9-inch pie plates. Arrange eight rolls per pan. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size — about 45 minutes.
Once the rolls have risen, uncover them and bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes until rolls are golden brown and the glaze is bubbling. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Invert rolls onto a plate so the cinnamon rolls are “glaze side up” and serve warm.