Fresh baked homemade cinnamon rolls are one of those special treats that are the highlight of family get-togethers and holiday breakfasts.
But why is something so delicious relegated only to special occasions? Probably because making them from scratch can take as long as six hours, what with the dough needing to rise, proof, then rise again. All of which means someone has to get up six hours before breakfast to make them.
Not real convenient. Surely there's got to be some way to enjoy hot, sweet, gooey cinnamon rolls for breakfast without having to get up in the middle of the night.
And it turns out that, yes, there is. You just need to use your freezer.
Cinnamon Rolls Are Yeast Breads
Cinnamon rolls are made from a type of rich yeast dough, and different recipes use different makeup techniques, ranging from the straight dough method to the sponge method, with many slight variations in between. But what they have in common is that they all take time. You can't get around that.
What you can do is do most of the work ahead of time, namely, rolling out the dough, adding the filling, cutting it into individual rolls as prescribed by whatever recipe you're using.
But instead of baking the rolls, you'll freeze the unbaked rolls, then thaw and bake them later.
What Happens to Yeast When You Freeze It?
When you freeze the unbaked, unrisen rolls, the yeast goes into hibernation. That means when you take it out of the freezer and bring it to room temperature, it will wake up and continue about its business of consuming sugar and producing CO2 gas, which is what makes the dough rise.
Now, depending on how long the yeast lives in the freezer, not all of it will survive. A week or two is fine, but longer than that and some of the yeast will have died, which will look to you like the rolls will take longer to rise or won't rise as much as they should.
For that reason, it's not a bad idea to use extra yeast if you know you're making the rolls more than two weeks in advance. Around 50 percent more should be enough, but you don't have to go crazy with the math. If a recipe calls for a packet of yeast, which is 2 1/4 teaspoons, just add another teaspoon.
Freezing Unbaked Cinnamon Rolls
The first technique is to roll and cut the rolls normally, then wrap them tightly in plastic and freeze them before they rise. Then, the night before you want to bake them, transfer them to a sheet pan and let them thaw in the fridge overnight. In the morning, take them out, set the pan someplace warm until they've doubled in volume, then bake them.
The trouble with this method is that if you forget to move them to the fridge, you can end up waiting five or six hours for the frozen rolls to thaw at room temperature, then rise. With that kind of wait time, you might as well just make a fresh batch.
But as long as the dough thaws in the fridge overnight, they should only take an hour or at the most two to rise. This will vary based on how warm or cool your kitchen is, as well as how long the rolls were in the freezer (see above). But the key is that you're not watching the clock, you're watching the rolls. Only once they've doubled in volume are they ready to bake.
Parbaking Then Freezing
Another, possibly even better method for making and freezing cinnamon rolls is to simply parbake them (which means baking them part of the way), until they've expanded to their full height, but haven't yet started to brown. This should take 10 to 15 minutes.
Then take the pan out of the oven and let it cool completely. You do not want to wrap these puppies up while they're still warm, or frost will form on them in the freezer. Let them cool all the way before wrapping.
And when you do wrap, just wrap the whole pan, in two layers of plastic wrap, and transfer the whole thing to the freezer. (Before you start, make sure whatever sheet pan you're using will fit in your freezer!)
The night before you're ready to serve them, transfer them to the fridge and let them thaw there overnight. Bake at 350 F for 10 to 15 minutes or until they've evenly browned. You can make the icing while they bake. And don't worry too much about freezer burn. As long as your wrap the pans tightly and don't keep them in the freezer for more than two weeks, they'll be fine. And if not, well, that's what icing is for.
Note that with this method, you don't have to worry about increasing the yeast.
One Last Method
You can also just bake the rolls, ice them, wrap and freeze them, then simply warm them up in the microwave later. This is the extreme make-ahead approach, and it'll work fine too. You could also ice them after you warm them up.