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Chef Dixon's holiday surprise: Sweet potato cinnamon rolls

Kirsten Dixon
The dough is light and fluffy and not too sweet.
Tyrone Potgieter photo
We let the assembled rolls rise for about 30 minutes.
Tyrone Potgieter photo
Homemade sweet potato cinnamon rolls add a festive touch to holiday brunch.
Tyrone Potgieter photo

In a family that works together and lives together, celebratory events can sometimes be a challenge. My family of seven people see each other every day. Most of us work together in our small family-run business, so how can we spark up a (mostly mandatory) holiday feast and keep the table conversation going? We do it through food. New recipes, adventurous dishes, old classics that are only served at holiday time, all bring special meaning to our gatherings.

Our plans this year include a Chinese food festival, lots of movie going and ice skating, a scavenger hunt through the city (we are spending Christmas in Anchorage this year – a kind of reverse getaway from our normal routine in the wilds), and a day of downhill skiing. But, our main holiday meal together this year will be a Christmas morning brunch.

On the menu so far are caramel-apple waffles, homemade sausage, apricot breakfast biscuits, an elegant little baked egg dish with mushrooms and cream, and biksemad, a Danish-style potato hash with pickled red beets and roasted pork.  We will save our favorite seasonal seafood dishes for the New Years. We’ll also make a sweet potato cinnamon roll that we serve out at the lodge.  These rolls are light and fluffy and they always disappear quickly.     

Making yeast-risen breakfast rolls might seem a little too time consuming for a first thing in the morning effort but it is easy enough if you do the majority of the work the day before. Basically, we make yeast dough softened with a bit of milk, flavored with aromatic orange peel and cooked, mashed sweet potatoes (yams or regular potatoes work as well). Filling can be as intriguing as you like but we prefer the classic pecan, brown sugar, and cinnamon crumble. Other favorites have been blueberry or raspberry jam or jam-and-cream cheese combinations.

In our recipe, we use bread flour that helps the dough to rise, and we use milk that softens the dough and makes it tender. The sweet potato provides a natural sweetness but the rolls themselves aren’t too sweet or cloying as rolls can sometimes be. Sweetness can be added in the filling and the drizzle on top. This is particularly good if there is some tartness or acid added, either through fruit or citrus.

In the recipe below, we rolled the dough into a log and cut the dough into 12 individual rolls before we baked them. You might want to experiment with other festive shapes. You can make a wreath by slicing the log through into half and braiding the two lengths together. Connect the ends of the dough to form a circular wreath shape.

I have noted the spot in the recipe to do a day ahead if that works in your holiday meal planning. 

Sweet Potato Cinnamon Rolls

For the dough:

1⁄2 cup warm milk
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon yeast
3 3⁄4 cups bread flour
1⁄4 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons salt
3⁄4 cup sweet potato purée
2 tablespoons grated orange rind
3⁄4 cup unsalted butter (12 tablespoons)

For the filling:

3⁄4 cup softened unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup chopped toasted pecans
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

For the glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla

In a medium bowl mix together the milk, yeast, and 3⁄4 cup of the bread flour. Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes.

Add in the remaining bread flour, sugar, eggs, salt, sweet potato purée, orange rind, and butter. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic (about 4 to 5 minutes).

Place the dough into a large greased bowl. Cover the bowl with a kitchen cloth and let rise in a warm place for about 1 to 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk. In the meantime, combine the ingredients for the filling in a small bowl.

Punch the dough down. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, and roll out into a 10-by-18-inch rectangle. Spread evenly with the prepared filling, leaving a 1-inch border. Roll up dough, jellyroll fashion, starting at 1 long side. Cut into 12 (11⁄2-inch) slices, and arrange in a lightly greased 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

This is the point that you can wrap up the pan tightly with plastic wrap and place it into the refrigerator. In the morning, remove, the wrap, bring the dough to room temperature and continue with the following instructions.

Cover the rolls with a kitchen cloth and let rise in a warm place free from drafts for about 30 minutes. In a small bowl mix together the powdered sugar, milk, lemon juice, and vanilla to make the glaze.

Bake the rolls at 400°F for 10 minutes. Remove rolls from the oven. Drizzle some of the glaze slowly over the rolls. Let the glaze soak in a bit and repeat.

Makes 12 rolls.

Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.