There’s no other aroma quite like it—a heady blend of yeasty bread, rich butter, sweet brown sugar and intoxicating cinnamon. The fragrance is so alluring that there are perfumes, room sprays and oils with the scent.
The cinnamon bun—or roll—rivals Proust’s madeleine for evoking memories of family breakfasts and childhood holidays. Indeed, at this time of year, the demand for the luscious yeast-leavened roll and its cousin, the sticky bun, soars.
“We do extremely well around the holidays—especially since we deliver to your home in the tri-state area and ship nationwide,” says Lori Wirt Hilferty, co-owner of the Cinnamon Bun Exchange.
Hilferty and partner Tony Rizzo opened the Cinnamon Bun Exchange in April 2020 to serve first responders and friends who needed a pick-me-up in quarantine. Today, business is booming. Similarly, cinnamon buns sell out at Sleeping Bird Coffee in Wilmington, which won Best of Delaware honors for its buns, and The Station on Kings in Lewes.
The rolls would make the Pillsbury Doughboy hide his pudgy face in shame. For these bakers, buns are a serious business.
Sticky, sweet feats
A version of the cinnamon bun has long been popular in Northern Europe, especially in Scandinavia. Consider that Sweden and Finland celebrate National Cinnamon Bun Day on Oct. 4.
The Germans—or Pennsylvania Dutch—are responsible for popularizing sticky buns in the United States.
Traditionally, the sticky bun glaze goes into the pan first, followed by the rolls. After baking, the pan is inverted. Nuts are often part of the recipe. For instance, executive pastry chef Edith Enriquez says The Station on Kings uses toasted pecans, but nuts aren’t necessarily part of a cinnamon roll. “We are nut-free,” Hilferty points out.
At The Point Coffee Shop and Bake Shoppe in Rehoboth Beach, customers can get sticky buns with walnuts, pecans or raisins—or all three. “And if you really want to misbehave, we have the bacon pecan sticky bun,” says manager and pastry chef Peter Ryan.
Both cinnamon and sticky buns start with a yeasted dough. Not surprisingly, a good recipe is essential. “Our dough is our secret, but it is a very common dough that we altered and made our own,” Hilferty says. “We have not changed it since the beginning.”
Making the dough requires patience. Too many people want to make the dough and pop the rolls in the oven, Enriquez says. Letting it rest overnight will produce consistently shaped rolls with more flavor.
Fun with flavors
Butter, brown sugar and cinnamon are the standard fillings for both types. But, again, sticky buns often contain nuts and, occasionally, raisins.
Gretchen Sianni at Bar Reverie adds “whatever feels right” to her cinnamon bun filling. Around Easter, she’s made buns with blueberries and lemon. Similarly, Enriquez’s team has spread blueberry pie filling on the dough before rolling and topped the buns with liquid cheesecake and streusel. They’ve also used pumpkin pie filling.
While making brownies, Zach DeLong of Sleeping Bird Coffee realized that the batter resembled the buttery paste he uses to fill cinnamon buns. So, he used brownie batter in a batch to create a thin, chocolatey layer in his rolls. The brownie bun is a hit, but it’s special to the menu because it’s labor-intensive.
“The dough should be fluffy and have structure—a stretch when you pull it apart, and the filling should be sweet.”
— Gretchen Sianni, Bar Reverie
Hilferty and Rizzo feature pumpkin and caramel pumpkin spice, “which is a huge favorite for our customers,” she says. “We have had many flavors in the past and present such as chocolate, raspberry, peanut butter, Nutella, mixed berries, caramel apple and, our favorite, our boozy buns.”
Cinnamon buns typically have icing, and the Cinnamon Bun Exchange’s standard is cream cheese–buttercream icing. “We tell people to buy extra containers for their pancakes and waffles at home,” Hilferty says. “It is decadent.”
At The Point, Ryan tops one style of cinnamon bun with apple pie filling.
Sianni avoids overly sweet icing so the other ingredients shine. “I feel like the dough should be fluffy and have structure—a stretch when you pull it apart, and the filling should be sweet,” she explains.
However, in the past, she’s used Dijon for icing. That’s because she made savory rolls with a ham and brie filling.
More often, variations continue the sweet theme. DeLong has thought about using scraps to make fritters. Enriquez tosses scraps with cinnamon and bakes them in a ring to form a cinnamon cluster, and at The Point, leftovers go into bread pudding.
The Cinnamon Bun Exchange’s Crunchy Buns originated as an oops when Rizzo overcooked the buns. He cut them up, rebaked them and turned them into a little cookie that pairs with a container of icing.
No matter how you slice it, the confections are a satisfying bite of pure comfort.
Note: Most bakeries, including The Point, take preorders during the holidays. Store in an airtight container on the counter for a few days or in the fridge or freezer.