Last week the Twelve Loaves bakers turned out an impressive collection of holiday breads. I had my plan in place, but as I noted on last week’s cheat entry, holiday weekends ironically don’t always allow for baking projects. Now that I’ve had an extra week to get myself in order, I can show you what I intended to contribute: tiny sweet rolls, one to two bites for easier consumption, threaded through not with the classic pairing of cinnamon and brown sugar, but a more complex combination of spices drawn from the wonderful, warming blend that is masala chai, or chai tea. It’s not a traditional holiday bread, but the layering of slightly spicy flavors in chai has always reminded me of gingerbread. By the power of association, then, here we are.
Like many spice mixtures, chai does not have a set blend – many warm notes are added to the black tea leaves to produce the complex, slightly spicy flavor. Cardamom plays a dominant role, and cinnamon, ginger, and black peppercorns are usually present as well. Star anise contributes a subtle licorice note, and cloves and fennel also sometimes make an appearance.
For mine, since I used standard aniseed instead of the more traditional star anise (sometimes the grocery store is out and you’re too
lazy busy to walk down to the Indian market), I omitted the fennel – a breath of licorice flavor is more than enough for me. Balancing these strong spices can be a tricky task – I wanted my blend to lead with the sweeter cardamom and cinnamon, and be backed up by the depth of the cloves and aniseed. The black pepper and ginger should be subtle – a warming heat rather than aggressive spiciness.
I used my Nana’s sweet dough recipe for the base here, amping up the butter a bit and adding an extra egg, but I substituted honey for the sugar the original recipe calls for, since my favorite chai blend incorporates it. The floral notes of the honey make for a slightly more flavorful dough. A splash of vanilla, too, plays well with the spices and the honey.
Many cinnamon rolls are dripping with melted brown sugar and pack a sugar-overload punch that can get you through an entire crowded mall and its parking lot at Christmastime before you come down from your high. These tiptoe a bit more subtly into the holiday air. They are sweet, yes, but tempered. The spices come through, but you can still taste the honey and vanilla in the dough.
These would be perfectly fine on their own – in fact, N. and I bull-dozed through three of them quite unadorned when we did our quality control test, but I can’t help feeling, since they are inspired by a call for holiday breads, that a little excess is needed. A cream cheese frosting, then, lightly sweetened with honey and vanilla, seemed appropriate to smear over the top. And lest it begin to feel too heavy, a scattering of finely chopped crystallized ginger or orange zest brightens them up so you can almost – almost – get away with calling them breakfast.
Chai Spiced Sweet Rolls
Makes 32-36 mini rolls
Approximately 3 ½ hours start to finish (unless you refrigerate overnight for the second rise)
½ cup warm milk
pinch granulated sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
¼ cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup room temperature or just melted unsalted butter
2-3 cups all-purpose flour (you may not use all of it)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ – ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¾ teaspoon ground star anise or ½ teaspoon ground aniseed (be sparing; it’s strong stuff)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cloves
8 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ cup honey
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon milk (optional – to thin)
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger or orange zest, optional
- In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, warm the milk to just about body temperature (when you dip your finger in, it should feel neutral or barely warm). Sprinkle in the pinch of granulated sugar and the active dry yeast, stir briefly, and set aside to bubble for about 10 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment to combine the honey, vanilla, eggs, and softened butter. Once the yeast and milk mixture is bubbly and smells like bread, add it to the other wet ingredients and combine.
- Now add 2 cups of the flour and the salt, and mix with the paddle attachment until evenly moistened. Switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed for about 5 minutes, adding more flour ¼ cup at a time if the dough seems too wet. I used just over 2 ½ cups of flour. When adequately kneaded, it will be the consistency of slightly sticky play-dough.
- Spray or oil the inside of your bowl with non-stick spray, turn the dough ball over to coat it, and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside, preferably in a warm place, to rise until doubled: 1 ½ – 2 hours.
- While the dough rises, prepare the filling ingredients. Melt the butter, measure out the brown sugar, and combine the cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, black pepper, and cloves in a small dish. This is also a good time to butter or grease two round 9-inch cake pans.
- After the dough has doubled in size, punch it down by depressing your fist into the center to release the air, then let it rest for 5-10 minutes. This will make rolling much easier. Turn it out onto a floured board and cut in half with a dough scraper or a sharp knife. Return one half to the mixing bowl and, with a floured rolling pin, roll out the other as thin as possible without tearing, or at least to a 12×16 inch rectangle. If it seems sticky, use a dough scraper to release it from the board, sprinkle a little flour underneath, and rotate the dough 180 degrees before rolling again.
- Smear your 12×16 inch (or bigger) rectangle with melted butter, then crumble on half of the brown sugar in an even layer. Sprinkle on a heaping tablespoon of the chai spice mixture, then use your fingers to spread the spices and sugar evenly over the surface, leaving a ½ inch border on one long edge of the dough. This will be the end of the roll.
- Starting in the middle, begin rolling up the long edge of the dough (opposite the side on which you left the border), moving outward to the edges and trying to keep the roll even. You want to roll this tightly – the tighter the roll, the better it will stay together when sliced. As you get to the end of the roll, start to stretch the edge on which you left the border up over the existing roll, pinching it lightly into the roll to adhere. When finished, you should have a long, skinny log only an inch or two in diameter.
- To slice, use a serrated knife and saw back and forth applying as little pressure as possible. Slice the long log into 1-inch segments, and position each cut side up in one of your prepared 9-inch cake pans, spacing them slightly to give them room to puff.
- Repeat with the other half of the dough.
- Cover the filled cake pans with plastic wrap and let rise for 45-60 minutes until doubled again, or, if you are short on time, stow them in the refrigerator overnight (bring to room temperature before baking).
- 30-40 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 375F. When the little sweet rolls are puffed and ready, remove the plastic wrap and bake until pale gold on top and just barely set in the middle: 10-12 minutes.
- While the rolls cool, make the frosting. Use a handheld electric mixer, or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, to blend together the cream cheese, honey, and vanilla until fluffy. This will take 1-2 minutes, and at first the cream cheese will get clumpy and look separated – don’t worry! Just keep mixing and it will come back together. If it seems too thick, dribble in 1 tablespoon of milk and mix again to desired consistency.
- When the rolls have cooled, spread on the cream cheese frosting using a small rubber or offset icing spatula. If desired, top each with a spare sprinkle of finely chopped crystallized ginger or grated orange zest.
- Best served warm or at room temperature.