To replicate the best puffy, feathery cinnamon rolls of our youth, we made a buttermilk-based sweet dough. The buttermilk adds richness, but also keeps the dough from being too heavy or greasy. Rounded out with some melted butter and a few eggs, our sweet dough was rich and moist and, best of all, easy to put together.
Once we found the perfect foundation, we focused on the shaping process that would give the buns their pinwheel spirals. Rolling up the dough slowly and tightly eliminated air pockets and ensured the rolls wouldn’t uncoil while cooking. The other part of the equation was finding the best tool for slicing the cylinder into evenly sized rolls: a serrated knife. Any other type of knife mashed the soft dough and left our perfect pinwheels with jagged, uneven sides—unacceptable for our cinnamon rolls, which we wanted to look as good as they taste.
STEP #1 Form the risen dough into a rectangle: Working on a lightly floured counter, press the dough into a 16 by 12-inch rectangle with the long side facing you. Be sure to use a ruler as it is important to get the rectangle the right size or you will not end up with the right number of rolls or rolls that are the right size. Brush the dough with melted butter.
STEP #2 Add the filling and leave a border: Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough leaving a ¾-inch border along the top edge. If you don’t leave a border, it will be harder to get the dough to stick together when you form a cylinder and it may unroll. Press the filling to adhere it to the dough.
STEP #3 Form a tidy, even cylinder: Form a tidy, even cylinder: Carefully roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Do this slowly and with great care since an uneven cylinder will yield squat, misshapen rolls.
STEP #4 Seal the dough cylinder tightly: Once the dough is rolled tightly, pinch the dough together to close the cylinder and create a secure seam. Roll the cylinder over so that it is seam-side down.
STEP #5 Stretch and measure: Gently stretch the cylinder until it is 18 inches long with an even diameter. You may have to work with the cylinder a few times, stretching and patting the ends until it is exactly the right length. Pat the ends of the cylinder when you are done to even them.
STEP #6 Slice and arrange: Use a serrated knife to slice the cylinder into 12 evenly sized rolls. If you try to use any other sort of knife you will mash the soft dough. The rolls are fragile, so use a light hand and arrange them cut-side down in a greased 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan.