To many people, baking bread is a mysterious, complicated and time-consuming process. This recipe will diffuse the mystery and show you how anyone with a few simple ingredients and some basic equipment can make beautiful, hot, bakery-style yeast rolls. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that this can be done in about an hour. With the addition of a few more common ingredients, they can also be transformed into deliciously sticky cinnamon rolls.
Dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup of warm water in a small bowl and set aside.
Combine the milk, salt, butter and sugar in a small saucepan. Heat over medium heat until the butter is melted and the sugar has dissolved. Set the mixture aside to cool. For faster cooling, fill your kitchen sink with cold water about 3 inches deep and carefully set the saucepan into the water.
Combine the yeast mixture with the cooled milk mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add 3 cups of flour and mix thoroughly. If the dough appears wet and sticky, add more flour. Mix until the dough sticks together in the bottom of the bowl.
Sprinkle a pastry board, large wooden cutting board or a clean countertop with a little flour. Put the dough on the flour and knead it until it is smooth. Add a little flour as needed to make it less sticky. Put it back in the bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel and put in a warm place (on top of the oven, for example) for 15 to 20 minutes. Set the oven to 375 degrees.
Return the dough to the pastry board. You will see that it has increased in size. Spray the baking pan with nonstick baking spray. Break off small pieces of dough (a little larger than a ping-pong ball), shape them into smooth balls and place them into the baking pan. It's fine if they touch each other. Cover the pan with a towel and set it aside in a warm place for another 15 to 20 minutes.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. If you're not sure when they're done, tap on the top of a roll with your knuckle; if it sounds somewhat hollow, they're done. For soft, shiny tops, you can brush them with a little melted butter. Let the rolls cool in the pan for a few minutes before removing.
Make cinnamon rolls. After the dough has risen the first time, divide it into two sections. Roll them each out to about 1/4 inch thick. Spread them with softened butter and sprinkle with cinnamon, brown sugar and nuts. Roll them up and slice off pieces about 2 inches thick. Place in greased baking pan, cut sides up, and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Add a few drops of milk to a few teaspoons of powdered sugar and drizzle over the rolls.
When choosing the cinnamon roll option, any variety of nuts may be used or they can be omitted altogether. You can also add raisins, dried cranberries or other chopped dried fruit.
Do not skip cooling the hot milk mixture completely before adding the yeast mixture. If the milk is too hot, it will kill the yeast and the rolls will not rise.