Regular readers (yes, all four of you) know that I write a lot about how food can be a bridge to another time and another place. Sugary breakfast treats are a good example, as they take me right back to family brunches with Sara Lee coffee cake as a kid in Georgia. Nowadays, Sara Lee has moved over in favor of Ruby and her famous cinnamon rolls, a recipe that takes me away from Georgia and back to the north—all the way to the Yukon.
The first time I enjoyed Ruby’s recipe was in the winter of 2017. That was after Nate, Rick, and I rolled into a remote Yukon River cabin after covering 35 miles on the trail by dog team. Temps outside the following morning were a frosty 50 below, but we were warm next to a roaring wood stove–and knew we’d be warmer still after enjoying a few homemade rolls.
The trip to the cabin at Hard Luck Creek from the town of Eagle was made possible through a lot of outfitting by Bush Alaska Expeditions, a wonderful team of dogs, and an expert guide in Nate. We brought along a lot of warm gear, of course, and lots of food and supplies to take good care of the dogs, but we also found room in our sleds for some cinnamon rolls. One can never be too prepared.
I dove into breakfast at the cabin just like I was a kid again–but I mistakenly thought there was a second package of rolls, so I “might have” eaten more than my share (maybe channeling my oldest brother, who once finished an entire coffee cake on his own). Cinnamon rolls are not that central in the context of a big adventure, I know, but they are one of many fond memories from that 2017 trip.
This past weekend on a local backpack in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, I decided to recreate everything about that Yukon experience…well, except for the cold and the cabin and the dog team and eating most of the rolls by myself. This time my guides were Souzz and Lou and Kay–who aren’t Yukon survival experts, but are certainly a highly competent outdoor trio. And they were all game for a reheat of a Yukon treat.
The rolls use a base of milk, shortening, yeast, flour, and eggs, and then a filling of melted butter, brown sugar, white sugar, and cinnamon. We made the dough ahead of time and rolled it up in wax paper, and then made the filling and assembled everything in camp.
In true Yukon fashion, we improvised a bit and used a tin of cinnamon for our rolling pin. We then coated the dough with melted butter, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, rolled, cut, and placed the fresh dough into a frybake, and baked for about 45 minutes. Ruby told us that the dough rises better if the rolls are touching each other in the pan, so we made sure to keep things crowded. Another hot tip from Ruby is to use dental floss to cut the rolls from the tube of dough, which helps them to fully rise (my own hot tip: go with unused floss).
After baking, we frosted with some cream cheese/sugar mixture, and just one bite brought me right back to that cabin in the north. They were airy, sweet, and very cinnamon-y (is that a word? It is in the Yukon). During our food analysis around the fire, Kay told us her rule of thumb with cinnamon is to start with what the recipe calls for, and then double it. That made sense to me, as that’s exactly how I drank beer in college.
Ruby shared that her cinnamon roll recipe is from a treasured 1990s Iowa family reunion cookbook. Hearing her reminisce about it conjured up memories of my own family cookbook, put together by my nieces a few years ago to capture dishes from my mom’s Georgia roots.
Like so many family recipes, the cinnamon rolls are delicious–but they are also a bridge to great friends, beautiful places, and fun adventures. Each time I make them, I taste the Yukon and Iowa and Virginia and Georgia all touching in a swirl, even if just for a bite.