What's Cooking: Sweet rolls for Easter morning

These homemade rolls were baked with a cream cheese-lemon filling, but you can use just about any filling you like.
These homemade rolls were baked with a cream cheese-lemon filling, but you can use just about any filling you like. Chicago Tribune

There’s a reason fresh-baked sweet yeast breads are beloved. The fresh-from-the-oven aroma is comforting and a warm roll with a sweet filling is a superb way to start a special day.

Perhaps that’s why the Easter season features an abundance of traditional yeast breads, from plump Polish paczki devoured a day before Lent and those hot cross buns baked for Good Friday to the varied Easter breads of Italy, Greece, Portugal and more. Often decorated with tinted eggs or colorful sugar sprinkles, they are rich with symbolism.

You need not have a traditional family recipe to bring a sweet yeast bread to the Easter brunch or breakfast table. Nor need you fear yeast dough with this simple recipe that can be mixed and shaped the day before, chilled overnight, then baked Easter morning.

Tips on yeast doughs

Mix yeast into warm-to-the-touch water (about 100 degrees). Add a tiny pinch of sugar to feed the yeast. Let mixture stand several minutes. It should bubble and foam slightly. If it doesn’t and the yeast is fresh, the water may have been too hot or too cool; discard and repeat with new yeast.

You’ve never kneaded dough? Slightly flatten the dough, then lift the side of the dough furthest from you and fold toward you. Use the heels of your hands to push the folded edge down and away from you. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat several times.

Do not let dough proof (rise) too much once removed from the refrigerator; dough will continue to rise during baking.

Sweet rolls as you like ‘’em

Prep time: 90 minutes, plus overnight chill time for rolls and 15 minutes cooling time after baking

Cook time: 30 minutes

Makes 12

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water (100-110 degrees)

5 cups flour, lightly spooned into a measuring cup

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted

Filling (choose from recipes below left)


1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar

2 tablespoons milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Heat milk to a simmer in a small saucepan; stir in sugar, butter and salt. Pour into a mixing bowl; cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast into warm water; stir until dissolved. Mixture should bubble up after a few minutes.

Set aside 1/2 cup flour for kneading. With a sturdy wooden spoon, stir eggs, yeast mixture and half the remaining flour into the lukewarm milk mixture until smooth. Add remaining flour, beating well with a wooden spoon until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. You should have a somewhat stiff dough.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface. Dust hands lightly with flour; shape dough into a ball. Flatten slightly then knead several minutes until smooth and elastic; it should bounce back when gently pressed with a finger. Dust top lightly with flour; cover with a clean cloth and let rest, 15 minutes.

While dough rests, line a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with two pieces of aluminum foil, one crosswise, one lengthwise; leave ends loose to make removing the baked rolls from pan easier. Brush foil well with some of the melted butter. Prepare a filling (see recipes at left).

Pat down dough; roll into a 12-by-18-inch rectangle. Brush lightly with melted butter. Sprinkle or spread with the filling of your choice, leaving a 1/2-inch space along the edges. Starting from long side nearest you, roll dough up tightly; pinch long seam closed. Cut roll into 1 1/2-inch slices using a sharp knife. Or use a 12-inch piece of sturdy thread to cut slices: Place thread under roll at a 1 1/2-inch mark. Pick up thread ends – thread on the right with your left hand, thread on the left with your right hand – and pull thread ends across roll to cut. You should have 12 rolls.

Arrange cut rolls in prepared baking pan, leaving space between them. Brush tops with remaining melted butter. Cover pan with plastic wrap; refrigerate overnight.

Remove rolls from refrigerator; carefully remove plastic wrap. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Let rolls stand at room temperature, 15-20 minutes. (Do not let them get too puffy before baking.) Bake until tops are nicely browned, 25-30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack, 5 minutes. Use ends of foil as handles to remove rolls from pan. Remove rolls from the foil, with help from a spatula. Place on a serving tray; cool, 10 minutes.

To make icing: Blend sugar, milk and vanilla in a small bowl with a whisk. Add more milk if needed.

Drizzle rolls with icing before serving.

Sweet roll fillings

Choose one of these or adapt your own for the rolls.


3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries

Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Mix in pecans and raisins or cranberries. Sprinkle mix across dough before rolling.


1 cup (about an 8.5-ounce jar) fig preserves

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Spread the preserves on dough. Top with walnuts.


12 ounces cream cheese, softened

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Blend softened cream cheese with sugar, salt, egg yolk, lemon zest and juice. Spread across dough before rolling.

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