Smile Politely

(Cinnamon) Rolling through Champaign-Urbana

All year long, I wait for the first heavy snowfall so I can have my winter fantasy: waking up to a magical world ensconced in hushed beauty, being cozy in thick socks, and plodding about with a warm mug in my hands as the fireplace streaming on Netflix crackles in the living room. But what makes my winter fantasy is breakfasting on homemade cinnamon rolls. You know the kind — the most indulgent, heartwarming, pillow-soft yeast rolls lined with cinnamon sugar, and slathered in a cream cheese frosting rivalling the snow outside.

As you can tell, I really love cinnamon rolls. And this is my homage to the pastry, as represented by our lovely twin cities.

Over the past weeks, I’ve visited a number of bakeries and brunch spots in Urbana-Champaign to search for the best cinnamon roll. I quickly learned, however, that there is a spectrum of cinnamon rolls and buns in town. Imposing my winter fantasy standard to judge which was the “best” would be insufficient. Rather, mood and circumstance might dictate which cinnamon roll you find appealing. I know this sounds underwhelmingly relativist, but I assure you, one size does not fit all considering the heartwarming number of options in town.

I’ve categorized the pastries in the following: brioche/challah, yeast dough, and non-yeast dough. As for my revised expectations, the the rolls or buns must have a moist center, a good balance between the cinnamon and sugar, and most of all, be satisfying.


Bread Company on Goodwin | Mirabelle Fine Pastries | Rick’s Bakery Cafe 

Both brioche and challah are made from an enriched yeast dough, though the former has butter, while the latter has oil. They create a bread-like cinnamon roll that The Bread Company on Goodwin, Mirabelle Fine Pastries, and Rick’s Bakery Cafe have opted for.

The Bread Company’s cinnamon roll ($2.50) is made from their challah dough, and is the lightest of the three in terms of crumb. They serve plain, walnut, and raisin cinnamon rolls, though I’ve only tried the plain one. The roll is uniformly sweet, and the browned outside has a toasted quality which contrasts the lightly moist and fluffy interior. The cinnamon sugar is quite fine and adds a delicate crunch with each bite. At the center, the sugar becomes stickier and slightly syrupy. This could be an everyday cinnamon roll — it is light but substantial, unfussy and doesn’t weigh you down. 

Mirabelle’s cinnamon brioche ($3.00) is the largest of the three, and could easily serve two people. It has layers and layers of soft, fluffy swirls with a crispy cinnamon sugar throughout. The drizzle adds a lovely sweetness that compliments the bread.  This brioche has a slightly denser crumb than the roll at Bread Co., but is still moist.  It intermittently has a slight alcohol note from the yeast. As expected, the interior is stickier, whereas the outside is a bit crisper. I’ve also noticed that on more humid days, the cinnamon brioche is much fluffier, but I would recommend this brioche any day, all day. Eating it is as comforting as wrapping yourself in a down duvet.    

I visited Rick’s Bakery at its stall in the Urbana Farmer’s Market. Their cinnamon roll ($2.50, pictured below) has the densest crumb of the three, and is the most bready. Its dough is lightly sweet, and the cinnamon sugar is quite subtle, though even distributed. The moistness of the dough is most like the roll at Bread Co. And though the cinnamon roll looks very swirly like Mirabelle’s, the layers are less defined, and baked into a single mass. The drizzle is also quite subtle, so this would be the bun if you needed or wanted a less sweet bread.

It’s hard to rank the three rolls, as they cater to different moods and tastes, and all fit my expectations. For a lighter pastry, I would recommend Bread Co.’s cinnamon roll, while Mirabelle’s is more for an indulgence. Rick’s Bakery’s roll is the choice for those who prefer a denser and bread-like cinnamon roll.

Yeast Dough

Sweet Indulgence | Courier Cafe 

Sweet Indulgence’s cinnamon roll ($3.50) is the closest to my winter fantasy roll in town. If you want the classic, enriched yeast dough that is soft and barely cooked in the middle, whilst smothered in a thick, goopy cream cheese frosting, this is the choice for you. The dough isn’t that sweet, which is a relief, considering that the star of this roll is the buttery, nutty, and sweet cream cheese frosting. I appreciate how the frosting slightly sets on the edges, but remains runny in the center of the roll. The dough gets increasingly less firm as you get to the middle, which is pure joy. The cinnamon flavor is unmistakable, but the primary flavors are the frosting and brown sugar. The cinnamon roll is also sparingly studded inside and out with a sweet crumble that provides textural contrast. Sweet Indulgence takes the classic cinnamon roll and turns up the volume in flavor and size. However, the consistency of the bake varies. While on most days, the balance between cooked and undercooked is perfect, sometimes the roll ranges from being a bit too undercooked to a scooch overdone.

Courier Cafe’s cinnamon roll ($2.46) is prepared at its sister restaurant, Silvercreek Restaurant. I’m not completely sure if it’s a yeast dough, as the pastry chef was unavailable when I called, but based on the roll’s texture, I’m categorizing it as such. Considering the beloved breakfasts and brunches at Courier, I was disenchanted by their cinnamon roll’s dense dough. The dough is chewy rather than fluffy. Also, the filling has a harsh cinnamon taste. That flavor overwhelmed the drizzle, which was transparent but prettily set. I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed by the subpar quality of this cinnamon roll, but perhaps you’ll have better luck if you try it yourself.

Non-Yeast Dough

Big Grove Tavern | Pekara

Big Grove Tavern’s brunch serves cinnamon rolls ($5.00) that provide a spectacle during an already fun meal. It is substantial in height and is enough to share between two or three people. The dough is made from flour, egg and water, and is slightly sweet, but largely bland. All the flavor comes from the thick swath of cinnamon-cream cheese frosting, which I admit to feeling rather giddy consuming. The sharp cinnamon cuts through the sweet and tangy cream cheese frosting. But really stands out for me are the range of textures in this cinnamon roll. The cinnamon roll’s exterior is crunchy, but the inside is fluffy with a slightly undercooked center. Also, as you dig into the roll, one finds a sweet, syrupy glaze with nuts in the middle. In one bite, there is fluffy, gooey, creamy, and crunchy, so you get the feeling that the cinnamon roll is working hard to please you. This isn’t your traditional cinnamon roll, and I’m a bit nonplussed by the compartmentalization of flavors. However, my dining partner says he’s tempted to order the cinnamon roll every brunch, and I’ll be ready to nibble along if he did. 

Pekara’s cinnamon roll ($3.60) is the flakiest cinnamon roll I’ve had, as it is made from their croissant dough. As I bit into it, and saw the paper-thin, peeling layers, Paul Hollywood’s voice affirming, “good lamination,” came to mind. This pastry is light, crisp, and sweet, and has an almond flavored frosting which works well with the cinnamon. The cinnamon flavor is only in the interior layers, at which point the roll becomes a bit moister. This is not your standard cinnamon roll, but is a delicious option if you want something delicate, non-bready, and sweet.

Chambana’s variety of cinnamon rolls is a delight, considering the homogenous standard of the “winter fantasy cinnamon roll” demonstrated when googling for recipes. There are cinnamon rolls and brioches aplenty for to meet any mood or circumstance. And the Fall approaches, it’s the perfect time to get (cinnamon) rolling!

All photos by Jean Lee.

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