Jerilyn Brusseau’s Bainbridge Island house smells like cinnamon. The heart of her small cottage is her big, open kitchen and when I arrived she was baking a batch of her tender, swirly cinnamon rolls. She’s probably baked thousands of them.
“I’ve been baking since I was a child. It all came from my grandmother,” Brusseau said.
Her grandmother’s Montana cinnamon rolls were a favorite at her, now-closed, popular bakery, Brusseau’s, open in Edmonds for 16 years.
But 31 years ago, after scouring the country for the perfect cinnamon roll, Seattle’s Restaurants Unlimited founder Rich Komen called on Brusseau to create the world’s best cinnamon roll for a new concept he’d developed called Cinnabon.
“Rich wanted to have this tall, frosted, super indulgent experience,” Brusseau said.
So she started with what she knew: her grandmother’s beloved recipe that, for the record, is not topped with cream cheese frosting.
“I was in the test kitchen,” she recalled. “They turned their corporate test kitchen, for all their restaurants, into a bakery. I went there every day for three months. We tested every possible formulation, hundreds.”
“So the world’s greatest cinnamon roll would be moist, the texture of the dough would have a kind of pillowy sensation,” she said. “There would be 7.5 wraps in the dough. It would have this big cinnamon hit. [People would say], ‘Woah, where did that cinnamon come from?’ It was so delicious that people would be really enticed by it and drawn to it. It would be nostalgic. It would remind them of their grandmother or their aunt or some earlier memory when they were somewhere when someone made something this delicious for them. That’s how we started!”
Komen’s vision was to serve warm, gooey, fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls in shopping malls.
“They would actually wait while the rolls baked in a convection oven, for 14 minutes,” Brusseau said. “So that was exactly our challenge in developing.”
A challenge because Brusseau didn’t normally use a convection oven. And classic cinnamon rolls usually take 27 minutes to bake — not 14.
“We kept running into this same issue every day, every day, every day and needing to find the solution,” Brusseau said. “This was November of 1985, they were planning to open the first bakery on December 4. We were still faced with the rock wall of what will bring this roll to perfection.”
“Rich and I were in his car one day, we’d gone to another location to taste some rolls,” she recalled. “He said, ‘What do you think it is? What’s keeping us from succeeding?’ I started thinking about my grandmother. What would she have done? And the big idea came, and that was the day. That’s Cinnabon’s secret!”
She won’t reveal that secret, but she will talk about the specific kind of Indonesian cinnamon that Cinnabon has always exclusively used in its rolls.
“We actually had cinnamon school — a spice company called Crescent Spices, downtown Seattle,” Brusseau said. “They had a whole team who came out and did cinnamon school with us. And taught us about the cinnamon from the countries it was available from, the attributes of that cinnamon and why they thought it would be the best. That’s how Korintje cinnamon from Sumatra was chosen. It had the biggest volatile oil, the biggest flavor, and that’s what we went with.”
You can buy that special Makara cinnamon at Cinnabon stores.
There is one ingredient that has never been a part of a Cinnabon cinnamon roll, that some customers continue to request.
“They did a study and it turns out the world is divided into two categories: people who love raisins and people who can’t stand raisins,” Brusseau said. “So we made the dough without raisins.”
After closing her bakery, Brusseau continued as a recipe developer, creating all kinds of products for companies. She’s created lines of refrigerated pesto, sauces, dips and spreads. She spent 14 months testing and baking with a particular Washington-grown wheat and helps create dishes for restaurants.
She also still consults for Cinnabon, which is no longer a Seattle company after it was sold and moved to Atlanta seven years ago. She’s stuck with them because her love for cinnamon rolls runs deep.
“It’s part of the art that I love, of my grandmother,” Brusseau said. “She lived in a very simple ranch house in Montana and she raised seven children without electricity or running water. And cinnamon rolls were part of their life, it became part of my life when I was growing up. The way she did things with such great love.”
“I think that is the most priceless gift we can give to one another,” she added. “You know, the sharing of the food and passing it on. What’s happening in my own life is friends have been asking if their grandchildren can spend a little time with me in my kitchen, to learn to bake cinnamon rolls. Which is really, really special. Then they have something that they can go home and make and carry it on.”
Brusseau and her family also started a humanitarian organization in 1995.
“A good part of my time, when I’m not in the kitchen, is spent working on a humanitarian program in Vietnam called PeaceTrees Vietnam,” Brusseau said. “We are a humanitarian demining organization, clearing landmines and bombs from the most war torn areas of the country.”
This is not the official Cinnabon recipe.
Jerilyn’s Grandmother’s Cinnamon Rolls
Makes 16 large cinnamon rolls
1 cup warm water
3 packages yeast or 3 cakes (5/8 ounce each) yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup milk, scalded and cooled
3 eggs, whole
1 ¼ teaspoons sea salt
6-7 all-purpose flour, unsifted
Cinnamon Caramel Filling:
2 cups butter, softened to room temperature
3 cups dark brown sugar
6 tablespoons Korintje or Makara cinnamon
Place warm water in a large mixing bowl. Add yeast and sugar. Let stand 5 minutes.
Scald milk in a saucepan. Add butter to cooling milk to allow it to soften. When cool, add milk mixture to yeast and stir well. Add eggs and salt and stir well with wire whisk.
Begin adding all-purpose flour, mixing well with wooden spoon or spatula until mixture resembles thick cake batter. Add ½ cup raisins, if desired. Continue adding flour until dough is still slightly sticky. Mix well again until dough begins to leave the sides of the bowl.
Place half a cup of the remaining flour on board, turn dough out and knead about 10 minutes until smooth and satiny, slowly adding more flour if needed. The dough should be somewhat soft and resilient, almost sticky.
Shape dough into ball and place in a large, greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover with damp towel. Let rise in a warm place about 45-50 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Punch down, let rise an additional 30 minutes.
Turn dough onto large floured board. Roll out to 24”x 20” rectangle. The dough will be quite thin. Spread entire rectangle with softened butter, then sprinkle evenly with dark brown sugar mixed with cinnamon. Roll rectangle tightly from the long side (and the dough will be soft). Make sure seam side is on the bottom. Shape with hands to make roll uniform from end to end.
With very sharp knife, cut the roll into 16 equal portions. Place on two parchment-paper-lined 9”x 13” metal baking pans. (Glass pans will tend to caramelize syrup too quickly.)
Cover with warm, damp towel and let rise in warm place another 40-50 minutes or until almost doubled in size. Place in preheated 350-degree oven and bake about 25-30 min. or until nicely browned and all filling is bubbly. Immediately invert onto parchment lined cookie sheet, allowing syrup to drip from pan onto rolls (this is the secret).