Think of these like American cinnamon rolls showed up to the party with their half-Thai cousin.
Partly familiar, reminiscent of something you know and love already. But a little different in an intriguing and really addicting way.
Not everyone moves to a new country just months after starting a food blog, I wasn't even sure how living in a foreign country would effect it. Even though you crave the comfort foods from your home country, it is impossible for you not to be shaped by your new environment. So what has begun to take place naturally is the game of applying local ingredients to western methods/recipes I already know to create my version of an American-Thai kitchen Mash-up. East meets West in my tiny toy mini oven. I’m excited about the adventures ahead now that I think I've found my niche, but right now I’m really really excited to share these rolls with you today! If you haven’t experimented much with pandan or black sesame before, these are an excellent place to start.
This is because you already know you like cinnamon rolls. Duh. Everyone loves those. Or should. But now you are infusing a new flavor in place of vanilla to the dough and frosting, and for your filling, making a sweet, thick nutty paste for your filling that actually contains no cinnamon at all, but all the receptors in your brain fire off the exact same way as if they do. Its actually kind of strange when they do.
Pandan leaves grow abundantly in SE Asia and the extract from them is used very commonly in Thai desserts. I have become a huge fan of its flavor. If there is a pandan-flavored anything from a market or street vendor I haven't seen before, I jump on it. I can't get enough! It has a very identifiable smell and flavor. It's actually really hard to explain, but there’s a slightly grassy nuttiness to it, but also something very reminiscent of vanilla. If you have never had it before, all I can tell you is that it’s a delightful flavor and I haven’t known anyone to dislike it.
When the idea for these rolls first popped into my head, I thought about buying the leaves and infusing the milk and butter for both the rolls and the icing, but I know pandan leaves might be harder to find outside of Thailand than the extract. Also that's an extra step. So for the sake of consistent results for recreating these, I opted for the easy-to-use bottle of Pandan essence, found at my local grocery store for about 60 cents. You should be able to find it at your local Asian market or online. If you are feeling extra adventurous and want to make your own extract, by all means go for it!
Black sesame is an extremely popular flavor and ingredient in dessert or bread all over Asia, with Thailand being no exception and even in Western countries it’s caught on. I have seen some beautiful black sesame babkas, macaroons, and cakes lately from fellow food bloggers back home and it made me want to start using it more myself at home. For this filling, you’ll toast those little black sesame seeds to glorious perfection and blitz them with some ground ginger, nutmeg, and brown sugar to make your own sweet version of black tahini, you could say. Some honey is added (after you spread your paste to make application easier) to perfectly balance the sweetness, although these rolls are not near as alarmingly sweet as a traditional sticky bun or roll. They are equally as addicting, but won’t put you in a coma.
If you have ever made regular cinnamon rolls from scratch, you know they can take a bit of time, but elements can be made ahead to save a few minutes if you still want these for breakfast at a decent hour. You can make the frosting up to 2 days in advance and keep in the fridge and the dough to rise the night before. I would suggest making the black sesame paste fresh, just before you are ready to roll out your dough so it’s the perfect consistency for spreading.
So so much love went into making these (twice) to perfect the recipe and in sharing it with you all. Have fun!
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
FOR THE DOUGH
1 package (or 2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1 cup warm whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
5 Tbs butter, melted
2 Tbs pandan essence/extract*
1 tsp kosher salt
4.5 cups all purpose flour, plus more for dusting
FOR THE FILLING
2/3 cup (roughly 100 grams) black sesame seeds (raw, untoasted)**
5 Tbs butter, softened at room temp
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup honey
FOR THE FROSTING
1/2 a package/ 4 oz (roughly 115 grams) full-fat cream cheese, softened at room temp
6 Tbs butter, softened at room temp
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 Tbs pandan extract (or more to taste)
1.5 - 2 cups powdered sugar
*You should be able to find Pandan Essence or Extract at your local Asian food store. It will most likely have a greenish hue as mine did, although I know there are some colorless brands out there.
**Raw/Untoasted because you will be toasting them fresh before you make the paste and for consistent results. You should be able to find Black sesame seeds at your local grocery store in the nut/dried fruit section or in bulk, but for sure online (there are dozens of options on Amazon) or also at an Asian food store.
WHAT YOU'LL DO
FOR THE DOUGH
Warm the milk (either in a microwave or in a jar in a warm water bath) and sprinkle yeast in. Set aside a few minutes to let it dissolve, 5 mins at least.
Mix the butter, sugar, eggs, pandan extract and salt in a large bowl.
Whisk the yeast lightly into the milk so that no large clumps of yeast remain.
Add one cup flour to the wet mixture, then a small pour of the yeast/milk mixture and mix to combine, alternating adding the flour and milk mixture to the large bowl. Once all added in and encorporated, knead with your hands or the hook attachment of a mixer for 3 or 4 mins. The dough should not be dry, but it should not stick to your fingers as you keep kneading. Sprinkle more flour as necessary, up to 1/4 cup. Dust the same bowl with extra flour, drop the kneaded dough ball back in, and cover with saran wrap or a dampened kitchen towel and set in a warm place (outside, or in the oven with the light on) for at least 1 hour, or until doubled in size. I have even done this just before bed and let it rise overnight to save time in the AM.
While the dough is rising, make the frosting and filling.
FOR THE FILLING
Black sesame seeds are harder to know when they are toasted because they are already dark, so you’ll go off sound and smell here. Preheat a shallow skillet or sauté pan on medium heat. Pour in the black sesame seeds and lower the heat to med/low and pan toast, stirring occasionally for 5 or 6 minutes or until you hear a popping sound from the seeds. Once they start to pop, turn off the heat but keep stirring the seeds in the pan for another minute. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Reserve just 1 tsp of seeds from the mix and set aside to add to the frosting, if desired.
Add the toasted black sesame seeds to a food processor or blender along with all other ingredients—butter, brown sugar, salt, ginger and nutmeg—except for the honey. (The first time I was recipe testing, I added the honey at this stage and it made the mixture so sticky it was extremely difficult to spread across the dough later). Blend until a thick paste is formed. Keep at room temp or slightly warm so it spreads easily.
FOR THE FROSTING
Cream the butter and cream cheese together until well blended. Add the salt and pandan extract and mix again.
Add in the powdered sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing after each addition until no visible clumps remain and desired consistency is achieved.
Taste and adjust to add more pandan extract, if desired. I felt that right at about 1/2 Tablespoon was enough to be noticed but not overpower it.
Add the 1 tsp of reserved whole toasted black sesame seeds and mix to combine.
ASSEMBLING THE ROLLS
Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out on a large, generously floured surface. Roll our the dough to anywhere from 1/4-1/2 inch thick, and in as rectangular (less round) a shape as possible. But we aren’t measuring these with a ruler and don’t need perfection here.
Drop spoonfuls of the black sesame filling all over the dough, and spread as thin and evenly as possible. Leave a 1 inch border on three of the sides, but come all the way to the edge on one of the long sides (this will be the center and you want that gooooooey). Then, in a steady and thin stream, drizzle the honey over the paste as evenly as possible without trying to spread it once it’s down. To roll, start from the long side where you brought your filling to the edge. Roll inward as tightly as possible, tugging on the sides as you go along. Cut into whatever size rolls you desire (I usually cut them about 2 inches thick) and transfer to a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet or pie dishes.
Now, you can absolutely bake them straight away at this point if you are desperately eager or short on time and they will still be delicious, but if you have the patience to wait for a second rise, you will have the fluffiest dough situation ever on your hands! I usually set the cut rolls aside in a warm place to rise again, for at least 30 mins while I clean up and preheat the oven. They grow another 30% in size in that time and I think it’s very worth the wait!
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheight/ 200 degrees Celcius.
Bake rolls for 12-15 minutes, or until slightly golden brown on top, and centers have risen above the outer rings of the roll.
I like to remove from the oven, allow to cool for a minute or two, and frost while still very warm so the icing melts down into all the cracks and crannies.
Makes between 12-16 rolls, depending on how thick you slice them.