These guilt-free breakfast treats are sure to please.
Growing up, my parents mandated that my brother and I had to stay in bed until 6 am. They passed on their early bird DNA to us, and we always rose before the sun, school days and Saturdays alike. On the other hand, my guy’s parents gave him nocturnal genes, and he actively avoids mornings and most breakfast foods. Yet a year and a half ago, I somehow convinced my guy to eat brunch with me one weekend at a local diner on the outskirts of town.
During that time, I was going through a phase where I only wanted sweet breakfast dishes—no scrambled eggs, no omelettes, no sausage, no bacon, no hash browns. But the diner missed my memo, and they offered just 5 passable options on their menu. The pancakes sounded to plain, the waffles weren’t appealing, and after my previous weekend’s granola- and muffin-baking binge, they left me with one choice…
A cinnamon roll.
But the minute before our waitress stopped by to scribble down our order, I spotted a tiny description in the corner of the menu, practically obscured by their endless selection of Skillets and Scrambles. “Grilled Cinnamon Roll — topped with yogurt and fresh fruit.” Intrigued by the concept of a grilled cinnamon roll, I chose that dish and requested the toppings on the side.
When the waitress plopped our plates down at the table, my guy nibbled on a few bites of his skillet before quietly mentioning the burned potatoes and overly greasy sausage, but I barely managed one word. What a treat! Almost the size of my head, the ginormous cinnamon roll had been sliced horizontally in half, the cut sides placed down on a grill until crisp and toasty, while the powdered sugar glaze on the top kept the other sides soft and sweet.
Completely stuffed after just half, I boxed up the rest to take home and enjoy for dessert that evening.
Although we never returned, my 6-mile running route passes near the turnoff for the diner, and every time I set off down that section, I start subconsciously craving cinnamon rolls. I’m like Pavlov’s dogs!
After months of torturous cinnamony desires, I eventually resolved to develop my own healthier version—one with a lot less butter, calories, and potential for sugar crashes. I baked multiple batches (including one where I forgot the cinnamon!) and basically consumed my entire weight in cinnamon rolls before finally perfecting these little beauties…
Clean Maple Cinnamon Rolls.
Full of the same comforting flavor that you love, these breakfast treats are just as light and airy as regular ones, and warm cinnamon bursts forth in every bite. Despite their sweet maple taste, these cinnamon rolls are practically guilt-free. They’re low calorie, low fat, clean-eating friendly, and they contain NO refined flour or refined sugar!
This recipe might look long and complicated, but I promise you can do it. I started baking bread with my dad as a 6-year-old, and if I could create perfectly puffy whole wheat rolls as a teeny tiny child, you definitely can too!
You’ll start by proofing the yeast, which is just a fancy term for “giving the yeast a nice warm bath.” You want the liquids to be really warm, around 100-110°F, or about the temperature of a hot tub. Stick your finger in the bowl; if it’s uncomfortably hot, wait for a few minutes! Higher temperatures will kill the yeast, and your cinnamon rolls will never rise.
When the milk, water and maple syrup feel rather warm, add in the yeast and walk away for 15 minutes. Although you could never do that with young kids, the yeast behaves perfectly fine in its bathtub, and it actually creates its own bubbles! The warmer the temperature and the more sugar in the bowl, the faster the yeast bubbles. It’s okay to use cooler liquids; the yeast will simply require a little more time to activate. When you return, it should look like a foamy layer of puffy clouds covers the surface of the bowl.
Note: The type of yeast doesn’t matter in this recipe. You can use either regular or rapid rise yeast; both work equally well.
Now you’ll add the remaining liquid ingredients. As mainly sources of flavor and texture, they don’t need to be in the bowl while the yeast proofs. Both the melted butter and egg need to be at room temperature. Hot butter would quickly solidify as you poured it in, and a chilled egg fails to incorporate as thoroughly.
Tips: Melt the butter right after stirring the yeast into the liquids! This allows it 15 minutes to cool, and it should be ready to add by the time the yeast finishes proofing. Right after melting the butter, place your chilled egg straight from the fridge into a bowl of warm water (around 60-70°F) until ready to use. This helps it warm up much faster too!
Don’t skip the maple extract! It adds a lot of flavor without excess sugar calories. Most stores sell bottles for a rather inexpensive price, and because it’s shelf-stable and keeps for ages, I highly recommend buying some. (You can also bake these scones and these breakfast cheesecakes with the maple extract!)
For 100% whole wheat baked goods, I almost exclusively use Gold Medal whole wheat flour. Other brands sometimes refuse to rise for me, but my treats always turn out perfectly light and airy with Gold Medal. If you’d rather not buy a new brand of whole wheat flour but are worried about the texture, that’s okay! Try one of these two options:
(a) Switch to all-purpose flour for kneading only. It’ll provide just enough extra gluten to give your cinnamon rolls their characteristic fluffy interior.
(b) Add ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon of ground ginger. According to this bread-baking pro, it helps the gluten develop and provides more volume to your 100% whole wheat dough, but you can’t taste it at all. Sneaky!
Stir in the flour about ½ of a cup at a time. When the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, plop it down on a well-floured surface. Generously sprinkle the dough and your hands with more flour, and start kneading! I like to fold the dough in half towards me before pressing the heel of my hand into the top. Then I turn it 90° and repeat over and over until the dough stops absorbing more flour. (If it ever feels tacky or sticks to your hands, add more flour!) When you reach that saturation point, lightly press your finger into the surface. If the dough springs back a bit, you’re done!
Now for the easy part: rising! (Unless you’re like me and completely impatient… Then it’s torture!) Generously mist a clean, dry bowl with nonstick cooking spray, and roll the dough ball around inside until it’s completely coated. Place a towel on top to protect it from dust and drafts, as well as to prevent the top from drying out, and stick the bowl in a warm spot. I like to turn on my oven for 2-3 minutes until the gas just begins to kick in; then I switch it off, place the bowl inside, and shut the door. An hour later, the dough should have puffed up to double its size!
With all of those air pockets inside the dough, you’ll need to punch it down before rolling it out into a rectangle. Pull the dough out of the bowl (lightly flouring your hands as necessary), and fold it in half 2 or 3 times until it deflates. Then grab a rolling pin to gently stretch it out to about 10” tall and 15” wide. Brush the top with melted butter, followed by cinnamony maple syrup, leaving a 1” border on the two longer sides.
Tip: Use a silicon brush, if you have one! The maple syrup and cinnamon tend to stick rather tightly to regular bristles, making it a little harder to wash afterward.
Because of the liquidy maple syrup, the rolling step turns into more of a “lift the edge and gently turn it on itself bit by bit” to minimize the filling from squooshing out. Some will still leak out the sides; that’s okay! (I’ll tell you what to do with it in a minute.) Start rolling from one longer side to the other, and after pinching the dough shut, refrigerate the roll for 20 minutes to further reduce the filling spills.
While chilling the log, coat your baking pan with baking spray. Try to choose a pan with taller sides to allow enough space for the cinnamon rolls to rise. The next step goes rather quickly, so you want to be ready!
Do NOT use a knife to cut the dough; it would squash the cinnamon rolls into lopsided ovals and squish out all of the syrup. Use unscented dental floss instead! Slide the piece of floss under the roll, and lift the ends vertically upward. Cross them over the top of the dough, almost as if you were tying your shoelaces, and pull hard. It should slice right through the log.
Immediately after cutting through the dough, the filling will begin spilling out. Take the cinnamon roll you just cut, swipe one of the spiral sides through the leaking maple syrup, and quickly place that syrupy side down in the prepared pan. While baking, the extra maple syrup creates a thin layer of caramelization, kind of like an upside down cake. It’s my favorite part!
Leave lots of space between the rolls because—you guessed it—they need to rise again. Repeat the same process as before with the ball of dough, and an hour later, they will have magically puffed upwards and outwards to fill the entire pan. Aren’t they cute all squashed together?
These gorgeous treats bake rather quickly—just 17 minutes at 350°F. But since the mixing, kneading and rising steps require a lot more time, I’d rather not set my alarm clock for 3 am to make them fresh in the morning. Instead, I prefer to bake them the night before. I let them cool completely to room temperature then seal them up inside an airtight container. The next morning, the cinnamon rolls have softened and developed a thin sugary layer on the bottom where the maple syrup caramelized (similar to banana bread). Pop one in the microwave for a few seconds, or eat it straight from the tupperware. They’re irresistible either way!
With their cozy cinnamon swirls and comforting maple taste, these Clean Maple Cinnamon Rolls are the perfect guilt-free breakfast pastries. Light and tender on the inside, soft and sweet on the outside, these healthier treats will satisfy any cinnamon roll craving… Especially those pesky ones you happen to get while running!
Ready to try baking them yourself?