This post about my Grandma’s North Dakota Caramel rolls was originally posted in 2020, and continues to be the most popular recipe on my site! Rightly so. These aren’t the sticky buns you may be thinking of. They are creamy, caramel-y, bread-y clouds of Heaven that you and your loved ones need this Christmas! Read on and find out how they can be your family’s new favorite Christmas treat!
My Grandma always prepared for our visits to her farm by making hundreds (thousands? It felt like thousands) of these caramel rolls for us. They would cover every surface of her kitchen, and often spill out into the rest of the house so we could eat our fill and gain ten pounds each, fulfilling the hopes and dreams of every Grandma ever.
The recipe was handed down to me in Grandma’s own handwriting. Her recipe used 5 pounds of flour and made about 786 rolls. I’ve adjusted the recipe down so that we can all walk away (not roll away) from Christmas.
But then, one hallowed year I accidentally doubled the caramel and I’ve never gone back.
They are amazing. Ah-MAZE-ing.
(As far as I’m concerned that’s now the right way to make them, and that double-caramel is reflected in the recipe below.)
Grandma used to make them as big as a plate. That was fun, but I realized that the large rolls tend to overwhelm people who feel better about themselves when they eat a smaller roll, or two, …or three.
I’ve since changed the recipe to make 24 medium rolls. But to make larger rolls like Grandma did, roll from the short side of the rectangle of dough and cut into fewer slices.
Caramel Rolls Step By Step
If you’ve never made yeast rolls, don’t be afraid! If you follow the directions, everything will be great.
Here is my step-by-step process:
- Start by whisking together the flour and the yeast in the bowl of my kitchen aid mixer. (You don’t need a mixer – you can make these by hand, it’s just a little more work. Still totally worth it.) This is my favorite yeast. I keep a small amount of this yeast in my refrigerator, and keep the rest of it in the freezer. (It lasts forever this way. Like, for years.)
- Then crack the eggs into the flour, but don’t mix them in yet.
- Next mix together the milk, cold butter, sugar, and salt in a bowl or glass measuring cup. Then warm it in the microwave.
- The milk mixture should be 110 degrees when you add it to the flour mixture. You can use a thermometer to check the temperature, but I always heat it until it feels warm, almost hot, when I put my finger in it, but not so hot that it’s uncomfortable.
- Next, mix the milk mixture into the flour. I stir everything together with a large spoon. Then I knead it with the kneading hook of my kitchen aid. I knead it for 2-3 minutes until everything is combined well and it looks like a smooth ball of dough. There should be a little of the dough still stuck to the bottom of the bowl and it should feel sticky to the touch. If it is too dry, add warm water and continue kneading. It will take a while for that to incorporate into the dough, but let it go for several minutes and it should be just fine.
- If you need to knead the dough by hand, grease your hands well (I just spray them with Pam cooking spray). Then pick up one side of the dough, fold it over to the other side, and press down with the heel of your hand. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and do that again. Continue that process of folding, pressing, and turning the bowl for 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth. Grease your hands again as needed.
- Grease a bowl with Pam spray. Place the dough in the bowl. Spray the top of the dough with more Pam, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
- Leave the bowl in a warm place for 30 minutes to rise. Dough rises best at 85 degrees. In my house the best place for dough to rise is if I preheat the oven (350 degrees) for 1 minute, then turn it off. (Don’t forget to turn the oven off after one minute! I set a timer.) Then I place the bowl in the oven and shut the door. I always set another timer to check the dough in about 30 minutes.
- SUPER IMPORTANT: While the dough is rising, you need to make the caramel so that it will be cool by the time you pour it over the rolls.
- In a small saucepan, mix cream and brown sugar.
- Whisk over medium heat until it just starts to boil and then remove it from the heat. Set it aside to cool.
- BACK TO THE DOUGH: The dough is done rising when it is more or less double the size. It’s not a big deal if it’s not perfect. But it’s best not to let it rise for too long. Here is my risen dough. (I made a half recipe.)
- Grease your hands with some Pam and dump the dough out onto a greased, clean counter. (I use a silicone baking mat that I bought specifically for this. Like this one.)
- Divide the dough in half, and press half the dough into a 16×9 inch rectangle. (The measurements on the mat make this step easy.)
- Rub 2 tbsp. of softened butter onto the dough. Then sprinkle a cinnamon sugar mixture over the butter. (I always have cinnamon and sugar in my cupboard because I also like cinnamon toast. I like to use about 1 part cinnamon to 4 parts sugar.) I don’t go too crazy with the cinnamon-sugar because, don’t forget, we’ll be adding caramel later on.
- Then I roll up this dough from the long side closest to me. When I finish the roll I press the dough together to seal it. Then I use a dough scraper to cut the long roll into 12 slices. (I used to use a knife but it sliced up my silicone mat.)
- Each of the slices is placed, sliced side up, in a greased baking dish. They may not look perfect or uniform since this is such a soft dough but that doesn’t matter at all.
- If the caramel has cooled enough to touch, pour it over the top of the rolls. (If it hasn’t, cover the rolls and wait a few minutes.)
- Cover them with greased plastic wrap. If you want to bake them immediately leave them on the counter for 30 minutes until they fill the pan. If you want to bake them the next day, leave them in the refrigerator overnight to rise slowly.
- Repeat with the other half of the dough.
- When you’re ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap and bake them at 350 degrees for about 35-55 minutes, depending on the size of your pan. (If my rolls are refrigerated I put them in the oven for the entire preheat time as well to help them slowly warm up before baking.) Then flip them upside down onto a platter. Make sure you scrape up any caramel that sticks to the pan and spread it back on the rolls. Voila!
Steve thinks he has improved on their perfection by adding a Quick Butter Frosting.
I like them best without the frosting, the way Grandma made them. But do what makes you happy!
Grandma’s North Dakota Caramel Rolls
For the Dough
- Pam Cooking Spray
- 4 ¼ cups flour
- 4 tsp instant yeast, or 2 packages rapid-rise yeast
- 2 eggs
- 1½ cup milk
- ½ cup sugar
- 1½ tsp salt
- 4 tbsp butter
For the Cinnamon Filling
- 2 tbsp butter, softened
- ½ cup cinnamon-sugar
For the Caramel
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 2½ cups light brown sugar
Optional Quick Butter Frosting
- 4 tbsp butter, softened
- 1½ cup powdered sugar
- pinch salt
- milk, as needed
To Make the Dough
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine flour and yeast. Add eggs, but don't stir them in.
- In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the milk, sugar, salt, and butter. Microwave for 1 minute and 30 seconds on high. The butter should be almost melted. It should feel warm, but not too hot, to the touch. (110°)
- Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture and mix with a large spoon until it begins to come together.
- Knead, using the kneading hook on the mixer, for about 3 minutes. It should gather around the kneading hook as a smooth ball, but still stick to the bottom of the bowl. It should stick to your finger when you touch it. If it is too wet, add a little flour. If it's too dry, add a little warm water. Continue kneading with the kneading hook until it is smooth.
- Grease a large bowl with Pam. Add the ball of dough to the bowl. (It will be sticky. I use greased spatulas to scrape out the dough.) Spray the top of the dough with Pam. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Leave the dough in a warm place (85°) to rise for 30 minutes, until the dough is doubled in size, approximately, but not so long that it starts to fall.
For the Caramel
- When the dough starts to rise, combine the cream and brown sugar in a saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until it starts to boil. Immediately remove it from heat and set it aside to cool.
Shaping and Baking the Rolls
- After the dough has risen, divide the dough in half.
- With greased hands, dump one half of the dough onto a greased countertop. (I prefer to use a greased silicone mat.) Press the dough into a 16×9 inch rectangle.
- Spread the butter (from Filling Ingredients) over the rectangle of dough. Then top with cinnamon-sugar mixture.
- Roll the dough up from a long side, pinching to seal.
- Slice into 12 slices, and place in a greased 9×13 pan.
- Repeat with the remaining dough, adding the new rolls to the same 9×13 pan. (Optionally, you can use two 9 inch cake pans).
- Pour the mostly cooled (warm, not hot) caramel mixture over the top of the rolls.
- Let the rolls rise for another 30 minutes, until they puff up and fill the pan.
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Bake for 55 minutes, covering with greased foil for the last 10 minutes.(If you use cake pans, bake for 35-40 minutes.)
- Flip the pan upside down onto a platter. Scrape out any caramel that sticks to the pan and spread it onto the rolls.
Optional Quick Butter Frosting
- Combine the butter, powdered sugar, and salt and beat well until creamy. Add milk, 1 tbsp. at a time, if needed, to make a frosting consistency. If you add too much milk, add a little more powdered sugar. Serve alongside the rolls.
- I prefer SAF Instant Yeast.
- I make cinnamon-sugar using 1 part cinnamon and 4 parts sugar.
- If you don’t have a stand mixer, use a large bowl. You can knead the dough by hand: Grease your hands with Pam cooking spray. Stir the dough as much as you can with a large spoon. Grab the edge of the dough with your hand and fold it over the top of the dough. Press with the heel of your hand. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat. Continue for 5 minutes until the dough is a smooth ball. Grease your hands as needed. If the dough is too sticky to knead, add a little more flour. Try not to add too much. If the dough is too dry, add warm water.
- The best location in my house to rise the dough is my in oven, preheated (350) for JUST ONE MINUTE, and then turned off. DON”T FORGET to turn off the oven before you put the dough in! (I set a 1 minute timer.)
- After the rolls are shaped and placed in the pan, I often let them rise overnight in the refrigerator and bake them the next morning.
- Place a baking sheet under your pan of rolls to protect your oven from dripping caramel.