Soft, fluffy cinnamon rolls stuffed with brown sugar & apples, and generously glazed with homemade caramel.
Today I’m bringing you round 2 of my caramel apple cinnamon rolls. You see, round 1 was a complete disaster. Yep, I experience disasters in the kitchen too. It isn’t pretty, so I’ll spare you the photos. You’re welcome.
Today I’ll share with you how to make these rolls perfectly and what I did wrong the first time. I’m not shy to say that the final version are the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever had.
I made these cinnamon rolls last Friday night. And again on Saturday morning. Sometimes recipe disasters make me feel like a failure, but other times it just motivates me to keep trying until I get that perfect result. It took me 11 months and about 15 different tries to get my Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Cookies right. Soft, thick, tasting homemade, but bursting with cake batter flavor. And trust me, they were worth the wait.
And so were these apple cinnamon rolls. The dough is soft, moist, and sweet. The rolls bake up to be puffy and very fluffy. The center is filled with sliced apples and a mix of cinnamon, brown sugar, and butter. The brown sugar and butter caramelize making these rolls extra sticky. I topped the pretty coiled rolls with a homemade (and easy!) caramel sauce. I love apples and caramel together. These would be a perfect breakfast in the fall. Or, well… any time of year.
There is quite possibly no better aroma than a pan of these big, puffy rolls baking in the oven, fragrant with cinnamon, brown sugar, and sweet apples. I hope you’re ready for these!
I used to be so fearful of yeast. Growing up, my mom made us gooey cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning. I swore I’d never be able to recreate the masterpiece rolls on my own because yeast is so intimidating.
What is so scary about yeast though? It’s just another leavening agent. It does all the work for you as you let the dough sit and rise. Baking homemade rolls at home actually require less work than a lot of my cupcake recipes. All you do is wait around for the yeast to do its job.
For today’s rolls, I adapted the recipe I used for my Homemade Orange Sweet Rolls. Have you tried those yet? They are dead ringer for Pillsbury’s orange sweet rolls.
** If you plan to make these rolls at home, be sure to read the whys and the why nots of this recipe:
Start with a packet of dry instant yeast and 1/2 cup of warm water in a large mixing bowl. I like to use Red Star Platinum yeast. I did not take the water’s temperature – just lukewarm water will do here. To be precise, it will be 105F-115F. Let the yeast dissolve in the warm water for a minute. Give it a quick stir, then add most of the remaining dough ingredients. For the liquid in this dough recipe, I used apple juice. It (obviously) enhanced the apple flavor in the rolls. You could also use apple cider instead. The rest of the ingredients you’ll add in this step are: sugar, salt, 1 large egg, 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract, 2 tablespoons butter, and HALF of the flour called for in the recipe: 1.5 cups.
Beat the mixture on low, scraping down the sides as needed. I used a hand-held mixer (rather than stand mixer) because I had much more control over the beating process. A mixer is required to make these homemade cinnamon rolls in order to beat everything into the proper consistency.
Add the rest of the flour to the dough and stir with a wooden spoon. (Do NOT use the mixer in this step unless you want dough bits flying all over your counter and face. Been there, done that.) Mix it up and add more flour (little by little) until the dough is easy to handle by hand. The consistency of the dough should be soft and springy – not sticky. Poke it with your finger – if the dough bounced back, it is ready to knead.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead by hand for about 5-6 minutes. The dough should be very smooth and elastic – bouncing back as you pull on it. Shape the dough into a ball and place into a clean bowl. I spray the bowl with cooking spray to alleviate any dough sticking to the sides. Works like a charm.
Cover the dough with a clean dish towel or aluminum foil and place in a warm spot. I made these rolls on a very cold day, so I preheated the oven to 200F degrees and turned it off. I placed the bowl inside as the oven was still warm. It took about 1.5 hours for the yeast ball to double in size.
Look at that puff ball! ↓
While the dough was rising in this step, I prepared some of the filling.
Here is where I went wrong the first time I made these cinnamon rolls. Don’t do this: in a small saucepan, I cooked apples, butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon for about 20 minutes. The juices from the apples, the melted butter, and brown sugar all created a heavy liquid – and a lot of it. I let it cool for a few minutes, then poured this liquid mixture over the rolled out dough and tried to roll it up. Ha! The dough was too fragile to hold all of this liquid and was impossible to roll. Duh Sally. It was a soupy mess! I tried rolling, cutting, reshaping, and baking the rolls anyway and came out with alien-looking rolls. Wow. Lesson learned.
Disheartened, I tried the rolls again the next morning with a completely different way to fill the rolls using the same exact ingredients. Do this: As the ball of dough is rising, peel, core, and thinly slice 2 apples. I went with 1 Granny Smith apple and 1 Gala apple. Cook the apples with 2 Tablespoons of butter over low heat in a small saucepan for about 20 minutes. The apples melt down and become super soft, tender, and juicy. Drain most of the juices from the saucepan and stick the apples into the refrigerator to cool off.
As the apples cool, mix 1 cup of dark brown sugar with 2 hefty Tablespoons of cinnamon. Cinnamon rules the world and there’s quite enough of it in this roll filling! Along with the cinnamon/brown sugar mixture, grab 2 Tablespoons of softened butter, your rolling pin, and a ruler. I am very precise when rolling out breakfast roll recipes. You need to make sure that the rolls are even in size, thick enough, and that you have enough of them to fill the baking pan. For these reasons, it’s important to measure the dough with a ruler as you are rolling it.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 15×9″ rectangle. It takes some time to get a perfectly sized rectangle. Spread with 2 Tablespoons of softened butter. Sprinkle the buttered rectangle dough with half of your cinnamon/brown sugar. Grab your apples, which have cooled off in the refrigerator, and layer them on top of the cinnamon/brown sugar. Sprinkle them with the rest of the cinnamon/brown sugar.
Tightly (very tightly!) roll the dough up. Using your sharpest knife (or even flavorless dental floss), cut into 15 slices – about 1 inch wide in thickness. Stuff the rolls into a large baking pan lined with parchment paper, 5 lengthwise and 3 across. Leave some space between them (if you can), so they have room to expand. Cover your baking pan and store in a warm place once again for about 30 minutes to 1 hour.
After the uncooked rolls have risen and expanded in the baking pan, you may bake them. Prepare to be graced with the most amazing cinnamon roll fragrance. Picture yourself passing Cinnabon in the mall and baking a homemade apple pie at once. I mean, can I bottle that scent please?!
The rolls only take about 25-30 minutes in the oven at 375F degrees. Be sure to cover your rolls with aluminum foil (yes, you may use foil here!) as they bake to prevent the tops from getting too brown.
As the rolls bake, prepare the caramel sauce. AKA: the best topping for cinnamon rolls in the world.
The caramel sauce you make is the same caramel sauce I use to make my beloved Salted Caramel Frosting. But I do not add salt. However, feel free to add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to this caramel sauce as it cooks in the saucepan to create a salted caramel topping for your apple cinnamon rolls.
How do you make the sauce? Easy peasy. Over low heat, melt 1/4 cup of salted butter (or unsalted butter). Once melted add 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar and 2.5 Tablespoons of heavy cream. Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Allow to bubble for about 1 minute. Remove from heat, allow to (very slightly) cool and drizzle all over the cinnamon rolls.
This sauce is heaven. ↓
Drippy, thick, sticky, sweet caramel sauce.
You’ll want to pour the caramel sauce onto the cinnamon rolls immediately before serving. The sauce will become quite solid if you let it cool too long or store it in the refrigerator, so be sure to warm the sauce up a bit if it is too thick.
The warm homemade caramel sauce would be perfect over ice cream or fudge brownies.
Caramel, cinnamon, and apple flavors unite in each sticky sweet roll. Not only do you have the caramel sauce poured on top, but the brown sugar and butter caramelize inside and underneath the rolls as they bake. You’re getting a double dose of caramel in each soft doughy bite.
The buttery taste, the swirly dough layers, the cinnamon apples, the fluffy texture, the scent, the drippy sauce… oh my goodness. I can’t think of a better breakfast to wake up to in the morning. Just wait until you taste one warm from the oven, dripping with sweet caramel sauce. A comforting breakfast indeed. Life is good with homemade apple cinnamon rolls!
Round two was a sweet swirled success.
Trust me, even a novice baker could make these. There are a lot of steps, but the directions are very straightforward and easy to follow. There’s a lot of waiting time with these rolls, not so much active time. Just follow my easy directions, wait around a bit for the dough to rise, make some caramel sauce, and dig right in.
What are you waiting for?
Caramel Apple Cinnamon Rolls
Best-ever cinnamon rolls with brown sugared apples and an easy caramel sauce on top.
Yield: 15 rolls
Total Time: 3.5 hours or overnight
For the Dough:
- 1 package active dry yeast (I prefer Red Star Platinum)
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup apple juice or apple cider
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 3 – 3.5 cups all-purpose flour
For the Filling:
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 2 medium sized apples, peeled, cored, & thinly sliced (about 1.5 cups)
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons ground cinnamon
For the Caramel Sauce:
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter (or salted)
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 and 1/2 Tablespoons heavy cream (no substitutions)
- Make the dough: Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water for about 1 minute. No need to use a thermometer for the water’s temperature, but to be precise: about 105-115F degrees. Stir the yeast/water around. Then add apple juice, sugar, salt, egg, vanilla extract, butter, and 1.5 cups of flour. Beat everything together on low with a handheld mixer, scraping down the sides as needed. (A mixer is definitely needed to break up all the butter and beat everything to the proper consistency.) With a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a dough easy to handle – about 1.5 – 2 more cups. You are looking for a dough that is not sticky and will spring back when poked with a finger.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead it with your hands for about 5-6 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly greased bowl. Cover the dough and let sit in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.
- Line the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking dish with parchment paper, leaving room on the sides. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and, using a rolling pin, roll into a 15×9 inch rectangle. I used a ruler for accuracy. Make sure the dough is smooth and evenly thick, even at the corners.
- For the filling: As the dough is rising, melt 2 Tablespoons butter in a saucepan. Add the thinly sliced apples and cook down for about 20 minutes until the apples are very soft. Drain the apples from the butter and juices and place into a small bowl. Stick the apples in the refrigerator to cool down. In another small bowl, mix together brown sugar and cinnamon. Spread the dough rectangle with 2 Tablespoons of softened butter and sprinkle with 1/2 of the cinnamon/brown sugar. Line the apples on top of the cinnamon/brown sugar then sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon/brown sugar. Tightly roll up the dough and cut into 15 even rolls (1 inch in width each) with a very sharp knife. Arrange them in the prepared baking pan, cut sides up. Cover the rolls and let them rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes – 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Cover the rolls with aluminum foil and bake for about 25-30 minutes, until they are lightly golden in color. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for about 15 minutes.
- Make the caramel sauce: melt the butter in a small saucepan. Once melted, add brown sugar and heavy cream. Stir constantly over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Allow to bubble for 3-4 full minutes, no more. Remove from heat pour over cinnamon rolls before serving. Caramel sauce will thicken up at room temperature or if cold. You'll have to warm it back up to pour over rolls. Baked rolls can be frozen up to 1 month (without sauce) and warmed up to enjoy at a later date.
To Make Ahead: The recipe can be prepared through Step 4. Cover the rolls and let sit at room temperature overnight before beginning step 5.
© Sally’s Baking Addiction. All images & content are copyright protected. Please do not use my images without prior permission. If you want to republish this recipe, please re-write the recipe in your own words, or link back to this post for the recipe.
Today’s gooey caramel apple cinnamon rolls remind me of a few of my recipes:
Homemade Orange Sweet Rolls, a copycat recipe of Pillsbury Orange Rolls.
Baked (Low Fat) Cinnamon Bun Donuts (yes, low fat!)