Warm, pillowy dough rolled up with a sticky-sweet spiced filling and slathered generously with thick cream cheese frosting is enough to entice just about anyone, but cinnamon rolls hold a special place in my pastry-loving heart. As someone who didn’t eat a lot of sweets growing up, it felt like a field day when my mom would buy me a cinnamon roll (always the Classic one) from the Cinnabon at our local mall. The sweet, heavenly aroma wafting from the store, the individual Tiffany-blue takeaway box, the first euphoric bites of the frosted roll itself — the whole experience was a treat, especially because I could get away with having dessert for dinner, a rare feat at the time.
Fast forward to now, and I still can’t resist ordering any cinnamon roll I come across on a brunch or bakery menu. Making them, however, is a different story — no matter how easy and hassle-free a recipe purports to be, cinnamon rolls have always fallen into the “project baking” category for me. The kneading, resting, and assembly involved can feel intimidating if you’re short on time or energy, or just don’t love working with yeast (*raises hand*). And so driven by equal parts curiosity and laziness, I wondered about a possible alternative, namely: could the classic cinnamon roll be turned into a cake? Not for the first time, what began as a random thought soon led me down a delicious rabbit hole.
Adding cinnamon to both the cake batter and frosting was a start, but I wanted to find ways to more fully translate the holistic experience of a cinnamon roll into a cake. In that vein, I experimented with using a portion of whole wheat flour (to echo the roll’s breadiness) and incorporating cream cheese and buttermilk into the batter (to complement the frosting’s slight tang). Though it doesn’t look like a cinnamon roll, the resulting two-layer cake does justice to the original inspiration taste-wise, especially when it’s topped off with a decadent cinnamon-spiked cream cheese frosting and sprinkled with toasted pecan bits (a simple layered look inspired by this Smitten Kitchen number). As the cake perfumes the kitchen as it bakes, it envelopes everything it touches in the warm, uniquely comforting aroma of a cinnamon roll.
Though it’s hard to beat the original, this cake captures the essence of the classic and makes for a lovely back-to-school treat. A slice is a foolproof way to indulge my nostalgia — even if I still feel a slight compulsion to stress-buy a box of cinnamon rolls whenever I come across a Cinnabon shop in the wild. And best of all, as a self-proclaimed adult, I can now have dessert for dinner whenever I want.
Cinnamon Roll Cake
Yield: one two-layer, 8-inch round cake
For the cake:
¾ cup (105g) all-purpose flour
½ cup (70g) whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (113g) unsalted butter, softened
4 ounces full-fat cream cheese, softened
½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
½ cup, packed (100g) light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
For the cream cheese frosting:
4 ounces full-fat cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
2 ¼ cups (250g) powdered sugar
For the filling and topping:
Chopped toasted pecans
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottoms with parchment rounds and grease the parchment.
Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together both flours, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Step 3: In a large bowl, beat the butter and cream cheese with an electric hand mixer or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add both sugars and cream the mixture until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Step 4: Add in the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until combined. Scrape the bowl once more, then beat in the vanilla.
Step 5: Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and beat just until combined. Carefully beat in the buttermilk, then add the rest of the dry ingredients and beat just until the batter is smooth.
Step 6: Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the surface with a small offset spatula. Place the pans on a baking sheet. Bake the cakes for 25-30 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the top is set and golden.
Step 7: Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10-15 minutes, then gently run a small offset spatula around the edges of the cakes to loosen. Carefully invert the cake layers onto a cooling rack.
Step 8: Make the cream cheese frosting: Using an electric mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until smooth. Beat in the salt and cinnamon. Gradually add in the powdered sugar and beat until the frosting comes together.
Step 9: When the cake layers are completely cool, assemble the cake. Place one cake layer on a large plate or cake stand, spread with half of the cream cheese frosting, and sprinkle with chopped pecans. Place the second cake layer on top and spread the top of the cake with the remaining frosting. Garnish with more pecans.
Joy Cho is a pastry chef and freelance writer based in Brooklyn. After losing her pastry cook job at the start of the pandemic, Joy launched Joy Cho Pastry, an Instagram business through which she sells her gem cakes to the New York City area.
Molly J. Smith is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon.
Recipe tested by Deena Prichep