Cinnamon is a weird spice for me. I like it, but only in moderation. It’s a spice that doesn’t know its place, because it shows up in all kinds of things where it doesn’t belong. Applesauce, for one; oh sure, some people like it that way, and that’s fine, but I want my applesauce to taste like apples. Sara Lee puts it in their cheesecake bites, proving their famous slogan entirely wrong; cinnamon distracts from the flavor of the cheesecake. Most coffee cakes are better without it, and when it comes to donuts I’m always incensed that they stick the cinnamon ones in the middle of the variety pack—where the strong flavor contaminates the plain and powdered sugar donuts both!
But I do like cinnamon, when it isn’t being abused.
This is the prelude to a story about my grandmother, and one of the ways I fondly remember her. She was an excellent cook, although I never did go in for rice pudding (her signature dessert) or a lot of the Italian food she often made, because I’ve always been picky. Her chicken cutlets, though, were second to none, and even typing those words my mouth is watering and my stomach is gurgling at the thought of those pan-fried goodies. I haven’t had her chicken cutlets for many years, and yet the memory of their taste is crystal clear. Even when she made boxed macaroni and cheese, it came out tasting a lot better than normal. (My sister thinks maybe it’s because she used powdered milk for everything. Someday I want to try that.)
One of the things I remember best about her was that she was always up early. Incredibly early. But she’d also be up and about a lot of times in the middle of the night. So when my sister and I would stay over, many was the night that we’d wake up and then hang out with her in the kitchen with a bowl of cereal for a little while before going back to bed. (Funny thing about that: It’s how people always used to sleep before the Industrial Revolution, breaking up their night so that there was a quiet hour or two between sleeps. I kinda wish we’d get back to that.)
In the ’80s she got a microwave, and she began experimenting. While the rest of the world had to learn slowly how microwaves can be temperamental, she was a natural. She was the one who taught me to make poor man’s nachos—break up taco shells, cover with cheese, melt, enjoy—which I still do now and then to this day, because it’s tasty and fun and sometimes I can’t be bothered to make anything else. But she also created a simple instant dessert.
What she would do was butter a piece of bread, sprinkle on cinnamon, roll it up and pin it closed with a toothpick, and then microwave it until warm. Of course you had to do this with several pieces of bread, because just one is not enough. And so the poor man’s cinnamon roll was born: soft and hot and comforting. Grandma was a genius with the microwave.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve done this too, but I found out that white bread isn’t the very best vehicle for this sort of thing: leftover dinner rolls are. You know those rolls—the pull-apart ones you don’t have to bake in the oven, that line up like squares in the package. They’re basically white bread too, but in the shape of a dinner roll. They’re cheap, they’re delicious, and they make the very best poor man’s cinnamon rolls.
Usually my wife and I are the ones bringing rolls to holiday dinners, so I like to buy an extra package for home. That way if there are leftovers, the rolls go great with them. And if not, I can use up those rolls for a million things—like breakfast sausage patty sliders, or mini cold cut sandwiches. And for a treat, I’ll split a few of those rolls, slap on a pat of butter, sprinkle on cinnamon sugar (even better than cinnamon alone!), and nuke ’em until they’re warm and the butter has melted completely.
This time of year especially, the poor man’s cinnamon roll is a late-night delight. There’s nothing better for watching a little late TV. And whenever I make them, I think of my grandmother.