Sticky Pecan Cinnamon Buns – the quest for gooey goodness

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(Sticky Caramel Pecan Cinnamon Buns – the quest has ended – recipe in post)

Cinnamon buns may be the quintessential ‘easy’ baking – the college student breakfast, the junkie’s quick fix – and there are no shortage of recipes detailing their goodness. But I am prepared to go against the grain, here, and say there is more to this classic confection than meets the eye.

Let me be clear: these are not the cinnamon rolls found in mall kiosks and Cinnabon bakeries… these are Sticky Buns. Ooey-gooey, hot from the oven, cinnamon laden and pecan sportin’ rolls of pull-apart brioche dough.

I propose that the purpose of making these spiraling swirls of stick-to-your-fingers goodness is not merely for a breakfast treat, or to satisfy a craving, but to outshine every other available option.  To be so good you lose your composure, get swept off your feet, and literally swoon over every bite.
My goal is not to make them easy – it is not to make them healthy – and it is not to make them ‘good’. It is to make them great. I don’t often indulge in such things, but when I do, I want to do it right!

Several weeks ago The Boyfriend – a true sweet-tooth totin’ confections connoisseur – requested that I make sticky buns.
He posited that a good sticky bun needs to have the right goo to bread ratio, should have a yeasted dough for added flavor complexity, and must be ever-so-slightly under baked to ensure the perfect progression from the firmer outer layers to the very moist inner spiral. This, he said, was key for the pastry to hold his attention. Without enough variation in texture, the bun became boring.

If you agree, as I do, with The Boyfriend’s definition of a good sticky bun, than this is the recipe for you.

Knowing the bar was set high, I did my research. The first recipe I came up with was okay, but the dough was bland and uninteresting. The second solved that issue – I fell in love with the dough, and am so excited to share it with you – but the sugar in the supposedly ‘sticky’ topping failed to dissolve, resulting in a less than gooey glaze. This didn’t stop me from eating three of them, in what I would later claim to be ‘research’ for the next batch. Having vowed to The Boyfriend that I would make the stickiest of all sticky buns, the search continued. The third attempt, dear readers… the third…

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Sticky Pecan Cinnamon Buns
(Dough adapted from Noshings)

The Dough:

4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
2 TBSP white sugar
2 TBSP brown sugar*
6 TBSP unsalted butter, softened
4 TBSP cream cheese, softened
6 oz. (3/4 cup) buttermilk, warm (115f.)
2 1/4 tsp. (1 packet) instant dry yeast
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, separated
1 1/4 tsp. sea salt

The Filling:

1/4 cup (half stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed*
1 1/2 TBSP cinnamon
Optional: 1/2 tsp. nutmeg

The Goo:

1/2 cup (one stick) butter
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed*
1/4 cup honey
2 TBSP brown rice syrup (or corn syrup)
1 TBSP cinnamon
1 TBSP vanilla extract (or up to a few TBSP bourbon or other liquor)
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans (or walnuts)

*I used dark brown sugar throughout this recipe, but feel free to use light brown for any or all of it.

Also, it occurs to me that the butter in the filling and the cream cheese in the dough could probably be replaced with mashed banana – I haven’t tested this, but if anyone tries it please let me know what you think!


The Dough
In a bowl, warm the buttermilk. Not hot or boiling, just warm. Stir in the white sugar and yeast, and set aside 5-10 minutes to let the yeast come alive.
In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese, egg/yolks, and brown sugar.
While mixing, add the buttermilk mixture to the butter.
Add in 2 cups of the flour and all of the salt. Beat until thoroughly combined, then remove the beaters and sprinkle the remaining 1.5 cups of flour over the dough. Begin working the dough with your hands (or switch to the dough hook on your stand mixer), kneading until all of the flour is incorporated. The dough will be extremely soft and supple at first, and will get increasingly more firm as you go.
Once all of the flour is off the sides of the bowl, turn the dough out onto your counter. If it’s too wet to work with at this point, add more flour one TBSP at a time – but don’t add more than two or three TBSP in total. The dough should be very soft and tender, not dry.
Knead the dough for 3-4 minutes, then shape into a ball and set in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours, or until doubled in size.
At this point the dough can be used immediately, or stored in the fridge for overnight or up to a day or two. The longer the dough rests, the more flavorful it will be.
When you’re ready to make the rolls, if the dough has been chilled, let it warm up at room temperature for 30-40 minutes before using.

The Filling
With a fork, mash together the butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg if using. Set aside along with the brown sugar.

The Goo
In a pot on the stove, combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, and syrup. Bring to a bubble over medium heat, stirring frequently, until all of the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat, stir in the cinnamon and vanilla, and pour into the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Sprinkle chopped nuts evenly over the top, and set aside.

Gently sink your fist into the dough to ‘punch’ it down, releasing some of the trapped gasses. Pull it out of the bowl and onto a cutting board or counter top – the dough will be moist, but should not require any extra flour.
With your palms and finger tips, press and stretch the dough to about a 12×18 inch rectangle. You could use a rolling pin if you’d like, but the dough should be soft enough to work by hand, and the warmth will help the dough to relax.
Once you’ve got a big rectangle, spread the softened butter/cinnamon mixture evenly over the surface. A flexible rubber spatula helps. Take the filling right up to the edges, then spread the  brown sugar over top.

sticky bun collage 1

Roll the dough as firmly as you can into a long cylinder. Using a lightly oiled knife, cut the tube in half, and then quarters. Cut each quarter into thirds, and you should have 12 even buns.
(Tip: I hear the halved or quartered roll of dough can be frozen for up to a month or more. Simply thaw the dough prior to use, slice into rounds, and continue with the rest of the recipe as instructed).

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Place the spirals into your baking dish on top of the caramel sauce and nuts. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until the rolls have doubled in size. They should be touching each other and nearly filling the pan.

sticky bun collage 2

Preheat the oven to 350f.
Place the buns onto the middle rack, and put a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any drips.
Bake 12-15 minutes, then rotate the baking dish and cover the buns loosely with aluminum foil. This is very important to keep them from getting to brown/burnt on top. Continue to bake for another 15-20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edges. Wait about 5-10 minutes for the sauce to cool down and stop bubbling, then turn the dish over onto a large platter or baking sheet and marvel at the wondrous mess before you. Be sure not to let the buns cool completely before removing them from the pan, lest the goo become, well… glue.

Best enjoyed fresh from the oven, but will last up to a few days in an airtight container. I suggest a quick spin in the microwave if you’re having them next-day. That is, if there are any left the next day…

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Did they live up to The Boyfriend’s standards? Did they meet my demand of excellence? Did they outshine just about every other sticky bun I’ve ever eaten? Yes, absolutely, and did they ever!

As I said before, I am in love with this dough – the feel of it in my hands, so tender – the Pillsbury Dough Boy has nothing on this. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good dough. Except The Boyfriend, of course. And sticky buns.

And as for the goo – oh, the goo – sweet sticky caramel bubbling up the edges of the pan, dripping down the sides of the buns, and cascading over my fingers as I pull them apart… this ain’t no donut shop glaze, m’kay.

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Sweet, sweet success!

I ate this one, seeing as I’d already begun to dissect it.
Then I ate another one… and then I maybe had a third, because it just didn’t look as good as the rest and we all know presentation is important. I want to spare the world of less-than-picture-perfect sticky buns. You’re welcome, world.

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62 Responses to Sticky Pecan Cinnamon Buns – the quest for gooey goodness

  1. From Valeries Kitchen March 2, 2012 at 5:01 am #

    Your boyfriend really knows his sticky buns :) Looks like he has the right girlfriend. These are gorgeous Willow. Every time I visit your site lately I feel the need to Pin! I think I got

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 5:35 am #

      Thanks, Valerie! And yes, I think The Boyfriend has been quite pleased, even with my less-than-perfect batches. He’s gotten to enjoy a LOT of sticky buns, these past few days. :P

  2. Gourmantine March 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    Now that just looks out of this world!But I’m afraid if I did make these, none would be left for my husband as I would have all to myself…

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      Yeah, that’s definitely an issue for me as well… I try to convince myself that if I make something *really* good, I need to share it with others just that much more. And then I tell The Boyfriend to take them to work the next day. :P

  3. Emily Ann March 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Oooh these look great :) It’s awesome that you made them yourself.

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      Thanks! Sticky buns (and most hot pastries) are best fresh out of the oven… and fortunately, they aren’t that difficult to make!

  4. Jane and Lorraine March 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    WOW, these look great! Don’t you just love when boyfriends have request, you will make sure to get it right! ;-)

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

      I know, right! Most of the time he’s happy with whatever I make, but on the rare occasion that he asks for something specific I’ll go out of my way to make it happen. :)

  5. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes March 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    You boyfriend sure knows great buns when he sees them!

    Your photos are amazing as always;i totally wish I could reach through my screen and take one for breakfast :)

    You should totally link this recipe to BYOB- Bring Your Own Bread’s blog hop:

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

      Hahaha! Yes, yes he does.

      And thank you! I hadn’t known about girlichef’s blog hop – I linked this up right away. :D

  6. Grubarazzi March 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    Wow. These are gorgeous. Love your photos :)

  7. Heather @ Better With Veggies March 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    The photos on these are gorgeous, they look like I could reach in and grab one. :)

  8. Heather March 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Oh. WOW! This is a quest I would love to partake in – and what an end result! These look absolutely fantastic, my mouth is watering. So beautiful. I’m so happy that you shared them with BYOB this month =)

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

      Thank you! And thanks for hosting the hop, I love the theme of it! Always a pleasure to be able to participate. :D

  9. RavieNomNoms March 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    WOW! Those look so dangerous!

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

      Heheh – they are! But so worth the risk. :P

  10. Kiri W. March 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    Mmmm, these look so delicious, you might need a license for them! Sticky = utter happiness.

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

      Haha – barely legal sticky buns. I like it!

  11. Choc Chip Uru March 2, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    Spirals look so sticky and decadent beyond belief – absolutely dying here :D

    Choc Chip Uru

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

      Thanks! I felt the same way looking at your 5 way PB cookie dessert! :)

  12. TheCookieFairy March 2, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Sweet baby Jesus. You have combined all my favourite ingredients and turned them into edible magic. I will most definitely try this some day! Lovely little blog you have there :)

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

      Thanks – hope you like them!

  13. Tina March 2, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    The best thing about these is that the filling is so rich and dark! That is because you did not skimp on that lovely brown sugar filling. Awesome breakfast treat. Enjoy the weekend!

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

      Thank you – I do love the brown sugar!

  14. TheDad March 2, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Unlike your other readers, every so often I get to actually eat the stuff. Folks, I can tell you it tastes as good as you think it does!

    Your photos are great! Your writing is great! And I’m exceedingly lucky (licky) to be your Dad so I get to sample some of the goods. These were excellent!

    • Willow March 2, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

      Thanks dad – so glad you liked them! :D

  15. Jen @ Juanita's Cocina March 3, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    Ooooooh, these would go over like gang busters in our house.

    Big C would just DIE! His sugar wiggy would be solved!


    • Willow March 3, 2012 at 1:34 am #

      Haha – be careful, once you start making them you just can’t stop!

  16. Ambika March 3, 2012 at 2:24 am #

    Looks absolutely delicious! I am ogling at my screen right now! Beatiful, will make them soon!

    • Willow March 3, 2012 at 2:49 am #

      Thanks! Let me know how you like them.:D

  17. Tya @ Note Etc. March 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    this is looks great and major delicious! the caramel sauce and nuts on top make me drooling!


    new post:

    • Willow March 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

      Haha, thanks – they were pretty major delicious. :)

  18. [email protected] culinary lens March 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    I love these and thank you for such a good step by step

    • Willow March 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

      You’re very welcome!

  19. Kim Bee March 3, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Oh my gosh, this are really incredible. I am in complete awe. And your photos are stunning.

  20. Lelly's Gallery March 3, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    wow wow wow I’ve been looking for a recipe for cinnamon buns and these look better than ‘Cinnabon’!! really want to try them and ADD YOUR blog to mine!

    please join my baking blog!!

    • Willow March 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

      Thanks – I hope you like the sticky buns, if you make them!
      And your blog looks great – gorgeous cupcakes! :D

  21. alana March 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    These look amazingly delish! I am so afraid to make cinnamon rolls from scratch!

    • Willow March 6, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

      They were so good – don’t be afraid, you can do it!

  22. WineDineDaily March 7, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    WOW, these gorgeous buns do look extremely tempting :)

    • Willow March 7, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

      Thanks! They are pretty irresistible. :P

  23. Ashlae March 8, 2012 at 12:33 am #

    Yowza, yowza, yowza! Incredible photos. Love your blog and you scrumptious looking eats.

  24. Cristina March 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    and here goes my diet :)) but again, if I really, really wanted to diet, I guess I would not be snooping on your site, right??? oh well, diet can wait another week. THESE cannot. on my to do list for saturday morning :)

    • Willow March 15, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

      Haha – I do the same thing. But hey, I’ve got healthier recipes, too! Check out my list over on the right titled “fitness friendly”.

      Let me know what you think of these! I’m actually making them again this weekend, as well. Let’s just say I have some friends who read the blog and wonder why they didn’t get to try these… ;)

    • Cristina March 16, 2012 at 2:06 am #

      Dude… these ROCK!!! I was tired yesterday… but I stayed up till 1 am and made them!!! I swear I only ate 2 bites last night (uhh, of the second one, of course:)) Gave two to my daughter for breakfast. Two to my husband. One to one of my colleagues… I am trying really hard to give them all away FAST… So thank you. My quest for the perfect cinnamon roll is OVER! If you are on Facebook I’ll post my pic so you see :)
      Thank you again.

    • Willow March 16, 2012 at 2:12 am #

      I am SO glad you liked them!! You have totally made my day. :D

      I would love to see your pics – here’s my facebook:!/WillCookForFriends

  25. ali b. March 17, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    these look GREAT and i am getting ready to tackle them but needed a piece of advice first. how would you feel about shaping the buns and refrigerating them overnight? either rolling the dough with the filling, wrapping in plastic as a log to cut the next morning OR cutting them, putting them in the pan and refrigerating the pan all night? i want to take these to work tomorrow and would rather not shape them early in the morning.
    thanks for sharing your drool-worthy recipe!

    • Willow March 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      Great question! And I can totally understand not wanting to hassle with them in the AM – especially with the lengthy rise time.
      I would suggest (though I’ve never tried it myself) that you fully prepare them and let them rise at room temperature the night before, then keep in the fridge overnight. Take them out of the fridge first thing in the morning and let them warm up a bit while the oven pre-heats, and possible increase the bake time by a few minutes to let them cook through.
      That should make for the least work in the morning, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. If you try this please let me know how it goes and I can update the recipe to include it – a quicker option would make these much less intimidating to make. :)

  26. Courtney J March 23, 2012 at 4:17 am #

    holy!!!! these look incredible Willow!!!!! YUM! I have to try and make these on my next free Sunday. They would be perfect for a special breakfast treat. Awesome pics too. I’m drooling. *hehe*

    ps. thank you so much for all of your lovely comments on my blog The Fig Tree today. You made me smile :)

    • Willow March 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

      Thanks, Courtney! I hope you like the sticky buns – people have gone crazy every time I’ve made them.

      And you’re welcome! I’ve been loving every post. :D

  27. Anonymous August 25, 2012 at 5:29 am #

    Just stumbled o upon your blog! WOW!! I really want to make these, but a couple questions….

  28. Anonymous August 25, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    I know this will sound silly, but what is the purpose of the nuts on the bottom? I want to make these for a bake sale, should i pre-package them, or “cut-n-serve”?

    • Willow August 27, 2012 at 12:16 am #

      When the rolls are done baking and have cooled for a couple minutes, the entire pan is inverted over a baking sheet to remove the rolls – all of the nuts/caramel on the ‘bottom’ are now on the top of the rolls. You chould certainly leave the nuts out, if you prefer.

      And I would think pre-packaging them would be a little tricky, because they’re so gooey… when they’re flipped out of the pan, though, they’re all individual – no cutting necessary. It should be pretty easy to serve them to customers, or have them help themselves.

      Sorry for the delayed response – hope that helps, and I hope everyone enjoys the rolls!

  29. Lisa L August 26, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    Hi Willow, gave these a crack for our last week of winter here in Australia, they are/ were AMAZING! I don’t have white sugar in the house so substituted that part with coconut sugar which worked well. I have frozen half the made rolled dough for our Canadian relos visit next month, I even made the goo and have frozen half of that too, hope it will be ok in the defrost. Thanks again, both Hubby and I ate a slice of heaven this afternoon x

    • Willow August 27, 2012 at 12:17 am #

      Wow, wonderful! I’m so glad you liked them – comments like this really make my day, so thank you for telling me. :)

  30. Anonymous August 27, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    Thank you so much for replying. ill take your advice, about packaging them.

  31. kimberly mason May 18, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

    i am making these today i have been looking at these 4 weeks

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