Before they were canned: the origins of the cinnamon roll
For a product that can now be sold distributed in airports, bakeries or even pressurized cardboard ‘cans’ at the grocery store, there’s still a bit of mystery in the story of the cinnamon roll. The tasty, sticky treat is actually fairly young, although people have been cooking with the various ingredients for hundreds of years at a minimum.
The critical spice in a cinnamon roll is obviously the cinnamon. We believe cinnamon originated from Sri Lanka at least 2000 years ago, because we have records of it being used in Roman and Greek dishes. But they weren’t sticky or sweet, as the cinnamon was used to accent incense and wine (the Romans thought pepper was a better addition to their sweet breads).
The syrupy, sweet bread idea goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used honey as a sweetener, and were known to use nuts as a topping of sorts. This gets us closer to a cinnamon roll, but it’s still a far way off as the bread itself was a pretty far cry from the coiled-for-sugar-efficiency roll we’re aiming for. And there was still no cinnamon involved.
From seasonings to spiraled breads
The British provided the next big step towards cinnamon rolls with the invention of the Chelsea bun in the 18th century. It possibly involved cinnamon, but was better known for being topped with sugar and currants, as it was a modification of currant buns. The Germans had their own Schnecken rolls (translating to “snails”) that also captured the idea of a sweet, rolled bun with sugar and currants.
Finally, in 1910, cinnamon and sweet rolls are finally officially combined in a German and English cookbook published in Milwaukee. They’re not called cinnamon rolls until 1922, when a Good Housekeeping cookbook refers to them in language that sounds like they’re a fairly established concept at that point. As a modification to existing recipes, its quite possible that this food that has arguably eclipsed the notoriety of it’s ancestors entered the world quietly, almost like a folk recipe that someone finally took the time to write down.
…and then eventually cover in frosting.
Source: Stickybuns (aka cinnamon buns) by Lynne Olver, Food Timeline