Ma'amoul Cinnamon Buns with Orange Blossom Cream Cheese Frosting
Dark winter mornings in Tangier
I wake up in a still-dark bedroom at 7am, streetlights glowing against the fog that hovers around the rooftops.
As I open our terrace door, I take a slippered step outside, close my eyes and breathe in the crisp, chill air and for a second, I am transported.
I am standing on our Minneapolis porch, watching snow flurries dance towards browning grass. Coffee with cinnamon in a moss green mug in my hands, soft carols drifting from the music playing in the kitchen, while a pot of oatmeal bubbles on the stove. The winter comforts of my far-away Northern home.
When I open my eyes again, it is like being pulled through a vortex, back to an alternate reality- this sea-side place I call home.
Here, the fjer call to prayer hums up towards the lightening sky. An old woman, wrapped in scarves and a fluffy robe hangs her laundry in the breaking dawn on the balcony across the way and I take a deep breath as a new smell wafts towards where I stand- flat breads and petit pain freshly baked from the panaderia downstairs. I am grounded, back in my world of fluid languages and spices that wrap you in warm, tight hugs.
It makes me smile, knowing that both of these worlds exist in my reality. Both of these homes help to define and support me. They may be far away from each other, but the smallest thing, like an inhale of the chill in the air, can make them feel a bit closer together.
Another sense that never fails to bring these two places closer for me is flavor. Certain foods transport me right back to my kitchen table in Minnesota, covered with childhood etchings and scratches, while others taste like bustling market visits and my mother-in-law’s kitchen in Tangier. One of my favorite things to do is attempt to bring these flavors together in delicious, singing harmony.
A couple of years ago I shared a recipe for one of my absolute favorite Moroccan sweets, halwa d’tmar, which are stuffed date shortbread cookies, also more widely known as ma’amoul in other parts of North Africa and the middle east. It just so happens that giant, pillowy cinnamon buns are my favorite treat from back home, so I wondered, what would happen if I brought these two sweet favorites together? Inspired also by The Cinnaman’s ma’amoul vanilla bundt cake, I decided to give it a go.
These were pure flavor magic on the first try. Adapting Ambitious Kitchen’s perfect cinnamon roll dough recipe, I added a touch of orange blossom water and stuffed the rolls full of sticky, heavily spiced homemade date paste. Served warm with a generous swirl of orange blossom scented cream cheese frosting, they are the perfect fusion of the best of both worlds. When Marouan tried one for breakfast, under the twinkle lights that I hung in order to bring some Christmas into our Moroccan apartment, he said “it tastes exactly like a cozy hug.” He couldn’t have put it any better. These ma’amoul cinnamon buns are like a giant sandwich hug from my American mother and my Moroccan mother-in-law, coming together in love and winter warmth.
-You can make these the same day you plan to eat them, or overnight. Either way, they are always best freshly baked, but will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days. Just rewarm them in the oven.
-If you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you could use that for kneading and mixing, but I am a huge believer in working dough by hand. That way, you can get that tactile sense for when it is ready to rise.
-You could make these dairy-free by using dairy-free alternatives for the butter and cream cheese, but I am not sure about making them vegan (the eggs are tricky). If anyone tries, you can let me know.
Ma’amoul Cinnamon Buns
with Orange Blossom Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 9 large rolls, adapted from Ambitious Kitchen’s Best Cinnamon Roll recipe
185ml (3/4 cup) warm milk
2 1/2 teaspoons active yeast
55g (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp orange blossom water
420g (3 cups) all-purpose flour (you can also swap out half of this for whole wheat)
3/4 teaspoon salt
225g (1 1/2 cups) dates
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp orange blossom water
Cinnamon Sugar Filling
110g (1/2 cup) light brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp butter, softened
Orange Blossom Cream Cheese Frosting
115g (4oz) cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp orange blossom water
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp cinnamon
For the dough, begin by proofing your yeast- pour the warm milk into a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top, giving it a quick stir. Let it sit for up to 5 minutes or until foamy (if your yeast doesn’t foam, the milk may be either too cold or too hot, so give it another try). Whisk in the sugar, egg and egg yoke, melted butter and orange blossom water. Once combined, add the flour and salt and mix with a wooden spoon or spatula. Turn the dough out onto a clean, floured surface and knead for 8-10 minutes or until smooth and springy, adding up to 1/4 cup more of flour if it is too sticky to work with (but no more than that). After kneading, place the dough in a large, well-oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a lightly damp cloth. Set in a warm place and let it rise for about 1-1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
While the dough rises, prepare your fillings. To make the date paste, take the pits out of each one and place in the basket of a steamer. Steam them for about 5-10 minutes or until soft and falling apart. Either place the dates in a bowl or food processor, add the remaining ingredients and mash by hand or pulse in the food processor until combined into a thick paste. For the cinnamon sugar, simply combine the cinnamon and brown sugar together in a small bowl. Leave the butter aside to get as soft as possible. Prepare a 9x9 or 9” round pan either with parchment paper, or by greasing thoroughly with some extra butter.
Once the dough is proofed, punch it down and lay it on a clean and floured surface. Roll out into a 14x9” rectangle, then place dots of the soft butter across the surface and spread as evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle on the cinnamon sugar and lightly rub it into the butter. Place spoonfuls of the date paste on top of the dough and spread this as well to cover as much of the surface as you can. Starting with the longer end, carefully roll up the dough into a long log, sealing and pinching it shut with your fingers. Using floss or a very sharp knife, cut the rolls into 9 equal slices and place in your prepared pan.
You can either cover the pan with plastic wrap or a cloth and let rise for 30 more minutes if you are going to eat these right away, otherwise, for overnight cinnamon buns, cover and place in the fridge for up to 16 hours. Pull them out of the fridge and let them come to room temperature for 30 minutes before baking.
Preheat your oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Once heated, bake the buns for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. While they cool, prepare the frosting by combining all of the ingredients in a medium bowl with an electric or hand mixer until smooth and creamy. Once the buns are at about room temperature to the touch, generously swirl on the frosting with a spatula. Serve warm and enjoy.