Last year I wrote about North Dakota Caramel Rolls, which have dominated the state in recent years. But funnily enough, although they are less popular now, orange rolls were equally if not more popular when I was growing up. And I found many more references to them in my historic cookbooks.
Orange rolls in the upper Midwest (mainly Eastern North Dakota, where I grew up, and Minnesota) were popular Sunday brunch staples, although they competed about even with caramel rolls in my neck of the woods. Of course, the kind I grew up with were not made from scratch, but rather the frozen kind made by the Rhodes frozen bread company. They came with a delightful orange cream cheese frosting. But despite being a brunch staple of my Midwestern childhood, I didn't know much about these, and I wanted to try a historic recipe for a brunch of my own.
The origins of orange rolls and their popularity in the Midwest is, like many things, a bit cloudy. If you search for "history orange rolls" today, you'll likely get a LOT of hits about ALABAMA orange rolls (scroll to the bottom for the links), but nary a one about the Midwestern kind.
Truth be told they don't look like they differ much. A sweet roll dough with orange zest and sugar rolled up like a cinnamon roll and topped with an orange glaze. So why did both Alabama and the Upper Midwest develop a love of orange rolls? Oranges aren't grown in either region. Enter the 1910s and '20s orange craze.
In the 1870s California orange agriculture exploded, and oranges - once an imported wintertime treat - became increasingly available year-round. "Orange fever" struck Florida around the same time, until a big freeze in 1894 and again in 1895 set the industry back on its heels. In the 1920s the industry got a boost from the Florida real estate boom. Cooperatives like the California Orange Growers Exchange began to market nationally using clever advertising techniques. "Sunkist" - a playful spelling of "sun-kissed" - became synonymous with the California Orange Growers co-op, and later became their official name.
The earliest recipe for what resembled orange rolls comes from Sunkist Recipes, Oranges - Lemons, published by the California Citrus Growers Exchange in 1916.
"Orange Pinwheels" are essentially baking powder biscuits, rolled thin, spread with butter and sugar mixed with orange juice and zest, then rolled up and sliced, with more sugar sprinkled on top. The Sunkist biscuit-style recipe survives, with or without attribution, in other cookbooks throughout the 1920s and '30s. Often, the biscuit "rolls" are called "orange rolls," not "pinwheels," which makes the research a bit confusing!
The earliest recipe I could find for yeasted orange rolls comes from Mrs. Allen's Cook Book by one of my favorite cookbook authors, Ida Bailey Allen, published in 1917. But even these aren't quite the same as what I was looking for.
Mrs. Allen's "Orange Rolls (5 Hours)" are not actually rolled up rolls - they're more like buns flavored with orange juice and candied orange peel, and then glazed with more orange peel.
Thankfully, Frances Lowe Smith has our back with her More Recipes for Fifty, published in 1918 and containing several wartime-friendly recipes, including this one for "Orange Rolls," which are to be prepared using a yeasted dough and spread with butter and sugar mixed with orange juice and grated rind and then "rolled like cinnamon rolls."
The first North Dakota reference I could find is for the biscuit-y kind of orange rolls, in a 1930s North Dakota Agricultural Extension circular. But looking through my cookbook library for vintage midwestern cookbooks, I also found tons of references to orange rolls! Largely from the 1930s and '40s (which is when most of my North Dakota and Minnesota cookbooks date to). I decided to go with this recipe, because it looked fairly easy and definitely quick. No getting up five hours before brunch for these beauties (sorry, Mrs. Allen). Taken from Receiptfully Yours, a community cookbook published by the Ladies' Guild of the Zion Lutheran Church of Duluth, MN, the recipe turned out very nicely!
Although Receiptfully Yours, is undated, I'm guessing it dates from the 1940s, judging by the type and the style of binding. Both the Cinnamon Roll recipe and Orange Roll variation were submitted by Ethel Mathison. I love that they used full names, instead of "Mrs. Husband's Name!"
Midwestern Orange Rolls Recipe
Like many orange rolls recipes, this one starts as a recipe for cinnamon rolls, with orange rolls listed as a variation. Interestingly, instead of having an orange glaze or cream cheese frosting, this recipe is listed much like caramel rolls! With a butter-sugar-orange-juice mixture cooked in the bottom of the pan. Here is my slight modernization of the recipe:
- - For the dough - -
1/2 cup scalded milk
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup cold water
1 envelope quick-rising yeast
3 1/4 cups flour
- - For the filling and glaze - -
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
2 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons orange juice
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Mix milk, butter, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and heat over medium heat until the butter is just melted. Cool by adding cold water, then add the yeast and egg and beat well. Then add flour and mix until smooth, kneading several times. The dough will be soft. Let the dough rest 15 minutes. Roll the dough out on a floured board (or clean countertop) into a 12" by 18" rectangle. Mix 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon zest and spread on the dough, then roll as for cinnamon rolls and cut crosswise into 1 inch slices. In a 9"x13" pan, mix 1/2 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 tablespoon orange rind, and 3 tablespoons orange juice, then top with the cut dough pieces. Let rise until doubled, then bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Flip to serve.
These turned out beautifully, although very sweet! I used some very sweet heirloom navel oranges in the recipe, and something with a little more acidity might have been better. When I make them again, I might take a page from some of the other recipes and moisten the sugar for rolling with a little orange juice, and pick some more sour oranges. I may also bake them a smidge longer.
Of course, I may also decide to try my hand at some of the other recipes, too!
These rolls are perfect for a weekend brunch, bridal or baby shower, or afternoon treat. Have you ever had orange rolls? How do you take yours?
Alabama Orange Rolls History Links
And now, as promised, a taste of the rabbit hole I went down in researching this post. The Alabama orange rolls may be more internet famous than the Midwestern ones, but it looks like they laid their claim to fame a bit later - in the 1960s and '70s, to be precise. Read on for more of the back story.
The delectable history behind Birmingham’s famous Orange Rolls
Why the Alabama Orange Roll is a Southern Classic - Southern Living
The sweet story of Millie Ray and her famous orange rolls
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.