Starting New Christmas Traditions: Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

Living in China during the holidays is like living any other day. There’s no Black Friday—a family favorite for me! (Although, any weekend shopping trip here can seem similar with the crowds.) There aren’t tons of Christmas lights lining the streets. There aren’t carols being played in the store, except maybe the most annoying version of “Jingle Bells” on repeat non-stop, and way too loud. Christmas décor isn’t lining the shelves starting in September.

Some years Christmas snuck up on us. I didn’t like that.

I didn’t realize how inundated we were with Christmas stuff when we lived in the States. Although I don’t miss it all, I do miss some of it. It sure helped me get more in the mood to decorate my home, bake endlessly, and shop for thoughtful presents.

Here, it’s more like: try to find non-gaudy/1970s decorations, spend eons in the kitchen making those same baked goods all from scratch, and try to find non-Chinafied gifts for friends and family that won’t break within the first week.

But you know what? I’ve grown to love it more and more each year.

Yes, it’s still hard. Being away from family during the holidays hurts every year. (Boy are we thankful for video chat!) Not being able to jump in the car and do all my shopping in a few hours is still frustrating. Baking goodies takes longer, but they taste sooo good! But all these have-nots force us to focus more on why we celebrate Christmas. Our family has been able to create new traditions surrounding Jesus and loving on others instead of presents.

With teammates or other foreigners in our city, we typically eat brunch in our jammies, exchange gifts, and spend the rest of the day playing games, watching movies, and just being together. For me, that fills a small void that I miss so dearly. It’s not with my blood family, but it’s with my China family. Family that has been through thick and thin with us throughout the year.

One of my favorite years was when we invited a few of our single friends over to celebrate. I haven’t been overseas as a single during Christmas, but I imagine it can be lonely and the enemy can use the time to spit lies. Those girls expressed how thankful they were to be included in our family traditions and celebrations. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Their presence, friendship, and how well they loved on my kids was such a blessing.

Maybe the holidays are extra hard for you. I acknowledge that, but I also encourage you to remember why you moved to the place you live now. He is worth it all!

So what tastes like Christmas to you?  Share a favorite Christmas recipe with us?  What new traditions have you created since living overseas?


One tradition I’ve started since living here is to make cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning. Although growing up, we didn’t make cinnamon rolls from scratch (who would when you can pop open a can?!), these taste just like home.

These may seem daunting at first because they require that scary thing called yeast. But I hope my tips help you push through! It took me several loaves of bread that turned into baseball bats to figure out my issue with yeast. Just keep your eye on the prize—warm, delicious cinnamon rolls.

Foam! You want lots of fluffy, beautiful foam!

Sometimes yeast is finicky. Don’t despair. If it foams like this after a few minutes, you succeeded in keeping it alive!


After almost all of the flour is added, my arm gets tired and I turn the shaggy dough onto the counter and add more flour as I begin to knead.


As you’re kneading, the dough will absorb all the flour and start to get sticky again. Add little sprinkles of flour at a time to keep it from sticking to your hands and everything else.


Is it weird to anyone else to think about the little yeasties growing inside?


Finding a warm spot to let the dough rise is crucial! If it’s not near 80+ degrees, it will either take for-ev-er to rise, or won’t rise at all! Well at the time I made these, our heat wasn’t on. My second-best option? On top of our “dryer” next to our (clean) socks. If you don’t have a warm spot in the open, you can pre-heat your oven to the lowest temperature, turn it off, then put dough inside to rise until doubled.


Doubled! I secretly want to jump in it.


Roll ‘er out and dump massive amounts of goodness on top.


Roll ‘er up! I start on one and and work my way back and forth.


Seal the edges with a little water. This keep the rolls from opening up and unrolling as they bake.


Re-shape a little if they get squished when you cut them. The second rise will help them get to their fluffly, wonderful, goodness!


As the tantalizing aromas waft from the oven, distract yourself with making the icing. And then eat a few finger licks. Ya know, to make sure it’s good enough to serve to others. The sacrifices we make in the kitchen…


Ohhhh baby. Dive in!


Soft, sweet, and just like home.

Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

Makes 12-16 rolls     Time: 2 1/2-3 hours


2 Tbsp warm water (110F/45C)

1 cup milk

2 eggs, room temperature

1/3 cup butter, melted, then cooled for 5 minutes

4 ½ cups flour

1 tsp salt

½ cup sugar

2 ½ tsp yeast


1 cup brown sugar, packed *

2 ½ Tbsp ground cinnamon

1/3 cup butter, softened


1 cup powdered sugar

1 ½ Tbsp butter

1 ½ Tbsp milk

¼ tsp vanilla

*In China, the local brown sugar has way too much molasses in it, which then turns into hard, annoying rocks. Check outhis Korean brand for my favorite alternative.  I can find it in a local Korean store for about the same price as on Taobao. I have also used the Chinese brown sugar many times, but I mix in half white sugar because it’s so dark here. So, for this recipe, ½ c brown sugar, ½ cup white sugar.

In a large bowl, stir together the yeast and warm water until yeast has dissolved. Let it sit 5 minutes. If it foams, you’re good to go. If not, toss it and try again; your water may have been too hot and killed the yeast.

Mix in the milk, sugar, butter, salt, and eggs. (Again, make sure your butter is cooled or it will kill the yeast!)

Add 2 cups of the flour. Mix well. Add in the rest of the flour. It will become tough to stir. When my arm is too tired to stir with a spoon, I turn the dough onto my counter and work it together with my hands. Knead into a large, smooth ball, 5-8 minutes. If it becomes too sticky during this process, sprinkle a little flour on top and keep kneading.

Grease a large bowl and put the dough inside, flipping it once to cover the whole ball with oil. Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.

After it has doubled, turn dough onto a lightly floured surface, cover, and let rest another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

Roll dough into a 16×21 inch rectangle. Roughly—I never measure!! Spread dough with 1/3 cup softened butter and sprinkle evenly with sugar/cinnamon mixture. Starting on the long end, roll up dough and cut into 12-16 rolls. Place rolls in a lightly greased 9×13 pan. Use additional pans if needed. (If you’d like to make these the night before, this is the point where you’d stop and put them in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap. In the morning, let them sit out in a warm place 30 minutes, then bake.) Cover and let rise until nearly doubled, about 30 minutes.  While waiting, preheat oven to 400F (200C).

Bake rolls until golden brown, about 15 minutes. While rolls are baking, combine powdered sugar, butter, milk and vanilla. Everyone has a different icing consistency they like. If it’s too thick for you, add milk 1 tsp at a time. If it’s too thin, add more powdered sugar. Cream cheese frosting is also great on these!

Let rolls cool a few minutes before putting on the icing; otherwise the icing will melt and all fall to the bottom of the pan! But, if you’re impatient like I often am, do it anyway and then have an excuse to lick the pan.


So what tastes like Christmas to you?  Share a favorite Christmas recipe with us?  


  1. Danielle Wheeler December 17, 2013

    I come from a long line of cinnamon roll lovers. I married into a family that eats cinnamon rolls Christmas morning, or it isn’t Christmas. And THIS recipe from Ashley has become my favorite!! Any time I bring these to a gathering, people swarm them.

    1. Ashley Felder December 17, 2013

      Did I really make these successfully our first year?! Unbelievable, if so! I think we’re gonna have these twice in the next week. Bring on the work-outs!

    1. Ashley Felder December 17, 2013

      Amanda, yes, I’ve seen the light brown sugar, but haven’t tried it because it looks dry. I guess I’m just used to more wet, like in America. 🙂 Yay for Missourians! Where are you from? I hail from Branson.

  2. Patty Stallings December 17, 2013

    Ashley, these look wonderful. Have you ever considered becoming a professional food photographer? 🙂
    When we first moved to Asia, finding all the right ingredients for tacos was a major feat, so that is what we had for our Christmas Day dinner – homemade tortillas, homemade salsa, homemade taco seasoning, etc. After 5 years we went on a home assignment and my sister made all the wonderful traditional things for Christmas dinner. But my kids reaction was “Where are the tacos?!” That’s the moment I realized that, for them, Christmas tastes like tacos! 🙂 We haven’t missed having tacos for Christmas dinner since. 🙂

    1. Ashley Felder December 17, 2013

      Patty, what a fun tradition! I love it! Homemade tacos is still a feat for me!

      And NO, never considered linking the words professional + food + photography in any form! This is merely copying what others do with a decent camera that was given to us. You didn’t see all the reject photos. 😉

  3. Morielle December 18, 2013

    I just got some cinnamon in the mail today from my g’ma! And I’m going to buy an oven tomorrow. 1.5 years of ovenlessness to end soon. SOOOOOOO excited to try these! The most perfect timing ever.

    1. Ashley Felder December 18, 2013

      Wow, I don’t know how you lasted that long without an oven! Lots of creativity, I assume. Welcome back to the world of baking. 🙂

  4. Shelly Page December 18, 2013

    Christmas tastes like cinnamon nut rolls to me. My mom would make massive amounts of these and give them to neighbors as Christmas gifts. So, Christmas morning we pop them in the oven and eat them fresh. Her variation is chopped walnuts, butter and brown sugar in the bottom of the pan. When done just tip them out, bottom up, and you have nutty sweetness oozing all over the top of already delicious cinnamon rolls. Since moving to China I have attempted them twice–not yet what I remember eating with the family on Christmas morning.

    1. Ashley Felder December 18, 2013

      Shelly, the added sticky deliciousness sounds awesome! Maybe this year is your year! 🙂

  5. Jennifer December 18, 2013

    Most definitely look wonderful… and it certainly sounds like they taste every bit as good as they look… Looks like both a great new tradition… and something which would be wonderful at other times of year too. Something I look forward to being able to try for myself… soon!

    1. Ashley Felder December 19, 2013

      Yes, we definitely make these throughout the year as special treats! Enjoy making them! Post a pic when you complete them!? 🙂

  6. Amy Young December 18, 2013

    Now if only these pictures were scratch and sniff …

  7. Sandy Stamper December 18, 2013

    I make bread once or twice a week and LOVE cinnamon rolls! Since we live in the south, it was challenging to find a place that was consistently warm. I have found the best way to get my bread to rise is to put the bowl between the layers of our electric blanket set on low. That way, no matter what the temperature, the dough will rise perfectly!

    I loved this post!! Thanks so much for your faithfulness and hard work for the rest of us! Merry Christmas!

    1. Ashley Felder December 19, 2013

      That is quite inventive, Sandy! Duly noted if we ever move to the south…

  8. M'Lynn December 18, 2013

    I’m currently babysitting a bread machine for some folks who are in the States for a year and I love using it to mix dough for cinnamon rolls. I’m not a fan of sticky dough mixing, so the bread machine deals with the mess and I get to do the fun rolling/cutting part!

    Finding toys that don’t break in a week…no kidding, Ashley. Our first Christmas with a kid in China we spent 100 RMB on a very cool toy tractor in a toy market. Even though it wasn’t cheap, it still broke within 2 weeks. That’s when I switched to buying Fisher Price stuff! (now lego…) Toys R Us just opened here which is super awesome. I also bought a few gifts on TaoBao!

    1. Ashley Felder December 19, 2013

      Enjoy that bread machine! Awesome! Yeah, we pretty much stopped buying so many toys. We let my parents buy and ship them from the States (because they enjoy to do so) and we buy them the needed items. They’ll get older and wonder why they always got socks and underwear from us every year, but we’ll remind them that they got new socks and underwear every year! 😉

  9. Ashley Felder December 20, 2013

    Sorry to anyone who tried these before now–I forgot to write in when to add the milk! My dear friends were bringing them to a party tonight and called me in a panic. They recovered quite well–still turned out delicious!

    1. Erica November 28, 2016

      Haha! Yes, I remember calling you “in a panic.” Your cinnamon roll recipe was soooo yummy…even though I way underbudgeted the amount of time yeast bread takes! I really loved celebrating Christmas with you and your fam, Ashley. You guys always made us single girls feel so welcome! I treasure those memories with the Felder Fam! And thanks for reminding me that I should make these this year! (Though my current roommate is gluten-free…sad).

      1. Ashley Felder November 28, 2016

        Haha…I remember that call well! I’ve tried to triple check my recipes ever since! Hmm…GF…tricky. Haven’t experienced with baking these using GF flour. Let me know if you do!

  10. Linda December 20, 2013

    Christmas was the busiest time of the year for us. Very work related. We celebrated like you with our overseas family. We ate beef together with extras we normally did not have. New traditions came to be a sweet part of our lives.

  11. Sarah April 20, 2014

    Made these a part of our Easter celebration today. 🙂 I figured… yeast rises, He is Risen! 😉 They don’t look as yummy as yours Ashley but they tasted just as good! Thanks for sharing your kitchen prowess.

  12. Laura Traub November 27, 2016

    You don’t know how much your posts are blessing us! We are preparing to move to China in 8 months, and your advice, insight, and experience are priceless. Thank you so much, and please keep blogging! 🙂

    1. Ashley Felder November 28, 2016

      That’s great, Laura! I remember exactly where you are now–I wanted to soak in as much information as possible!

  13. Kiera November 27, 2016

    So, that annoying version of Jingle Bells you mentioned – would that be the one where they pronouce sleigh “sleeee-eeee.” My inner phonics person always cringes, haha. I have cinnamon rolls on the list for making some time in December though we don’t have a tradition of having it on any certain day. Our Christmas morning breakfast tradition is a dish called Wifesaver, which is sort of a breakfast casserole, but you make it the morning before and just pop it in the oven on Christmas morning, hence the name. It was my mom’s tradition which we’ve continued in our family. 🙂

    1. Ashley Felder November 28, 2016

      That’s one version! ha! Wifesaver–clever name! My mom made something similar for us growing up! Hope everything is delicious!

  14. Tracey April 28, 2017

    LOVE cinnamon rolls! I made a different version for Easter and have some left for the VA retreat this weekend that uses instant yeast (so they only rise 1x–yay for shortcuts!). Another tip for cutting–use dental floss or heavy string–it’s way easier than cutting with a knife. Just slide the dental floss under the long roll of dough and cross it over the top like you’re going to tie it; pull string and voila!

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