Will the little cupcake ever steal the cinnamon roll's thunder?

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[Photographs: Erin Zimmer]

There are few food smells as hypnotic as the Cinnabon smell. You know it. At just about any mall food court, airport, or train station, it's there lingering, taunting you. "I am a multi-hundred-calorie wad of corn-syrup-sweetened, mass-produced heaven," it says, and even the most artisanal-kale-eating soul walking by will take in a big whiff.

But after 25 years, the Cinnabon counter is making room for a new dessert—and it doesn't even have an addictive aroma. The cupcake. Ah, the cupcake.

So far Cinnabon has launched four flavors: Cinnacake (I mean, how could they not go there), Carrot, Chocolate, and Vanilla. The recipe was devised by Cinnabon founder Jerilyn Brusseau (aka "CinnaMom") in her country kitchen on Bainbridge Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Seattle. I was invited to visit the farmhouse with some other bloggers—and, a few pounds of frosting later, left with more than I'd ever thought I could know about the Cinnabon story.

Who Is CinnaMom?

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Jerilyn Brusseau, aka CinnaMom.

Jerilyn Brusseau isn't one of those familiar fast-food mascots like Wendy, Ronald, or the Colonel, but she's responsible for a sugar-swirled chain that we all know. As Carey and I found out when we traveled to her 600-square foot home(basically one big kitchen) on Bainbridge Island in Washington, she's exactly what you'd want a cinnamon roll mogul to be: beaming with friendly vibes, weaving inspirational quotes into just about every sentence, and wearing an apron at just about all times.

As Carey put it, she's a slimmer, birdlike version of Paula Deen.

The Cinnabon story, according to Jerilyn, starts with her grandmother's big family meals of fried chicken, baked beans, and for dessert—you guessed it—cinnamon buns. Baked in a wood-burning stove, she told us breathlessly. The recipe was so treasured that, when Jerilyn opened her own bakery in an abandoned Shell station near Seattle years later, those cinnamon rolls were on the menu.

Then there came a fateful call from a business-minded acquaintance asking, "Jerilyn, do you want to create the best cinnamon roll chain in the world?" (Even if you didn't, that would be pretty hard to turn down, no?) After a few months in the test kitchen, Cinnabon was born.

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CinnaGrandma!

Jerilyn's mother—90 years old, later this year—was also hanging in the kitchen with us, nodding and smiling. After we all listened to Jerilyn—wishing our childhoods could have been filled with as much butter and love—she wrapped up storytime and distributed cupcake recipes.

We Become Cinnabon Bakers

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A group of bloggers on cupcake duty.

Wait. Were we going to bake fast-food cupcakes in this ridiculously rustic kitchen? (There were Canadian geese milling about in the backyard! And a pond! A barn even!) This was about as far from a suburban mall food court as it gets. Could we really recreate that eerily addictive appeal of mass-produced Cinnabon treats with ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and other things you can pronounce?

Carey shot me a look that said, is there a pantry stocked with jars of xanthan gum and corn stabilizers and Red No. 29? (Or something to that effect.) As she put it, their cinnamon roll ingredient lists take longer to read than their treats do to bake. Fourteen minutes, if you're curious.

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Jerilyn Brusseau's farmhouse on Bainbridge Island.

But no—CinnaMom handed us normal plastic spatulas (aw, with our names on them), aprons, and real ingredients, then assigned us stand mixers.

Of course, what we were making wasn't what you'd find for sale at the 770 Cinnabon branches. As Debbie Rowley, vice president of Cinnabon Operations, reminded us, quality control is their greatest strength. It's all about central production.

"All our cupcakes should taste exactly the same. Because quality control is our top priority. All of our batters are made under strict supervisions using our proprietary recipes. This helps to ensure every bakery delivers the same product to you every time. Cinnabon signs off on every batch before it is shipped to the bakeries," Debbie noted.

And the Cupcakes?

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Ah, yes: the cupcakes. Once again, the four iterations (this time with their branded names): Cinnacake Classic, Chocolate Passion, Vanilla Bliss, and 24-Carrot.

Best of all, hardly a surprise, was the Cinnacake. It's as close as you could get to the original Cinnabon, but in cupcake form. Just swap the pastry's tender dough for a cupcake's finer, dryer crumb, and don't forget that cream cheese frosting on top. They somehow even made the swirl shape in the cake itself, allowing you to perform that important peel-apart ritual.

How did Jerilyn translate the Cinnabon flavor profile to a cupcake? Her answer: "We can do anything we put our minds to, and that's an amazing thing, isn't it? What's important is to never give up."

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"24-Carrot cupcakes" with all those fancy frosting wisps.

Carrot cake had a moister crumb, flecks of pineapple and coconut, and appealingly crispy edges, also topped with that same cream cheese frosting. Are these the greatest cupcake we've ever tasted? No, but on par with some of the boutique cupcakeries, and definitely better than any grocery store or packaged cupcake out there.

Vanilla and chocolate were fine. The chocolate was even better with a sprinkle of grey sea salt we nabbed from Jerilyn's basement cellar. (Instead of wine, she stores baking supplies down there, naturally.) Sadly, this will not be an available add-on at Cinnabon outlets. Feel free to BYO.

Does the Cinnamon Roll Feel Left Out?

Maybe a little. But it's hard to imagine the little cupcake ever stealing the cinnamon roll's thunder. Unless it gets sprayed with some l'eau de Cinnabon. Either way, though, it's big news when such a mighty international bakery chain takes on the little cake.

"Life needs frosting," declares the Cinnabon mantra—now, we'll just see if it needs cupcake frosting.

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