How Millers & Makers Is Reinventing the Cinnamon Roll

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The rolls at Millers & Makers sell out fast. 

This might be because they’re not like most buns or rolls anywhere — not the crusty and cloying kind or any attempt to reinvent that particular wheel. Instead, they’re thick, sweet potato rolls, bronzed elegantly like crumbling bricks and heavy in a way that feels serious.

Josh Pickens, who bakes them and sells them out of enormous tubs, says the recipe had started out as a Parker House roll that he was developing during a stint at Brooklyn Bread Lab, a bakery once parked inside the Williamsburg Hotel. These days, he’s putting out some of the most exciting baked goods to come out of Ridgewood, where it sits next to a cafe run by a Food Network regular and a Pinterest-worthy gift shop, both relatively new creations of the neighborhood’s changing economic landscape. 

Arriving at this right starch was a journey in itself for Pickens.

“We did a recipe that involved beets, we did one that used parsnips and different things like that,” he says about his wild days experimenting in Williamsburg before he landed on sweet potatoes, a central ingredient that gives the rolls a heaviness that feels meaningful to pull apart.

The recipe had gotten pretty far along at Brooklyn Bread Lab, he says. It was part of a concept they were working on for a food website that eventually fizzled out and, initially, he used the mix to craft donuts, which he still remembers fondly, “[They’re] some of my favorite donuts I’ve ever made.”

After Brooklyn Bread Lab closed, Pickens decided to take a stab at running a pop-up with his wife Jess, making their debut at Smorgasburg in Williamsburg. There, he discovered, there were already too many competing donuts in rotation, so Pickens turned inward and fashioned a recipe inspired by the rolls he remembered his mother baking during his youth in suburban Pennsylvania. 

The rolls were a hit at Smorgasburg and they’re becoming a hit in Ridgewood too. (Andrew Karpan)

“I’ve never really found a cinnamon roll that I really enjoy or that made me feel nostalgic for what I grew up with,” says Pickens. So he made it himself. Pickens’ choices for the unusual-looking roll are essential to the singularity of the roll’s charm. Most importantly, they permit whoever is shelling out $6 for a roll to get their money’s worth by smothering it with ample helpings of the thick cream cheese icing included with the roll.

The rolls were a hit at Smorgasburg (a 2019 listicle calls them “the must-try item”), and they’re becoming a hit here, too. On Saturdays — one of the three days of the week they’re open — joggers, mothers, and brunch stragglers could be found politely lined up in the earlier days of the pandemic, when Pickens and his wife had fashioned a kind of teller’s window at the front of the shop that took orders.

Since then, the two-person business has significantly expanded operations from its quiet start during the foggy, ambient lull of late 2019. Today there is the promised grab-and-go cafe service but, like cafes big and small everywhere in the city, they have discovered the pleasantness that a set of outdoor tables can bring. The staff has expanded only slightly to include Jess’ mother. Pickens himself appeared last year on an episode of Chopped where his impromptu rye chocolate chip cookie was bested by an apple-filled piñata cookie. 

Coincidentally or not, one of Pickens’ favorite things currently on the menu are the rye crullers that he is not embarrassed to say take their inspiration handily from Daily Provisions, one of Danny Meyer’s newer Manhattan cafe chains whose crullers were greeted with cries of the “next Cronut” by people who say such things. But these are better: the chocolate comes out richer surrounded by rye’s pure hardiness. 

On some days, you’ll be lucky to catch the chorizo-filled scones, a thrill that gets widely talked about. They’re handmade yet sturdy, durable and come from a place of genuine culinary restlessness, which bodes well toward more adventurous culinary combinations to come. But it has become a busy corner: Pickens’ choices contrast curiously with the elaborate, vaguely and insistently European pastry menu that’s helmed by Gramercy Tavern vet Kelly Mencin at the recently-opened Rolo’s which is less than a block away. Mencin notably offers a competing take on the signature cinnamon roll: Zeeuwse bolus, a spiral-shaped bun whose name loudly announces its Dutch origins.

But it’s hard not to think that Millers fits seamlessly into the neighborhood — its arrival only took the place only of another bakery. And its culinary experiments generally do not fall apart, and for good reason: Pickens can speak at length on the subject of just about any grain and the particular percentages chosen for each baked good, and all this information hovers over the obvious aspirational subtext of the name chosen for his endeavor. Even the small things, like the bags of granola that sell for $10, are striking in their intense and layered attention to detail. 

Millers & Makers is located at 818 Woodward Avenue.

All photos by Andrew Karpan.

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