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Roll patrol: Read on to find who makes the rockingest caramel rolls in North Dakota

When Forum business writer Tammy Swift asked people which North Dakota eatery produces the most scrumptious caramel roll, everyone from Facebook friends and Forum readers to Swift's own family

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After asking our readers to share their nominations for the best caramel rolls in North Dakota, we received well over a hundred responses, then narrowed them down to these top four. Read on to learn what we loved about each.
Troy Becker graphic / The Forum
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FARGO — For the last two-and-a-half weeks, I’ve been on a roll.

When I asked people which North Dakota eatery produces the gooiest and most scrumptious caramel roll, everyone from Facebook friends and Forum readers to my own family weighed in.

After all, caramel rolls are such an Upper Midwest specialty that I’m surprised one isn’t pictured on the North Dakota state flag.

As Sarah Wassberg Johnson of The Food Historian blog notes, caramel rolls first started popping up in North Dakota advertisements and cookbooks at around 1911. Wassberg Johnson says the caramel roll (pronounced “car-mull” she notes, not “care-ah-mell”) likely evolved from the cinnamon rolls of Scandinavia as well as the “schnecken” sticky bun of Germany.

But today’s caramel roll should never be confused with the Northeast’s modern sticky buns, which Wassberg Johnson scornfully describes as “dry and sticky with burnt pecans.”

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No, a good caramel roll is like a carbohydrate poem. It’s a soft, airy sweet roll which is spiced with the comforting warmth of cinnamon and topped with rivers of creamy caramel. It’s best served warm out of the oven (although a microwave works in a pinch) and topped with a generous pat of butter.

North Dakotans have as fierce of opinions on caramel rolls as they do on their favorite sports teams. So it’s not surprising that our “roll call,” (sorry) elicited well over 100 Facebook comments and emails nominating convenience stores, coffee shops, bakeries, small-town diners, a Farmer’s Union store, several grandmothers, the North Dakota State College of Science Culinary Arts students and the Sanford Health cafeteria.

We narrowed it down to the top vote-getters, making sure both the western and eastern parts of the state were represented.

And then came the “hard” part: Forum staffers Angie Wieck, Thomas Evanella, Troy Becker, Tracy Briggs and a few members of my family did blind taste tests on the finalists. We judged them on the caramel, the cinnamon mixture, the bread quality and the ratio of bread-to-caramel.

A fun task? Definitely. An easy one? No way.

The four finalists — The Shack in Fargo , the Lunchbox Eatery in Fort Ransom, the Little Cottage Cafe in Bismarck and the Sippin’ Chicken in tiny Elgin, N.D. — created rolls so scrumptious that we struggled to find a winner. (And we're now struggling to zip our jeans.)

Turns out that ranking caramel rolls is a bit like judging a beautiful baby contest: Every entry is irresistible, sweet and beautiful in its own way. It’s also highly subjective, as we tend to like the caramel rolls like the ones we grew up with.

For example, we found a definite difference in caramel, with judges divided on which type they liked best. Some seemed to prefer the smoother, silkier caramel used by the Shack and the Little Cottage, while others preferred the chunkier, more brown-sugary version.

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In the end, we found every roll had at least one outstanding caramel roll characteristic.

Incidentally, we do NOT consider this a definitive list. As nominations were crowd-sourced and nearly every North Dakota cafe worth its salt makes these iconic rolls, it’s likely some very worthy rolls out there didn’t get mentions.

But we still think this list captures some of the rockingest rolls in the state. A trip to any of these eateries would be worth your time and gas money. But check first: Some only make caramel rolls on specific days.

By the way, we’ve included a list of honorable mentions at the bottom, just in case you want to plan a roll stroll all on your own.

So here we go:

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Caramel roll from the Little Cottage Cafe, Bismarck, ND.
Contributed / Little Cottage Cafe

Best all-around: The Little Cottage Cafe , 2513 E. Main Ave., Bismarck.
Locals know this tiny diner, practically overshadowed by the Big Boy drive-through to the west of it, as the place to go for hometown cooking and owner Bob Serr’s caramel rolls.

Serr makes the dough for the rolls the night before, then proofs it overnight before getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to make them. It’s just as he learned to do it 26 years ago from the Little Cottage’s former cook after he bought the eatery from its previous owner.

 “He stood right by me and watched me and told me the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it,” says Serr, standing behind the diner counter beside his wife, Wanda, who urged him to buy the business after his service technician job with Coca Cola was eliminated.

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There was a learning curve at first, Serr says, but along the way he learned the tricks of the trade, like the importance of using beet sugar instead of cane sugar in the caramel. Caramel made with cane sugar “looks horrible and you have to keep adding more,” he says.

Serr now cranks out 60 or so caramel rolls a day and as many as 120 a day on weekends, including take-out orders.

The result is a technically perfect roll, according to my exacting mom, who has baked thousands of rolls from scratch in her lifetime. She loved the silky caramel atop the light-as-air bread flavored with plenty of cinnamon.

The sweet caramel is offset by slightly tangy notes, suggesting Serr uses sour cream in the recipe.

Our only complaint: They’re not big enough. (Translation: They are regular caramel roll-sized, vs. the “Easily feeds a battalion of Marines” dimensions of the other rolls in this competition.)

Our other judges' thoughts:

  • “An almost pudding-like consistency; the cinnamon flavor was the strongest.”
  • “My favorite — extra cinnamon flavor and smooth caramel.”
  • “The bread is very tender and light. A buttery, wonderful, doughy roll.” 
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Caramel roll at The Shack, Fargo.
Forum file photo.

People’s choice/best deal for your dollar: The Shack, 3215 Broadway N., Fargo.
The Shack on Broadway proved to be a hometown favorite with the most nominations overall for its immensely popular jumbo rolls. These hubcap-sized rolls typically come out of the oven by 7:30 a.m. every morning and any Shack fan knows if you don’t snatch one up ASAP they'll be sold out by 10 a.m.
These bad boys are topped with a decadent, expertly made smooth caramel and spiked with lots of cinnamon. They measure at least 5 inches by 5 inches and 3 inches tall, although they sometimes grow so big they will obliterate your bread plate.

At this size, they can easily be split between several people, which makes them the best deal for your dining dollar.
In fact, we’re surprised their servers don’t need weight belts to carry these beautiful behemoths to their guests’ tables.

Shack Kitchen Manager Mike Erickson bakes them Monday through Friday, as he's been doing since 1993 — years before current owner Tanya Bale bought the business in 2011.

"He comes with the building," she jokes.

Roll preparation starts the afternoon before they're baked, when the rolls are already soaking up caramel in the pan. They then proof overnight in the refrigerator until they are removed at 4 a.m., when they go through another proof while other foods are prepped for the day.
Bale says they sell a "couple of dozen" Mondays through Wednesdays, then 40 a day during the busier half of the week. "We make 40 of them because that's as much as the oven will hold in the morning," says Bale. "If anyone wants a larger amount, we'll accommodate special orders too."

Our judge’s thoughts:

  • “Because it was bigger, the ratio of caramel to dough was smaller and milder. Less sweet.”
  • “Prototypical caramel roll. Very fluffy and soft.”
  • “Because these are so big, I almost want even more of this delicious caramel so I can get some with every bite."
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Carmel roll from the Sippin' Chicken in Elgin, N.D.
Tammy Swift / The Forum

Best cinnamon to bread to caramel ratio: The Sippin’ Chicken , 122 N. Main St., Elgin.

These small-town heavyweights featured a denser bread, a caramel which was more buttery and brown-sugary and a generous dose of cinnamon filling.

Owner Shawna Ottmar makes these rolls on Fridays only at her cute-as-a-button coffee shop on the main drag of this small town in southwestern North Dakota. People will drive from neighboring towns for these hefty rolls, which she makes with 7-ounce clumps of dough. “We sell out usually within a couple of hours,” says Ottmar, who has become so known for her caramel and cinnamon rolls that one of her regulars calls her "Cinnamon."

Ottmar makes 40 rolls at at a time, because she only has room for four giant pans in her tiny kitchen, which is located inside a bank vault of the one-time Farmer’s State Bank building.

My sister Terri, a veteran baker, and her husband, Mike, loved these rolls. “It’s a big roll, but cooked all the way through without being dry or hard,” Terri observed. “That’s a skill.”

They also liked the stronger cinnamon taste and the caramel, which was still gooey and decadent despite its grittier texture. Mike said that he was so hopped up on carbs afterward that he could have “cut the grass with just a pair of scissors.”

Our other judges' thoughts:

  • “A nice sour cream tanginess to the caramel. The bread is more baked and ‘bready,’ while the others are more doughy.”
  • “It had a rich caramel flavor. It was the sweetest but not cloyingly sweet.”
  • "The bread is a little heavy and the sugar hasn't dissolved. I like a smoother caramel."
  • “Flaky, with a sugary taste that was rather enjoyable.”
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Caramel rolls from the Lunchbox Eatery, Fort Ransom, ND.
Contributed / Lunchbox Eatery

Best bread: Lunchbox Eatery, 101 E. Main St.,  Fort Ransom. 

Readers showed big love for the caramel rolls at The Lunchbox Eatery in tiny Fort Ransom (population 91). Lunchbox owners Maddie Gaviglio and Andrew Johnson roll out six to 12 of these hefty caramel rolls per day.

The caramel is a Johnson family recipe and Gaviglio worked out the brioche-like bread recipe herself through trial and error.

Like many of the other finalists, she mixes the dough by scratch the night before baking, then leaves in the refrigerator to proof overnight.

The baked roll has a fresh, slightly yeasty aroma and a light, fluffy texture. They also are baked a tad longer than the others, resulting in a crustier, chewier exterior.

I also liked that the Lunchbox roll didn’t get carried away with the cinnamon, which is a wonderful spice but can taste bitter if applied too liberally.

The caramel was thin enough to seep through the rolls and coat the bottom in a thin layer of sugary icing, which was a tasty bonus.

Our judge’s thoughts:

  • “Perfect dough texture. Light — not too doughy or chewy.”
  • “I like that the dough of this one was a little lighter and fluffier. It was like the right amount of denseness.”
  • “There are notes of butter and vanilla in the caramel. The butter offsets the sweetness, so that it’s sweet but not cloying.” 

Planning your own roll stroll?

The following eateries, listed in alphabetical order, also received multiple nominations for their caramel rolls:

CJ’s Kitchen , 1601 University Dr S, Fargo,

Country Rose Cafe , 837 E Villard, Dickinson

Deaner’s Diner, 405 Main Ave W, West Fargo

Darcy’s Cafe , 1015 N Washington Street, Grand Forks

Farmer’s Union Oil of Southern Valley, 100 S. Front St., Fairmount, ND

Kroll's Diner , multiple locations in Bismarck, 1033 45th Street S., Fargo

Percy’s Place , 730 Front St., Casselton

Prairie Sky Breads , 3 1st St. SE, Minot

Rockford Cafe, 714 1st Ave N, New Rockford,

Sandy’s Donuts & Coffee Shop , 301 Main Ave W, West Fargo

Soholt Bakery , 46 Main Street East, Mayville

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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