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Arne Pederson pops out a batch of cinnamon rolls to cool on his dining room table. (William Lauer)

The fragrance of cinnamon envelops you outside the front door of the small house on Sumner Street. It’s familiar — the way the smell of rain is before a thunderstorm.

It’s then you know you’re in the right place — the Fort Knox of baking, where one of Lincoln’s most treasured recipes is kept secret.

Inside, 86-year-old Arne Pederson is performing a bit of his magic, a kind of magic that continues to make him one of the most appreciated and, recently, sought-after men in the city.

He is baking cinnamon rolls.

Not just any cinnamon rolls, but the legendary Miller & Paine cinnamon rolls.

The rolls many of us once savored with our parents or grandparents in the department store’s Tea Room.

The rolls many of us drove miles to purchase, buying dozens at a time to carry us over until our next trip to the Star City.

The rolls with the butter, the cinnamon, the butter, the doughy centers … the butter.

Thanks to Pederson, a retired Miller & Paine bakery manager, and Braeda restaurants, the rolls are once again available in Lincoln.

Runza National, Braeda’s parent company, purchased the rights to the well-known recipe and began selling them in February at the four Braedas in Lincoln.

It’s a welcome return.

Miller & Paine sold its East Lincoln retail store to Dillard’s in 1988 and closed its downtown operation in 1990.

The Tea Room remained at Dillard’s for another couple of years before the department store finally shut it down, ending the rolls’ long run.

They resurfaced in 1997 at Cinnamon Central, the previous rights holder that sold the rolls at area grocery stores. The bakery closed several years ago, however, and with it went the recipe.

Runza brought the rolls back because it knows how important the rolls are to the city and, more importantly, to its history.

Renee Everett Sjulin, Runza National vice president, remembers enjoying the rolls as a child, eating them with her grandmother at the Tea Room downtown.

It was part of a Friday ritual.

“We rode the bus, ate lunch at the Tea Room, shopped, she would have her hair done and then we rode the bus to go home,” Everett Sjulin said. “It’s my Miller & Paine memory.”

Not just Everett Sjulin. Many Lincoln residents made connections to those rolls, which, it seemed, had a life of their own.

When Miller & Paine put them on sale, the bakery would go through 1,000 dozen per day, Pederson said.

It still wasn’t enough.

“We gave rain checks,” he recalled. “It would take three weeks for us to catch up.”

The department store received orders for them from all over the country, even from as far away as Australia.

Pederson said a woman from California ordered 16 dozen every Christmas to divide among her children.

“That was a standing order,” he said.

And Nebraska home football games …

“I had to have 200 dozen sitting at the case when the store opened,” he said. “People from towns around Lincoln would take 40 or 50 dozen at a time. They took orders for other people.”

Braeda knew it latched onto a good thing.

But before the restaurant could bring the rolls back, it needed to know how to make them.

This is where Pederson comes in.

The retired baker came out of retirement to show Braeda chefs how to execute the recipe.

It wasn’t the first time.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln came to him a couple of years ago when the Woman’s Club hired it to cater a Miller & Paine remembrance event.

“We needed to know how to make the things,” said Mark Peterson, a UNL catering baker. “We tried, but not with too much luck. They were not quite right.”

 Bob Campbell, whose family owns the rights to the recipe, acknowledged that making the rolls is easier said than done.

Campbell’s great-grandfather was Miller & Paine co-founder John Miller. And, though no one knows for sure, Campbell believes the recipe came to Lincoln from Pennsylvania with the Miller family in the late 1800s.

“There’s more to the recipe than just ingredients,” Campbell said. “It’s about how to make them. Arne really has it down.”

Does he ever.

Inside his house, Pederson whips up a batch of the famed rolls with workman-like precision.

He stands at a flour-dusted butcher’s block, positioned between the sink and oven in his tiny kitchen with peach-colored walls and a photo-covered refrigerator.

He uses a thick, wooden rolling pin to spread out the dough he prepared earlier in the morning.

Four dozen rolls are already baking in the oven. The smell of them wafts through (and outside) the house.

He picks up a paint brush to spread a butter/canola oil/margarine mixture over the dough, then sprinkles a cinnamon/sugar mixture over the dough before he begins rolling it into a long tube. He slices the tube into bite-size chunks, which he places into a caramel-lined pan.

The caramel is his idea, his way of tweaking the Miller & Paine recipe. That’s why he calls these Arne’s Rolls. The caramel, he says, helps the rolls stay together, making them better for freezing.

He then sets the pan aside, allowing the rolls to “proof” or rise again until they fill the pan. He’ll then bake them for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

He pulls the finished rolls out of the oven and walks out of the kitchen to the dining room, where a table is covered in newspapers and plastic. He flips the pan over and the rolls plop out.

Steam comes off the light-brown treats.

“Do you think they’ll pass?” he asks, smiling.

***

Days earlier, Pederson sat in his easy chair, recounting his baking career, including his time at Miller & Paine.

Born in Superior, Wis., he learned his craft in the service during World War II.

“I had done a little of it at home when I was kid and I kind of liked it,” he said. “Not having a trade … When you’re 19 … I was looking ahead. I wanted to do something.

“This worked out pretty good.” He smiles.

After the war, he worked at bakeries in Minnesota and Wisconsin before moving to Lincoln, where his wife’s family lived. His plan was to go to Denver, but on a whim he decided to check out the bakeries in Lincoln.

He received five job offers. He thanks a respected food services director in Wisconsin for helping him secure the offers.

“He told me, ‘You go anywhere in my territory (which included Nebraska), and I’ll guarantee you a job,’” he said. “I think I still have the card.”

Pederson worked 23 years for Wendelin’s, the bakery behind the Aunt Betty products. At age 54, he left Wendelin’s after it was bought out and became the bakery manager at Miller & Paine.

He also decorated ice cream cakes at Dairy Queen on West O Street, often after working nine- to 10-hour days at the department store, and ran a lawn-mowing business.

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“He took a great deal of pride in knowing how to do all those things,” said his daughter Susan Towns of Lincoln. “Even after Miller & Paine, when he didn’t have to do it anymore, he chose to continue.”

Indeed he did. After retiring, he baked “Arne Rolls” — 3,483 dozen rolls over four years for Tabitha Health Care Services. He still bakes for friends, family and his church.

“You’ve got to have something to do,” he said.

As Pederson winds down his history, he finally acknowledges the 800-pound gorilla in the house.

He leans forward in his chair, smiles mischievously and says: “I can’t give you the recipe.”

He then tells about a Mother’s Day and the 30 to 40 dozen rolls he made for his church. About how he and his wife sat quietly in a pew prior to a service when an elderly woman behind him tapped him on the shoulder.

“Can I get the recipe for the cinnamon rolls?” she whispered.

Pederson laughs.

“I hear that all the time,” he says. “I still do.”

He then recalls the time he saw a recipe for the rolls in the Journal Star. A reader, claiming to have worked at Miller & Paine, was sharing it with other readers.

“I laughed and almost called him,” he says. “He had cake mix in there. A box of cake mix. I couldn’t believe it. It would make a tasty roll, but there is no cake mix in the (M&P) cinnamon roll at all.”

Pederson won’t share the recipe, but hints at what makes the rolls so good.

The cinnamon, for instance, is from Saigon, only available through a company in Evanston, Ill. It cost about twice as much as normal cinnamon, Pederson said.

Don’t cut corners. Frozen bread dough is a definite no-no. Pederson makes his from scratch, lets the dough rise an hour, knocks it down and lets it rest and rise for another 20 minutes.

  “There’s where your flavor is developed,” he said.

Temperature also is a key. Pederson has shared the recipe with close friends and family. He tells the story of a 93-year-old woman friend who keeps coming away with flat dough.

“She has a habit when she mixes the dough of using too hot of water,” he said. “If it’s over 115 degrees, the yeast is dead. 105 is an ideal temperature.”

Even if Pederson had shared the recipe, home bakers most likely would have come away frustrated.

“It’s a process you have to do many times before finally getting it right,” UNL’s Peterson said. “To even get them close takes a little experience and knowledge.”

***

Pederson doesn’t eat the rolls.

He can’t.

He was diagnosed with diabetes 38 years ago.

“I don’t touch them,” he said. “I don’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.”

But he realizes how important these cinnamon rolls and their history are to Lincoln.

That’s why he continues to bake them for friends and family. He’s extremely proud of the heart-shaped rolls he baked as groom cakes for his grandson’s wedding.

So when the university called, and later Braeda, he said he was honored to share his knowledge, his experience.

“It’s things like this that keep you going,” he said.

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com.

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