Mary Virginia’s Orange Sweet Rolls

The sweet stuff of breakfast legends in Mississippi

Photo: Kate Dearman

Mary Virginia's Orange Sweet Rolls as seen in chef Robert St. John's new cookbook, Mississippi Mornings: Deep South Breakfasts, Brunches, and Musings.

“Mary Virginia’s orange sweet rolls are legendary in my hometown,” writes the Hattiesburg, Mississippi–raised chef Robert St. John of his family friend’s recipe, which she made every Saturday morning for decades and shared with neighbors. “All holidays were occasions on which to receive Mary Virginia’s sweet rolls.” He shares the full story—and many more personal odes and recipes—in his new cookbook, Mississippi Mornings: Deep South Breakfasts, Brunches, and Musings. “In the beginning, Mary Virginia made these with icebox roll dough. After receiving a batch of sourdough starter from a lady at her church, she switched and made only sourdough sweet rolls for the rest of her baking career.

photo: Kate Dearman

When I opened our Italian concept restaurant Tabella, Mary Virginia gave me some of her starter, and we’ve been feeding it ever since. As we go to press with this book, the same starter has been fed for almost a hundred years. This recipe uses our shaggy-mess roll dough, but if you have some sourdough starter and know how to make bread using it, it adds depth to the finished product. I always make a little extra icing and drizzle it on heavy and thick.”


  • Mary Virginia’s Orange Sweet Rolls (Yield: 24 to 28 sweet rolls)

  • For the dough

    • ¼ cup warm (110°F) water

    • 2½ tsp. instant-rise yeast

    • 2 cups warm (110°F) buttermilk

    • 5½ cups all-purpose flour

    • 1½ tbsp. baking powder

    • ½ tsp. baking soda

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt

    • ½ cup granulated sugar

    • ½ lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

  • For the filling

    • 8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

    • 1 cup granulated sugar

    • 2 tbsp. ground cinnamon

    • Melted butter or nonstick cooking spray, for the pans

  • For the icing

    • 1 lb. confectioners’ sugar, sifted

    • 1½ tbsp. grated orange zest

    • ⅓ to ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice


  1. Make the dough: Combine the warm water and yeast in a medium mixing bowl and set aside until foamy, 5 to 7 minutes. When the yeast begins to foam, stir in the warm buttermilk and set aside.

  2. In a separate large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and granulated sugar. Using your hands, work the softened butter into the flour mixture. Next, using your hands, mix the buttermilk mixture into the dough. The dough is sticky; that’s what you want. Transfer the dough to an oiled mixing bowl and cover it with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel. Place the dough in a warm place and allow it to rise for 1 hour.

  3. Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll out the dough to form a 28×12-inch rectangle.

  4. Make the filling: Brush the dough with the melted butter, leaving a ½-inch border along one long edge so that you will be able to pinch the dough together to seal it. Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and sprinkle it on the melted butter. Tightly roll the dough into a long log and pinch the non-buttered edge to seal. Butter or spray two 9-inch cake pans. Cut the log into rolls about 1 inch thick and arrange them, side by side, in the prepared cake pans. Cover with plastic wrap and allow them to rise for 30 minutes.

  5. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

  6. Place the cake pans in the oven and bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

  7. Make the icing: While the rolls are baking, prepare the icing: Combine the confectioners’ sugar and orange zest in a large mixing bowl. Then, while whisking, slowly add the orange juice until a thick glaze forms.

  8. Remove the rolls from the oven and pour the icing over the entire surface of the sweet rolls. Serve immediately.

Excerpted from Mississippi Mornings: Deep South Breakfasts, Brunches, and Musings by Robert St. John. Copyright © 2023 by Different Drummer Publishing.