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Every year, the North Cascades Highway in Washington closes down for the winter due to heavy snow and avalanche danger along the 34-mile pass. And every year, as the snow melts and driving conditions improve, the pass reopens again in the spring. For more than 40 of those years, Tootsie Clark made it her mission to be first in line for the reopening so that she could be there to pass out cinnamon rolls with whiskey sauce to the first travelers heading east over the pass.

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Tootsie’s tradition started sometime in the 1970s as a way to celebrate and draw attention to the highway reopening and the nearby Marblemount community, which depends on visits from tourists who travel the scenic byway. Tootsie herself owned a successful restaurant and resort in Marblemount, Skagit County.

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Over the years, Tootsie’s gifts of cinnamon rolls and hot coffee turned the reopening of the gates into a celebration, and somewhat of a reunion as well. The tradition grew and grew until eventually, you could count on dozens of cars lining up behind Tootsie’s in the hopes of getting there early enough for one of her famous cinnamon rolls.

Via Flickr

Tootsie, more formally known as Ethel Madrene Clark, passed away in 2017 at the age of 95 but was still able to continue her tradition in her last year of life. As soon as the snow was cleared in 2016, Tootsie was there with her cinnamon rolls and to help the state Department of Transportation swing open the highway gates from her wheelchair. Today, her family carries on the opening day cinnamon roll and hot coffee celebration every year in her honor.

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While we’re not lucky enough to have Tootsie’s signature recipe for cinnamon rolls with whiskey sauce, we’ve included our own version below. Bake your own and think of Tootsie.

Serves 12

30 minutes active, 2 hours inactive

  • For the dough:
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoon) active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup milk, warmed
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • For the filling:
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • For the glaze:
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons whisky
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  1. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. In a small bowl, stir together the warm water and yeast with a pinch of the sugar. Set aside and let sit until foamy, 5-8 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, salt, butter, and milk. The milk should be hot enough to melt the butter. Let mixture sit and cool to room temperature.
  4. Add eggs to cooled mixture and stir to combine. Mix in flour, 1 cup at a time, until a soft dough forms. Knead until dough is soft and smooth. If it won't hold together, add 1-2 more tablespoons of flour.
  5. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  6. Once risen, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll into a long rectangle. Brush dough with the melted butter, and sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon.
  7. Roll dough long end to long end into a tight spiral. Slice into 12 equal pieces and place rolls into a buttered baking dish.
  8. Bake until edges are golden brown, 25-27 minutes.
  9. When done baking, whisk together the milk, whisky, vanilla extract, and powdered sugar to form the glaze. Pour over the warm cinnamon rolls and serve. Enjoy!

Recipe adapted from A Beautiful Mess.

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