* Check the expiration date on your yeast. A mistake frequently made by inexperienced bakers is using yeast that is no longer alive. Yeast is a living organism that multiplies in the presence of starch or sugar--it's that action that makes dough rise. Many home bakers buy packets of dry yeast for a holiday baking spree, then try to use the leftover yeast many months later. It won't work.
* Cinnamon should be fresh and aromatic. Not long ago I was visiting my mother in Washington, D.C., and found an infantry of spice jars, some stacked five deep, in her pantry. I'd swear some of them had been around 10 years or more. When she expressed her horror at the sight of my throwing out four of her five jars of nutmeg, I suggested that we play a game. If with her eyes shut she could name the spice I was holding under her nose, I would spare it from the trash can. Needless to say, I ended up tossing a lot of spice jars that day. For this recipe, there is no need to grate your own cinnamon, but unless the jar or tin in your pantry smells wonderfully aromatic, treat yourself to a new one.
* Vanilla should be as aromatic as cinnamon and your other spices. There's no need to infuse your own extract from the bean for this recipe, but be sure to buy a natural and not an artificial vanilla extract. You'll find the one you like by trying them out. Of course in some recipes--vanilla custard, a fruit compote or even a vanilla sauce for duck--when the vanilla really carries the dish, I start out with high-quality vanilla beans and always leave the seeds in the final product.
* Get to know your oven. I can't stress this enough. Placing your trays in the oven is not your cue to leave the kitchen for 15 minutes. If your oven heats unevenly--and many home ovens do--be prepared to keep a close eye on your trays of cinnamon buns, rotating them if necessary and shifting them from one rack to another.
* When it comes to mixing bowls, the bigger the better. I love to use a really big bowl so I have room to whisk and mix without all of the ingredients sloshing over the side. I am pretty small, and when I was in restaurant kitchens it was not unusual for me to be almost up to my shoulders in huge metal mixing bowls. Preparing dough is wonderfully physical, and you will find that you are less inhibited about really getting in there and mixing it up when you realize that working in an oversize bowl makes for a lot less cleanup of kitchen counters, floors and even walls. Put a damp towel under the bowl to keep it from sliding all over the counter.
* The hardest thing about making cinnamon buns is getting the dough off your hands. The best technique for removing dough from your hands is to use warm water and a sponge with a rough scrubber side, but be prepared to throw the sponge away when you're done--it may be to icky to use again.
* I prefer a plain, untapered wooden rolling pin. There are some pretty wild ones out there these days--Teflon, marble, water-filled, balanced with ball bearings--but I think less is more for the home baker. Unless you're in love with one of the newfangled models, go with tradition when it comes to rolling pins.
* Use a baking pan with a lip if you intend to ice the buns while they're in the pan.
* Remember, baking is not an exact science: We are not striving for a uniform, factory produced look here. Your cinnamon buns will taste great no matter what they look like, and there is an undeniable charm to desserts that look homemade.