Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Baking: Hot Cross Buns!

My mom used to say Greek Easter was later because you got stuff cheaper. – Amy Sedaris

Light, fluffy, spicy and sweet. What more can one ask?
Some things are very seasonal. Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and barbecue in the summer are two good examples. So are hot cross buns at Easter. Try to find them in a bakery any time other than the week before. Impossible.

That's a shame because they're delicious. Hot cross buns are a sweet bread roll with spice and currants – or raisins – and icing in a cross shape on top. They're kind of like a sticky bun in a different shape (and without all the sticky). What's not to love?

After kneading, before first rise. Currants will fall out as you
knead. Just stick them back in the dough.
For success you need to find a recipe that gives you moist buns. I have a perfect one, courtesy of my much-loved Great Aunt Hilda, or more accurately her handwritten cookbook. Her recipe dates from at least the 1960s, and probably quite a bit earlier. My recipe is almost identical, but of course I couldn't leave well enough alone... I fiddled with the spice amounts.

The amount of both the spice and currants can be adjusted to your own liking. I find “store-bought” very frugal on both counts.

There’s actually some interesting history surrounding these spiced, moist buns. Read on.

After first rise.
History and Folklore
Abridged from Wikipedia
Hot cross buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday, with the cross standing as a symbol of the Crucifixion. They are believed by some to pre-date Christianity, although the first recorded use of the term "hot cross bun" was not until 1733.

It is believed that buns marked with a cross were eaten by Saxons in honour of the goddess Eostre (the cross is thought to have symbolized the four quarters of the moon); "Eostre" is probably the origin of the name "Easter". Others claim that the Greeks marked cakes with a cross, much earlier.

One superstition says that buns baked and served on Good Friday will not spoil or become mouldy during the subsequent year. Another encourages keeping such a bun for medicinal purposes. A piece of it given to someone who is ill was said to help them recover.

Sharing a hot cross bun with another person is supposed to ensure friendship throughout the coming year, particularly if "Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be" is said at the time.  If taken on a sea voyage, hot cross buns are said to protect against shipwreck. If hung in the kitchen, they are said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads turn out perfectly. 

So rolls that will last a whole year, eh? I doubt that quite a lot. These never last more than a day or two in my house! These are excellent, and 8-12 will be nowhere near enough if you have family coming. So double the recipe. They always make a good gift.

Hot cross buns only take a few hours to make, and most of that time is in waiting for the dough to rise, so there’s really no reason you can’t start them in the morning, do whatever you need to do during the day, and come back and finish the process.

They’re well worth the very minimal effort.

Here's a useful kitchen hint. Buying yeast in packets can be expensive if you do a fair amount of baking. Buy yeast at a bulk food store and place it in a jar in your freezer. It does nothing to the yeast and will last for months and months, remaining as fresh as when you bought it.

Also, don't forget today is Thursday. Depending on where you live stores are closed tomorrow (Good Friday), open on Saturday and then closed again on Easter Sunday. So if you have to do any holiday shopping (turkey, ham, roast, whatever) do it today to avoid disappointment!

Dividing into 8 makes large-ish buns...12 makes more manageable
sized buns but take a few minutes more to bake.
Old-Fashioned Hot Cross Buns
Prep: 20 min  |  Rise: 2-2.5 hours  |  Makes 8-12 buns
3/4 cup water, heated to 110°F
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup powdered milk
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tbsp active dry yeast 
1 cup dried currants
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon 
1/2 tsp allspice (or nutmeg)
2 lg eggs 
3 cups unbleached flour
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 
3 tsp coffee cream

Heat the water, powdered milk, butter and sugar in a small saucepan until the butter is melted and the liquid reaches a temperature of 110°F. If it's any warmer you'll kill the yeast when you add it.

Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the liquid. Stir gently, cover and let sit for 10-15 minutes to proof. At the end of the time the yeast should be creamy. If not, throw it out and start again with fresh yeast.

Icing in a plastic bag ready to apply.
Place the currants in a large bowl. Add the salt, cinnamon, allspice, eggs and proofed yeast liquid. Mix well and then add the flour. Stir until it comes together, then transfer to a board and knead for 5 minutes. The dough will still be “wet” but won’t stick to your hands or the board.

Place back in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and let rise in a warm spot until doubled. This will take about 2 hours. (I didn't have as warm a spot as usual for my bread and my first rise was 2.5 hours...)

At the end of the rise, punch down and divide into 8-12 equal balls. 8 balls make good sized buns, 12 make the number of apostles…

Arrange the balls in an 8” x 8” oven-proof dish. Let rise again until doubled, about 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 375°F. Just before baking cut a small cross in the top of each bun. This will help the icing stay on top in a cross shape.

Bake for 20-25 minutes (30 min if making 8 because they're larger). Remove from the oven and rub with butter. Let the buns cool for 10 minutes.

Mix together the confectioner’s sugar, vanilla and cream. Place in a plastic bag, snip off the end, and squeeze a cross on the top of each bun.

My "crosses" leave a little to be desired. I think I snipped too big an end off my
icing bag. It should only be 1/4" wide.


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