For some inexplicable reason, (but I will attribute it to the unseasonably cold weather), I have become obsessed with hot cross buns this spring. I’m on a quest for the perfect recipe, and it’s already been quite the long process. After my fourth batch, my oldest daughter warned me that I’m in danger of permanently burning her out, so perhaps this should be my last batch – until the next Easter season, of course.
I’ve decided that this is my year to try my hand at baked goods I’ve never experimented with before. Actually, I’ve meant to make hot cross buns for several years now, but it has long been our tradition to spend Easter in Texas, and invariably I will forget about hot cross buns until Easter is long-gone. Of course, I could make hot cross buns in May . . . but if you are going to make a seasonal specialty, it does seem more meaningful to abide by the imposed timeline.
As my years in England increase, I’ve noticed that my baking habits are skewing towards British traditions. There is ancient historical precedence for having hot cross buns at Easter – to the extent that Queen Elizabeth I had to pass a law limiting their production to the Christmas and Easter season. (Apparently they had a dangerous association with Catholicism, but we won’t get into that.) Anyway, that law must have been repealed a long time ago because now you can find hot cross buns on the shelves of any grocery store year-round.
When I was looking for a recipe, I checked Baking with Julia first – and was hugely surprised to discover that this authoritative tome had neglected in include hot cross buns in their offerings. The Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking book didn’t have a recipe for them, either. I did manage to find a rather simple recipe in my 1953 edition of Better Homes and Gardens, but I was a bit dubious about it. Adding some currants and a bit of cinnamon to plain roll dough wasn’t really what I was looking for . . . because surely there is more to it than that? From this sampling of American cookbooks, I think that we can infer that hot cross buns are not really part of the American baking canon. I did find a recipe in the King Arthur Whole Grains cookbook – but after trying it, I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it.
The first batch of hot cross buns I made came from a most beloved cookbook: Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer. If you are a fan of English storybooks and/or the traditions of English teatime, this book is a must-have. Jane cites Dan Lepard, a well-known English baker, as the source of her recipe – and I did think it gave a good result. It makes a sturdy bun – slightly spicy, not too sweet. Like all yeast rolls, these buns are best straight out of the oven. As soon as they cool, I freeze what we aren’t going to eat right away. A brief defrost, and then a 20 to 30 second zap in the microwave, will approximate the just-out-of-oven goodness. This batch served as breakfast for a week.
The one drawback of the Jane Brocket recipe is the overall time it takes. Brocket wants three different risings (I don’t mean to sound Biblical here): one for the sponge, one for the dough, and another for the shaped rolls. She mentions having these buns for “elevenses,” but I would have to stay up all night if I wanted to serve them any time before noon. At this time of the year our house is extremely cold. Even when I put my buns in the “hottest part of the house,” the airing cupboard, I still needed to double the amount of time required to get a good rise out of my dough.
Moving on to the next step in my hot cross bun journey: Nigella. I was surprised (again!) to discover that Nigella Lawson didn’t include a recipe for hot cross buns in her baking book: How to be a Domestic Goddess. Surely, surely, a domestic goddess makes her own hot cross buns? She does remedy this oversight in a later cookbook: Feast. I had thought that Nigella’s hot cross bun would prove to the favourite, and thus final batch, of the hot cross buns . . . but sadly, no. Despite a promisingly fragrant beginning, where you steep clove and cardamom in hot milk, her buns were oddly flat and tasteless. I actually did wonder if there were mistakes in the recipe – which does not call for sugar or salt! Nigella gets all fancy with the finishing touches: an egg wash, plus the flour/sugar crosses, plus a sugar glaze. Unfortunately, her buns were as hard as rocks the next day. She bakes them in a very hot oven, unlike the other recipes that I followed, and although they are beautifully burnished they just don’t hold up well.
Even with the favourite of the three recipes I tried, the one from Jane Brocket, I wanted a hot cross bun that was more meltingly tender. Finally, on my fourth go, I improvised. Hey, I do the experimenting so you don't have to. One batch of hot cross buns per Good Friday is probably enough.
Bee’s Hot Cross Buns
2/3 cup milk
½ cup butter (4 ounces or one stick)
½ cup to 2/3 cup of sugar (depending on your sweet tooth)
zest of an orange and a lemon
1 package active dry yeast*
1 cup mixed dried fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas)
2 teaspoons mixed spice (or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger if you don’t have this)
1 teaspoon salt
4 ½ to 5 cups of white bread flour
Just to be on the safe side, you may want to proof your yeast in a ¼ cup warm water and a teaspoon of sugar. You shouldn’t need to this with active yeast, but I got a better result when I did. * Next time I try this recipe I'm going to go with two packages of yeast, but I can't vouch for the end-result as I haven't tried it yet.
Then melt the butter into the milk over very low heat. While it was melting, I scraped off the zest from an orange and a lemon and threw it in the saucepan. When the mixture has cooled, and is only slightly warm, beat two eggs into it.
As the milk mixture is cooling, add the other ingredients into a large mixing bowl : 4 ½ cups of flour, the spices, the sugar, the salt and the dried fruit. Pour the liquid ingredients over the top and mix until well-incorporated. You may have to add a bit more flour – or conversely a bit more milk. The gluten in flour varies quite a lot and you need to go by feel. You want a soft dough that holds together, although it won’t make a ball shape; it shouldn’t be sticky, nor should it be dry. After being kneaded, it should feel silky. I kneaded it with my dough hook for about five minutes, without ever taking it out of my mixing bowl, but it is easy enough to do by hand. This kind of dough doesn’t need as much kneading as bread.
Lightly oil (or butter) your bowl and the top of your ball of dough. Cover with a damp tea towel and put in a warm place.* (The only warm place in my house is the airing cupboard.) It should rise until nearly doubled; this may take an hour, or it may take three hours. After your dough has risen, punch it down. (Please see the picture sequence.)
After the first rising, you will shape the dough into balls – approximately 3 ounces each – and place on a greased baking sheet. They should be “snug,” as Nigella says, but not touching. After they bake they will be touching, but you should be able to easily pull them apart. With a knife, score each bun with a cross. (If you wait to do this, you will press down too much on the dough after it has risen.) Cover your baking sheet with a tea towel and put the buns in a warm place for their second rising. Again, some recipes claim that this will happen in 45 minutes . . . but I found that two hours (or about the length of my yoga class, plus the drive back and forth) was just about right.
Before baking, you will have to do the last step: filling in the crosses. Without the crosses you’ve got nothing but spiced buns.
Make a paste of 3 tablespoons of flour, a tablespoon of sugar and approximately 2 tablespoons of water (maybe more). It should be smooth, thick, but not too thick. You can then pipe, syringe or merely ladle the paste into the indents of the cross.
my left-handed daughter demonstrates her technique
Bake for 25-30 minutes in a moderately high oven. 180C/375F. They should be golden brown, but be careful – the browner they get, the harder. Err on the light side of things.
Finally, when the buns are still warm, remove to a rack and glaze. If you boil a tablespoon of water with the same of sugar it will make a simple glaze to brush over the top. If you want something sweeter, you can make a simple frosting of icing sugar and milk.
It is not necessary to drink a cup of tea with a hot cross bun . . . but it is advisable.
The best way to reheat rolls is to place them in a plain paper bag, sprinkle the bag lightly with water, and place in a hot oven 3 to 5 minutes before serving. (from the 1953 edition of "The Red Plaid Cookbook.")