Not every pastry comes with a rhyme all its own but chant “Half for you and half for me, between us two shall good will be,” as you tear a hot cross bun in half before sharing it with a friend, and that friendship will last forever.
Or so the old saying goes. It probably works, too. If you care enough about your friend to give him or her half of your hot cross bun, you’ve most likely got a strong basis for friendship. And the recipient of the bun probably knows it.
The same might not apply to a doughnut or a cinnamon roll that’s available any day of the year but hot cross buns are a little harder to come by. Some folks say they should only be eaten from Good Friday until Easter but others chow down all through Lent right up until Easter. But either way, it’s a small window of opportunity.
Also, depending on your beliefs, hot cross buns may have other special powers. Bake them on Good Friday and they will never spoil, hang one in the kitchen and all your bread will rise perfectly and any random evil spirits finding their way into your home will be banished or take a hot cross bun on a sea voyage and the ship won’t sink.
In addition to all these useful attributes, it’s almost too much to ask that hot cross buns taste good. And yet they do. They’re a little sweet — but not too sweet — in accordance with the penitential nature of Lent. In England where they originated, they are usually made with currants — again, sweet but not too sweet — but here in America, feel free to use raisins. In Australia, raisins sometimes give way to chocolate chips, but that doesn’t seem particularly penitential.
The cross on top which gives the bun its name is, surprisingly for an Easter season treat, not a Roman cross but a Celtic cross. Its two identical length bars represent the intersection of earth and heaven, or the human and divine, which in a roundabout way gets us back to Easter.
There are a couple of ways to get the cross on the bun. It is often piped on with white icing after baking. Some folks use a flour and water paste to make the cross which has the advantage of making a bun that can be toasted and then buttered, like an English muffin or a bagel. Melted white chocolate is sometimes used but that seems a bit more indulgent than the Lenten season calls for, but to each his own.
Whatever is used to make the cross, it can simply be piped on or a cross can be cut into the bun before baking. This technique has the advantage of keeping the icing, or flour paste or white chocolate contained where it is supposed to be but it is a risky maneuver that is not always successful. If you want to give it a try, one blade of a sharp pair of scissors works better than a knife.
Toward the end of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I restricted the sale of sweet buns to funerals, Christmas and Good Friday. Most likely the law was fallout from the English Reformation or maybe just it was just the result of superstition about the magical powers of a bun baked on Good Friday and fear that those powers would be abused.
But the power of pastry is strong, regardless of what day it is baked, and people evaded the ban on hot cross buns by baking them at home.
Eventually, the Queen relented and gave up the bun ban, but they’re still fun to make at home. Not hard at all, but like all yeast breads, time-consuming. But most of that time is just waiting for dough to rise when you can be doing other Easter chores, like dyeing eggs or drying out Peeps.
Equally useful as breakfast, afternoon snack, light dessert, or repeller of evil spirits, hot cross buns are incredibly versatile.
It’s no surprise they inspired a second, even better known rhyme.
“Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot Cross Buns!”
Hot Cross Buns
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sugar
1 package (2 1/4 tsp.) active dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (additional) flour
1/2 tsp. (heaping) baking powder
1/2 tsp. (scant) baking soda
2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
Spices: cardamom, nutmeg, allspice (optional)
1/2 cup Raisins
1 whole egg white
Splash Of milk
1 whole egg white
splash of milk (optional)
Combine 2 cups milk, canola oil, and 1/2 cup sugar in a saucepan. Stir and heat until very warm but not boiling. Turn off the heat and allow to cool until mixture is still warm, but not hot—about 30 minutes. Sprinkle yeast over mixture. Add 4 cups of flour and stir to combine. Mixture will be very wet and sticky. Cover with a towel and set aside for 1 hour. Add 1/2 cup flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir till combined. Combine 1/4 cup sugar with cinnamon and whatever other spices you want to use. Lightly flour surface. Press to slightly flatten dough. Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Sprinkle on about a third of the raisins. Then fold the dough over on itself and flatten again so the raisins and sugar are hidden inside. Repeat the sugar/raisin process, then fold the dough again. Repeat a third time until all the raisins are used. (You won’t use all the sugar/cinnamon mixture.) Pinch off ping pong or golf ball-size bunches of dough. With floured hands, quickly roll it into a ball, then turn the edges under themselves slightly. Place on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for at least 30 minutes, an hour-plus is better. Preheat oven to 400°F. To make glaze, mix 1 egg white with a splash of milk. Brush onto each roll. Bake for 20 minutes, give or take, or until tops of buns have turned nice and golden brown. Remove from pan and allow to cool on a cooling rack.
Mix 1 egg white with enough powdered sugar for icing to be very thick. Splash in milk if needed, but the thicker the better as far as piping.. Add icing to a small Ziploc bag and snip the corner. Make icing crosses on each roll, making sure they’re completely cooled first.
Earl Grey Hot Cross Buns
Mixed spice is not as common in the US as it is in the UK. You can use pumpkin pie spice, or your own mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves and ginger.
2/3 cup water
3 Earl Grey tea bags
1 (1/4 ounce) packet of dried yeast
3 tbsp. granulated sugar
3 1/2 cups (16 ounces) all-purpose flour
4 tbsp. (2 ounces) unsalted butter
1/3 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. mixed spice
1 lemon, zested
1 orange, zested
1/2 cup currants or raisins
For the “cross” topping:
1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/3 to 1/2 cup water
Milk, for glazing
Oil, for greasing
Apricot jam or golden syrup, for glazing
Bring the water to a boil on the stove top or in the microwave. Remove from heat and steep the tea bags in the water for 15 minutes. Remove the tea bags, squeezing as much liquid as possible out of them and discard. Let the tea cool until it is lukewarm (about 100°F). In a small bowl, stir together the brewed tea, yeast, sugar and 1/2 cup of the flour. Set aside for 15 minutes. Heat the butter and milk together in a small saucepan over a low heat until the butter has just melted; remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Whisk in the egg. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the remaining flour, salt, mixed spice, lemon zest, orange zest and currants. Pour the tea mixture and the milk mixture over top. Stir together until there are only a few floury patches remaining. Tip the contents of the dough out onto a work surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes. Clean the large mixing bowl and grease with some oil. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Divide the risen dough evenly into 12 pieces and roll them into balls. Place onto a parchment-lined baking tray spaced a few inches apart. Slash a cross into the top of each bun using a sharp knife or razor. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and leave to rise for 30 minutes until doubled in size. While the buns are rising, preheat the oven to 350°F. Make the “cross” topping by stirring together the flour and enough water to make a loose paste. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a small, plain tip (or a sandwich bag with the tip of one of the corners cut off). Brush the risen buns all over with a little milk then pipe the cross mixture into the cross-shaped cuts. Bake for 20 minutes until golden brown all over. While still warm, brush them with golden syrup or apricot jam. Cool completely then store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.