From the Culinary Underground: Hot Cross Buns for Saints and Sinners

[This is the latest in an ongoing guest series brought to you by Southborough’s Culinary Underground. In this installment, Chef Lori shares a recipe for yummy, yeasty hot cross buns.

Note: I didn’t get the post in time for Easter weekend. But there’s no reason not to enjoy this treat anytime of the year.]

This post is a little late because I was having problems with my phone camera. And a food post without a photo is like a hurricane without a name: just a lot of hot air.

Every year I make these on Good Friday and have no idea why. When you’re raised by a tribe of humanist infidels, this day doesn’t loom large. However, I am a lover of food history and bread, so any yummy, yeasty recipe is a source of interest to my baker’s heart.

The history of cross buns goes way, way back into the mists of history. While no one seems to be able to decide if marking breads with a cross was a pagan thing or not, it is true the practice was a commonplace for medieval bakers. Marking the loaves with a cross supposedly warded off evil spirits that staled the bread (and showed proper devotion on the part of the baker and the buyer as well – people took their religion pretty seriously in the Middle Ages, in case you hadn’t gotten the email.). Fast forward a few centuries to find those fun-lovin’ Puritans banning the little breads as being a scosh too Catholic. Elizabeth I formalized the feeling, outlawing the baking and selling of them except on Good Friday, Christmas, and for funerals. Oh, crazy Protestant reformers – you can’t keep a good bread down! Now you can buy the buns year ‘round, but their big moment these days is Good Friday.

So, to continue a centuries old tradition, here’s my recipe for Hot Cross Buns. They’re pretty easy to make, even for novice bakers. Just resist the urge to add additional flour – the dough is supposed to be “slack” – soft and a little tacky. I use half white, half whole wheat flour, but use what you have. Soaking the raisins in rum softens them but if you’re one of those abstemious Puritans, put on your buckle shoes, walk to the store, and buy some orange juice to use instead. Yeah, yeah, burn me at the stake: I don’t slash the rolls with a cross, preferring a gooey-icing stand-in, since the rolls themselves are not very sweet. It’s more English to make a little flour-and-water dough to form the cross and bake it atop the buns.

Whatever topping you choose, do serve them hot out of the oven in keeping with the spirit of thing. Accompaniments of butter and a pot of black tea is traditional, although the diarist Samuel Pepys – that sterling humanist – ate them before bed and washed them down with ale. Saint or sinner, you’ll love them.

Elizabethan bakers caught making cross buns in defiance of the queen’s decree had to donate all their baked goods for the day to the poor. The recipe makes a good amount; feel free to bake ‘n share, which would be in keeping with the history of the Hot Cross Bun. Sharing, after all, is really the Christian thing to do. 

Hot Cross Buns
(16 buns)

1/4 Cup warm milk
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 package instant yeast
1/4 Cup all-purpose flour

1/2 Cup milk
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 large egg
¼ Cup orange marmalade
4 Tablespoons very soft butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 Cup raisins or currant soaked in 1 Tablespoon rum
2-1/2 Cups all-purpose flour

Egg wash: 1 egg mixed + 1 Tablespoon water

1 Cup powdered sugar
1-2 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Prepare a “sponge” by mixing the milk and sugar in a large bowl and whisking in the yeast and flour until smooth. Cover loosely and let stand 15 minutes. (This develops texture and flavor).

Now add the remaining warm milk and sugar to the sponge. Beat in the egg, butter, marmalade, and spices. Stir in 2 Cups of the unbleached flour, until the dough holds together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl in a shaggy mass. (Add raisins now, if you’re using them – you can add the rum, too!).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Flour your hands and the surface of the dough and knead the dough for 2 minutes. Cover and let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes. Uncover and continue kneading the dough another 2 minutes, or until smooth. (Add only enough of the remaining flour to keep it from sticking to the counter. This is a “slack” dough, so it should remain pretty soft and tacky.)

Place dough in large oiled bowl; spray the top lightly with cooking spray. Cover with cling wrap and let it rise 1 to 1 ½ hours or until doubled.

Punch dough down, return it to your floured board and divide it in half. Keep cutting each half in half until you have 16 pieces. Roll into balls. Grease a 9-inch square pan and place pieces in prepared pan. Cover and let rise for 30-45 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Just before baking, brush the surface of the buns with a little egg wash. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. (An instant-thermometer is the best test: it should read between 200-220OF.)

Prepare frosting by mixing the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla in a bowl; it should be pretty stiff. Either brush buns with frosting while warm, or allow buns to cool and drizzle into the “X” on top.

Culinary Underground School for Home Cooks is committed to furthering the art and craft of home cooking through engaging and educational hands-on and demonstrations classes. Using the best seasonal ingredients, mastering techniques, minimizing prep, and maximizing flavor are the focus of their classes. For more information and a class schedule, visit culinaryunderground.com.

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