Sacred Buns

Making these traditional Easter breads is easy if you have time to let them rise

April 01, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,

If hot cross buns, as essential to Easter eating as colored eggs and chocolate bunnies, can survive a ban by England's Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, they can survive the diminishing treatment of mass production and become one of your holiday homemade triumphs. It's easy. Just ask cookbook author Nancy Baggett of Ellicott City.

"If you know what not to worry about," says Baggett, whose new book is Kneadlessly Simple, a bread cookbook for the yeast-phobic, "you don't have to worry at all."

Baggett's method lets the yeast, and all its bubbling action, do the kneading for you. Return to the easily assembled mixture in eight to 12 hours, add more flour to make the dough workable, and you are ready to gently form a pan full of the sacred buns.

"You don't have to have learned to knead bread from your mother at the age of 5," said Baggett, who actually did learn to knead bread from her mother at the age of 5.

After forming 20 to 24 buns in a baking dish, Baggett uses buttered kitchen shears to snip the tops twice and create the cross that gives them their name.

It was a British tradition for street vendors to sell the small warm cakes on Good Friday - hence the rhyme "Hot cross buns, hot cross buns. One ha' penny, two ha' penny, hot cross buns." And it was the only food the faithful were permitted to eat on that fast day.

Queen Elizabeth tried to ban the buns as a papist holdover because they were traditionally baked from the same dough as the Communion wafer, according to Elizabeth David, an authority on English cookery. But there was such public outcry that the queen was forced to allow their sale at Christmas and Easter.

The cross - either scored or drawn in icing - signifies Christ's cross to Christians, but to the ancients, who also baked small cakes as religious tribute, the cross signified anything from the four seasons to the four corners of the earth to the four elements to the horns of the goddess Eostre, from whom Easter probably inherited its name.

Superstitions cling to the buns as certainly as the currants or raisins. The buns are good luck, they ensure friendship, prevent house fires and shipwrecks. And they guarantee every loaf of bread made in the year ahead would rise perfectly.

Baggett's technique guarantees the same thing. But her homemade hot cross buns make one more promise.

Your Easter guests will be very impressed.

hot cross buns

(Makes 20 to 24 medium-sized buns)

about 3 1/2 to 4 cups (17 1/2 to 20 ounces) unbleached all-purpose white flour (divided use)

1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus 3 tablespoons more (divided use)

generous 1 teaspoon plain table salt

1 teaspoon rapid-rising, bread machine or instant yeast

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom or 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

scant 1 1/4 cups ice water (mix cold water with heaping cup of ice cubes for 30 seconds before measuring), plus more ice water if needed

grated zest (colored part of the peel) from 1 small orange

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (divided use)

1/2 to 2/3 cup dried currants or dark, seedless raisins, soaked in hot water 5 minutes, then drained well and patted dry on paper towels

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/3 cup good-quality instant nonfat dry milk powder

2/3 cup powdered sugar blended with 2 1/2 tablespoons orange juice until smooth and very fluid, plus more powdered sugar as needed

First rise:: In a 3- to 4-quart bowl, thoroughly stir together 2 1/2 cups flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, salt, yeast, cinnamon and cardamom. Stir in the water and orange zest, then 3 tablespoons butter and currants, scraping down the sides and stirring just until the ingredients are blended.

The mixture should be fairly stiff. If necessary, a bit at a time, stir in just enough more flour to thicken it slightly. Brush the dough top with a little more butter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. For best flavor or convenience, you may refrigerate the dough for 3 to 8 hours. Then set it out at cool room temperature (about 70 degrees) for 8 to 12 hours.

Second rise: : Using a fork and working in a medium bowl, beat the egg lightly. Remove about half of it and reserve, covered, in the refrigerator to brush over the dough just before baking. Beat together the remaining egg, the milk powder and remaining 3 tablespoons granulated sugar until well blended.

Vigorously stir this mixture into the dough, scraping down the bowl sides. Gradually stir in 1/2 to 3/4 cup or enough additional flour to yield a fairly stiff dough. Then, sprinkling over more flour and turning the dough as you work, smooth and press it into the surface until the dough is stiffened enough to almost hold its shape and is easier to handle. Set aside to firm up for 5 minutes.

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