Hot Cross Buns

From the recipe archive, in time for Good Friday! ~Elise

Have you ever made hot cross buns? They’re an Easter tradition, a soft, slightly sweet, spiced yeast roll speckled with currants and often candied citron. They’re marked with a cross on top (hence the name), signifying a crucifix, and are typically served on Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday.

Hot cross buns are a rather old English tradition, dating back to the Saxons who marked buns with a cross in honor of the goddess Eostre, the goddess of light, whose day of celebration eventually became Easter.

Inspired by a nursery rhyme, Garrett McCord and I got together over the course of several weeks to try to come up with the best hot cross buns recipe we could make. Our first attempts were surprisingly bad—dry, hard, and tough. After several iterations (many eaten, many thrown out), and consultation with chefs, websites, and cookbooks (thank you Elizabeth David, Shirley Corriher, and Bernard Clayton), we finally hit gold with this one.

The trick was actually to reduce the amount of sugar and fat in the dough. I’m used to thinking that adding sugar or fat will make a baked product more moist, but when it comes to yeast doughs, both sugar and fat can have the opposite effect, making the result tough.

Regarding the nursery rhyme inspiration for this post, here’s what Garrett has to say about it: As a child I learned the nursery rhyme Hot Cross Buns as part of my elementary school’s music curriculum. The entire class was taught to play in synch – as well as thirty six-year olds with no musical ability can – for the eventual school concert where our parents would attend and hope that their ears wouldn’t bleed from the sound of an apocalyptic whistle choir. As a curious kid I however tried to decipher the lyrics: What were hot cross buns? How come sons only get them if there aren’t any daughters? And why are they priced one ‘ah penny, and two ‘ah penny? Who would just buy one when you can have two?!

  • Cook: 3 hours
  • Yield: Makes 16 buns.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 3/4 cup warm milk
  • 3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground spices (for example, 1/2 teaspoon cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 2 eggs, room temperature (if taking right out of the fridge, let sit in warm water for a few minutes to take the chill off before using)
  • 3/4 cup currants (can sub half of currants with chopped candied citrus peel)
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange zest

Glaze

  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbsp milk

Frosting

  • 1 teaspoon milk
  • 3 to 4 Tbsp powdered sugar

Method

1 In a bowl, stir together 1/4 cup of the warmed milk and one teaspoon of sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and let sit for 5-10 minutes until foamy.

2 In a large bowl or the mixing bowl of an electric mixer, vigorously whisk together 3 cups of the flour (reserving additional flour for later step), the salt, spices, and 1/4 cup of sugar.

3 Create a well in the flour and add the foamy yeast, softened butter, and eggs, and the remaining milk. Using a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of your mixer, mix the ingredients until well incorporated. The mixture should be shaggy and quite sticky. Add in the currants, candied peel, and orange zest.

4 If you are using a stand-up mixer, switch to the dough hook attachment and start to knead on low speed. (If not using a mixer, use your hands to knead.) Slowly sprinkle in additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to incorporate after each addition, until the flour is still slightly tacky, but is no longer completely sticking to your fingers when you work with it.

5 Form a ball of dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit, covered, at room temperature (or in a warm spot) for 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.

6 Press down on the dough to gently compress it. Roll the ball of dough into a log shape and cut it into two halves. Place one half back in the bowl while you work with the other half. Take the dough half you are working with and cut it into 8 equal pieces. The easiest way to do this is to roll it into a log, cut it in half, then roll those pieces into logs, cut them in half, and then do it again, roll those pieces into logs, and cut them in half.

Take the individual pieces and form them into mounds, placing them 1 1/2 inches apart from each other on a baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and then work the remaining dough into 8 equal pieces and place them in mounds on a baking sheet, again cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough mounds sit at room temperature (or warm place) to rise again, until the mounds have doubled in volume, about 30-40 minutes.

7 Preheat oven to 400°F. Prepare egg wash by whisking together one egg and a tablespoon of milk. If you want, you can score the top of the buns with a knife in a cross pattern. You will want to make fairly deep cuts, for the pattern to be noticeable after they're done. Using a pasty brush, brush on the egg wash over the dough mounds. The egg wash will give them a shiny appearance when cooked.

8 Place in the middle rack of the oven and cook for 10-12 minutes, until the buns are lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool on the pan for a few minutes, then transfer the buns to a wire rack to cool.

9 To paint a cross on the top of the buns, wait until the buns have cooled (or the frosting will run). Whisk together the milk and the powdered sugar. Keep adding powdered sugar until you get a thick consistency. Place in a plastic sandwich bag. Snip off a small piece from the corner of the bag and use the bag to pipe two lines of frosting across each bun to make a cross.

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