Valerie Harrison with the story of one of the most famous baked Easter goods, and a recipe that is sure to be a success on the Easter table.
Text And Photo By Valerie Harrison
I love everything about spring. Spring is a time of renewal when everything seems to come alive. The days are longer and the markets begin to burst with the colours of bountiful fruits and vegetables of the pending season. It will soon be time to enjoy fresh rhubarb, the pop of a fresh garden pea and lightly sauteed furled fiddleheads. Spring is the season for asparagus and escarole and a wide variety of lettuce hand plucked from the garden for the perfect green salad. The delightful fragrance of chives, mint, chervil and tarragon fill the air to season our dishes. All of these tastes of Spring will soon be bursting from our gardens, forests, markets and window boxes.
The Easter holiday is the perfect time to celebrate all this lovely bright optimism. I remember past seasons when as young girls growing up my sister and I would wear our latest Spring finery and Easter bonnets for celebrations with our family and neighbours. Fast forward to motherhood and I have visions of the bright rosy cheeked face of my own daughter whose face lit up like like the sunny faced daffodils surrounding her as she scoured the gardens for Easter eggs and played hide and seek among the willows. The one thread that ties these memories together with the present is the heavenly spicy fragrance of a traditional British currant-studded Easter treat.
Hot Cross Buns graced the table Easter morning piping hot, fresh from the oven and filling the air with their comforting spicy aroma. The perfect bun is sticky and sweet on the outside and soft and moist on the inside packed full of real fruit goodness and a hint of mixed spice.
Despite their deep-rooted and well-revered history, the delightful simplicity of these seasonal treats is often forgotten. Back in the early eighteenth century street vendors cries rang out through the streets of towns and villages in England every Good Friday. People ran from their homes to buy warm Hot Cross Buns from the baker’s baskets as they passed by and would keep a bun drying in their kitchen all year to bring the household good luck.
Although they have been a Lenten and Good Friday tradition for centuries, Hot Cross Buns were not always associated with Christianity. Their origins lie in pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. Eventually the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the icing cross. Queen Elizabeth 1 even passed a law banning the consumption of Hot Cross Buns except during festivals such as Easter, Christmas and funerals.
The best Hot Cross Buns are made from a traditional recipe, passed down for generations, mixed and shaped by hand and topped with a cross made from pastry strips, just as they have been for centuries. The sweet, buttery, yeast-leavened buns are dotted with currants and a little candied citrus peel and spiced just right with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves.
Here’s a recipe to make your own Hot Cross Buns and begin an Easter tradition in your own home. If you have not made Hot Cross Buns before you will be amazed by the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction baking them brings. Previous years I have made these ahead of time, frozen them and then reheated them in the oven for a few minutes just before serving time. They come out beautifully.
Makes 1 dozen
- For the ferment starter
- 1 large free-range egg, beaten
- 1 cup (250 mL) warm water
- 1 Packet Active Dry Yeast equals ¼ ounce or 2¼ teaspoons
- 1 teaspoon (5 mL) sugar
- 4 tablespoons (60 mL) white flour
- For the dough
- 3 - 3½ cups (675 - 793 mL) white flour, plus extra for dusting
- ½ teaspoon (2 mL) salt
- ½ teaspoon (2 mL) ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon (2 mL) ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon (2 mL) ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon (2 mL) ground ginger
- ⅜ cup (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, left in fridge(plus extra for greasing)
- ¾ (177 mL) sugar
- 1 lemon, zest only
- ¾ cup (96 g) dried currants or sultanas
- ½ cup (113.4 g) mixed candied orange and lemon peel, finely chopped (or use chopped dried mango, papaya or pineapple)
- Piping Paste
- ¾ cup (177 mL) pastry flour
- ¼ cup (60 mL) vegetable oil
- ½ cup (125 mL) water
- ¼ cup (60 mL) sugar
- ¼ cup (60 mL) water
- or ½ cup (120 mL) maple syrup
- For the ferment starter, mix the beaten egg with enough warm water to make up approximately 290ml/½ pint of liquid. Whisk in the yeast, sugar and flour until the mixture is smooth and well combined, then cover and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes.
- Sieve the flour, salt and ground mixed spice into a large mixing bowl. Remove the butter from the fridg and on a box grater grate the butter directly into the bowl. Rub in the butter using your fingertips. Make a well in the centre of the mixture, then add the sugar and lemon zest to the well and pour in the ferment starter. Using your hands, gradually draw the flour at the edges of the bowl into the well in the centre, mixing well with the ferment starter, until the mixture comes together as a dough. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly until smooth and elastic. Work the mixed dried fruit into the dough until well combined.
- Grease a large, warmed mixing bowl with butter.(To warm the bowl rinse with hot water and then dry well). Shape the dough into a ball and place it into the prepared bowl, then cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place for one hour to proof.
- Turn out the proofed dough onto a lightly floured work surface and punch down the dough. Shape it into a ball again and return it to the bowl, then cover again with the tea towel and set aside for a further 30 minutes to rise.
- Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide it into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly into a bun shape using the palms of your hands. Place rolls in greased 9x12-inch cake pan. Cover and allow to rest in a draft-free place for 15 minutes.
- Cut a cross in each bun, almost cutting all the way through the dough, so that each bun is almost cut into quarters. Wrap the tray loosely in greaseproof paper, then cover completely with plastic cling film (or place in a large plastic bag. Tie the end of the bag tightly so that no air can get in.) Set aside in a warm place for a further 40 minutes to rise.
- Preheat the oven to 240*C/475*F.
- While the buns proof, make the glaze. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring often. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- Now make the piping paste. Sift the pastry flour and combine it with the vegetable oil. Slowly add water, stirring well after each addition, until the mixture reaches the consistency of very thick glue. Don’t make it so thin that it runs, but if it is too thick it will be difficult to pipe. Spoon the flour mixture into a piping bag and pipe a cross over the cuts in each bun.
- Place the buns in the oven and bake for 8-12 minutes, or until risen and pale golden-brown. As soon as you remove the buns from the oven, brush them with the glaze, then set aside to cool on a wire rack.