When I think about food served during Easter, there are a few things that come to mind immediately: a sweet and salty ham with a burnished glaze of honey and mustard; then of course there are the requisite ham sandwiches - those are the best. Thick slices of cold ham and a decent schmear of yellow mustard nested between halves of fluffy, white homemade buns.
I also think of those dreadfully addictive pastel-coloured Mini Eggs and the achingly sweet Cream Egg. But Easter doesn’t really feel like Easter unless I’ve got hot cross buns in the house. So why do we eat this lightly spiced bun with the cross on it at Easter?
Legend has it that a 12th century monk baked buns and marked them with a cross, in honour of Good Friday. Their popularity swelled, and they became a symbol of Easter weekend. Towards the end of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I tried to limit the sale of hot cross buns to Good Friday, Christmas and funerals, as the English were superstitious and believed the buns carried magical and medicinal properties; she was afraid those powers were being abused. Folks were in love with these soft, sweet buns though, and just baked them at home if they were unable to buy them. The law was revoked and the popularity of hot cross buns skyrocketed.
Making your own hot cross buns isn’t difficult, it just takes a bit of time, like any yeasted bread product. A stand mixer fitted with a dough hook does most of the work, but if you like to knead the dough by hand, do so for about 10 minutes. Then it’s a series of letting the sweet dough rise for an hour, shaping it into buns and letting them rise for an hour, then brushing them with egg wash, and baking for about 15 minutes until they are golden. Let them cool down before piping that sweet vanilla icing cross on top. Slather the hot cross buns with butter and enjoy them with a cuppa strong black tea, while the little ones hunt for their baskets on Easter Sunday.
I have a feeling that 12th century monk, bless his soul, would definitely approve.
1 cup (240 ml) warm milk (around 100º F)
1 Tbs granulated sugar
1 envelope active dry yeast (2½ - 3 tsp)
3 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup granulated sugar
¾ tsp salt
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 Tbs orange zest
¼ cup melted butter
1 large egg
1 large egg white
¾ cup raisins
1 egg yolk
1 Tbs (15 ml) water
1 cup icing sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla
1-2 Tbs (15-30 ml) milk
- Add 1 Tbs sugar to the warm milk, stirring until dissolved. Sprinkle over the yeast, but do not stir. Let the yeast froth for about 5-8 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix together the flour, sugar, salt, spices and orange zest.
- Once the yeast has frothed, stir in the melted butter, egg, egg white, and add this mixture to the flour.
- Knead with the dough hook on medium-high speed for 5-7 minutes, until the dough is soft. If it’s too sticky, add 1 Tbs of flour at a time. The finished dough should be smooth and pliable. When you take a small piece and stretch it, a small, thin “window” should appear. If it still tears, keep kneading it to stretch the gluten.
- Dump the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead the raisins in a little at a time, by hand. Once they are well incorporated, place the dough in a lightly greased large bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size. Punch down the dough, and place onto a lightly floured surface.
- Using a sharp knife, cut dough into 12 equal portions. Roll each into a ball and place on a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet. Note: buns can also be placed in a greased 9 x 13 pan.
- Cover the buns with a clean kitchen towel and let them rise for another hour, or until they are doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 375º F.
- Whisk together the egg yolk and water and brush over the buns. Place on a rack in the lower third of the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
- Place the icing sugar in a medium bowl, and stir in enough milk to form icing thick enough to pipe. Scrape the icing into a small piping bag fitted with a round tip, or cut the corner of a plastic zipper bag and use as your piping bag. Pipe crosses on all of the buns.