Hot Cross Buns Arisen
By John Vollertsen
Hot cross buns,
One a penny buns;
One a penny,
Two a penny,
Hot cross buns.
Having lived in Sydney, Australia for 8 years prior to my move to Santa Fe, I was well acquainted with Hot Cross Buns. The weeks before Easter they were piled up to the ceiling in grocery stores. Their culinary lure however, eluded me. They seemed to be too airy, without any discernable texture, and too lightly spiced even to enjoy the lack of gooey sweetness I prefer in my breakfast breads. Any buns that were given me ended up crumbled as bird feed off the balcony of my Sydney Harbor-side apartment.
It seems anywhere in the world that the British have visited, Hot Cross Buns are an Easter phenomenon. Their origin and tradition have many historical references and a few different reported beginnings. In England, it is said that they’ve traditionally been served on Good Friday ever since 1361, when the monks of St. Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, north of London, began sharing them with the poor in commemoration of that holy day.
The Saxons reportedly, in celebration of the spring feast of Eastre, sacrificed an ox and carved an image of the ox’s horns on ritual bread. In fact, the word ‘bun’ is a derivation from the Saxon word for ‘sacred ox,’ ergo ‘boun.'” “The Oxford Companion to Food” however purports that the word bun is derived from an old French word bugne meaning “swelling”, referring to the raised dough the buns are made from.
The folklore around them bestows them magical powers both religious and medicinal. Among them historical beliefs have it that a cross bun kept from one Good Friday to the next was thought to bring luck. Other cultures believe the buns could supposedly serve as a charm against shipwreck, and “hanging a bun over the chimneypiece” ensured that all bread baked there would be perfect.
The Greeks and Romans who worshipped nature in their beliefs thought that the cross on the buns divided them into the four seasons. Superstition had it that crossing the dough prior to baking released any evil spirits lurking in the mixture. Once regarded as a powerful healer, the buns were often threaded and hung from the rafters, along with the cured hams and salted fish. If illness struck the household, their crumbs were moistened with some liquid and given as a cure. I found no mention of the effects of feeding them to birds!
Early Christian clergy, in frustration over the non-religious regard for these popular buns, decided to attach their significance to the church by teaching that the cross on the bun of course reminded us of Jesus’ story, and consuming them on Good Friday heralded the coming resurrection.
Recipes for the historical bread vary widely. Some call for baking powder, and some for yeast. The addition of spices is universal as is the inclusion of dried fruits or raisins. In Jamaica there may be rum or malt added and most of the Caribbean Islanders add lots of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg for a spicier result. The dough does contain some sugar, but rarely do you see a sugary glaze. Perhaps a pastry used to commemorate a religious holiday shouldn’t be too delicious.
A request for information on the high altitude effects on Hot Cross Buns, sent me onto the internet to find and test a version that I would actually eat and one that was successful at our 7000 feet. After much research and adaptation, I came up with a recipe that honored my lifelong aversion to raisins and created a tasty bun that was not destined for the birdfeeder.
Don’t forget to save one and hang it over your oven to ensure that all future baking will be safe from any evil ‘high altitude spirits’ that might be lurking somewhere in the pantry. And if you have a sweet tooth, it is absolutely acceptable to drizzle the buns with a powdered sugar and milk glaze. Just don’t mention it to your clergy!
Hot Cross Buns for High Altitude
Makes 24 buns
1 cup warm milk (110°)
5 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 sticks cold unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup dried cranberries (Craisens)
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh orange zest
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
3 tablespoons superfine granulated sugar*
In a small bowl stir together milk, yeast, and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar. Let mixture stand 5 minutes, or until foamy.
Into a large bowl sift together flour, allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar. Using a coarse cheese grater, grate the butter into bits and with your fingertips blend into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse meal. Lightly beat one whole egg with egg yolk in a small bowl. Make a well in center of flour mixture and pour in yeast and egg mixtures, Craisins, and zests. Stir mixture until a dough is formed. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and with floured hands knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Transfer dough to an oiled large bowl and turn it once to coat. Let dough rise, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Now make the pastry dough for the cross.
Pastry Dough for the Cross
3/4 stick cold unsalted butter, grated with a course cheese grater
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
In a bowl with your fingertips blend together flour, butter and salt until most of mixture resembles coarse meal. Drizzle 2 tablespoons ice water evenly over mixture and gently stir with a fork until incorporated. Test mixture by gently squeezing a small handful: When it has reached the proper texture it should hold together without crumbling apart. If necessary, add enough of the remaining water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until incorporated and testing texture, to give mixture proper texture. Gather dough together and form it into a disc. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill one hour.
Butter 2 large baking sheets.
On a floured surface with floured hands knead bun dough briefly and form into two 12-inch-long logs. Cut each log crosswise into 12 equal pieces to create 24 buns. Form each piece into a ball and arrange them 1 1/2 inches apart, 12 on each baking sheet. Let buns rise, covered, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425°F.
While buns are rising, lightly beat remaining egg with superfine sugar to make an egg glaze. On a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin roll out pastry dough into a 20- by 6-inch rectangle (about 1/8 inch thick). With a sharp knife cut rectangle crosswise into 1/8-inch- wide strips.
Brush buns with egg glaze and arrange 2 pastry strips over center of each bun to form a cross. Trim ends of pastry strips so they are the exact width of the buns. Bake buns on rack positioned to the middle of the oven, baking in 2 batches if your oven cannot accommodate both pans on one rack. Bake for about 12- 15 minutes or until buns are golden. Transfer buns to a rack to cool slightly. Serve buns warm or at room temperature.
*Superfine sugar is available at some grocery stores. To make you own simply pulverize granulated sugar in a food processor or blender until it very fine.
To email baking questions to Higher Ground author John Vollertsen and for a High Altitude Baking Cheat Sheet, go to www.chefjohnnyvee.com. Vollertsen offers a monthly High Altitude Cooking class at Las Cosas Cooking School. Next class is on Friday, March 18 at 10 AM. For information call Las Cosas at 505-988-3394.