A lightly spiced bread often filled with raisins or dried fruit, hot cross buns have no sweet filling because Lent is a penitential season. The white icing on top is always in the shape of a cross as a reminder that Easter soon will be here.
"I believe hot cross buns originated in England some 300 or 400 years ago," says Gene Amagliani, general manager of La Baguette Bakery, "All I know for sure is that our customers look forward to them all year."
Food historian C. Anne Wilson, in "Food and Drink in Britain" (Academy Chicago Publishers, $25), writes that "the special association of hot cross buns with Good Friday began only after the Reformation."
Before then, it was customary in England to mark all loaves with a cross before they went into the oven to ward off evil spirits that might prevent the bread from rising. Even though the practice was eventually abandoned, bakers continued to retain the cross for the Easter holidays because of its religious significance.
Over the past few centuries, the custom of enjoying hot cross buns throughout the Lenten season has become popular for Christians worldwide.
Each bakery seems to have a slightly different recipe. La Baguette flavors its buns with a blend of raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange peel. Other bakeries may add candied fruit instead of raisins.
In Australia a chocolate version is popular.
"We make our buns fresh every day," says Amagliani, "and our icing is made from a scratch mixture of milk, powdered sugar and vanilla.
"Hot cross buns are not very difficult to make," he adds.
The hardest part is keeping the dough at the right temperature to keep the yeast active. If you'd rather let your favorite bakery do the work for you, be sure to place your order ahead for Easter weekend.
Gale Gand's Hot Cross Buns
Buns: 2 oz. fresh yeast
2 cups lukewarm milk
1/4 cup honey
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, diced
4 1/2 cups high-gluten flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup golden raisins
Spice mix: 1 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 tsp. ground ginger
Glaze: 2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup milk, plus more as needed
Crumble the yeast into a large mixing bowl and add 1 cup of the warm milk (the milk should feel just warm to the touch but not hot). Using the dough hook attachment of your mixer, gently mix together.
Add the honey, butter, 2 eggs, flour, spice mix (just mix all spices together), salt and raisins. Start the mixer and gently pour in the remaining 1 cup of milk while mixing. The dough should come together as a soft ball after a few minutes of mixing. If it is too sticky add a few sprinkles of additional flour; if it is too hard add a few more drops of cold milk.
Turn this soft dough out directly onto a sheet pan and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until about doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
When it has doubled in size, turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Cut the dough in half and each half in half until you have a dozen pieces. Shape these pieces into rounds with your hands. Place these rounds equally spaced apart on a floured piece of parchment on a sheet pan. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until almost doubled in size. (If you press gently with your finger on a bun it should bounce back but your fingerprint should remain a bit.)
Beat the remaining egg with a fork in a small bowl. Very gently brush this mixture on each of the buns. Using a sharp knife cut a cross shape in the top of each bun. Besides being decorative this allows the bread to rise nicely as it bakes.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes or until browned. Let cool.
Make glaze: Put the sugar in a large bowl with the milk. Work the sugar and milk together until combined, adding additional milk 1 tsp. at a time, until you have a nice smooth thick glaze.
When cool, ice each bun with the glaze in a cross shape, following your cuts and using your spatula to drizzle icing on. Makes 12.
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