Easter is coming, April 24, albeit just about the latest date it can; only coming one day before the very latest possible on April 25. A lot of people reckon that Easter brings visions of the Easter Bunny delivering chocolate eggs and other sweet goodies to good girls and boys. I ascribe to this theory, but being the baker I am, I tend to also include Easter breads. First and foremost, for those of us in the English-speaking world, Hot Cross Buns. These buns are ancient, having been made in England for centuries. Not too different from other similar type buns, the distinguishing features are a spiced dough, usually cinnamon (I rather suspect this is a more recent introduction, maybe since the Renaissance), although some cloves or allspice are not unheard of. The other crucial, distinguishing feature is the Mark of the Cross on the bun, some bakers using small strips of dough to accomplish this, I prefer sugar icing. Or, leave them plain.
Whichever route you choose, spices started to really infiltrate Europe in the Middle Ages, a result of the various Crusades that went on, but also through trade routes. The trade routes were certainly established by the Renaissance period, with our Italian friend Cristobal Columbo (otherwise known as Cris Columbus), trying to establish a westerly direction in search of spice. He was partly successful. The recipe below calls for cinnamon, but if you have a penchant for another, or in addition to, by all means, feel free. Also it calls for currants, but I’m not a fan and leave them out, but feel free there as well. Traditionally they always have currants and candied fruit, or just the currants. This recipe makes 9, but it can be easily doubled.
3 cups bread flour
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp. cinnamon (don’t add more, or it won’t rise well)
1 tbl dry yeast
1/2 cup milk
3 tbl unsalted butter
1/3 cup currants
½ cup chopped mixed candied fruit
1 beaten egg white for glaze, if desired
Confectioner’s icing (see below)
In a large bowl, mix your flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and yeast. Add your milk and butter, warmed to about 120 F. This can be done in a measuring cup in the microwave, just be judicious about how long, I used 50 power power, until the butter is mostly melted. Mix well.
Now add your egg, currants, and candied fruit. Make a soft dough, adjusting for more or less milk or flour, depending on you situation. Knead gently for about 10 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turning to grease the entire ball. Cover with a tea towel or plastic wrap, and let rise for about 1 hour.
After the first rise, punch down and divide into 9 balls, and place them into a 9 inch greased square pan. Cover with the tea towel again, until doubled, about ½ hour or 45 minutes. At this point if you want a shiny bun, you can brush with some beaten egg white, but it’s not a necessity. Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, for a conventional oven, 325 for a convection oven for 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
Confectioner’s Icing: When buns are cool, mix about ½ to 1 cup confectioner’s sugar with a teaspoon or two of milk, until a smooth paste is formed. Drizzle or spoon the traditional “X” across the bun. Consume.