Hot Cross Buns, or “Repentantly Yours”

Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns,

One a penny, two a penny

Hot Cross Buns!

If your daughters won’t eat them,

Given them to your sons;

But if you have none of those little elves,

Then you must eat them all yourselves!

By Sarah Crowley Chestnut

This year, I had determined to make Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday, to, quite literally, mark the day’s significance with the sign of the cross.  I am learning: the point of these traditions is that they do the marking.  Right upon my broken little soul, the Cross, in flour, water and oil.

Truth be told, I thought it would be fun.  I know Good Friday isn’t about fun; it is the church’s most solemn day of the year, a day set apart for prayer and silence and mourning, in a season set apart for fasting.  But I like to bake with yeast, and have become half-way decent at it, even venturing into the realm of sourdough cultivation.  Plus, Hot Cross Buns are delightfully sweet in a season characterized by the absence of sweet, which seems like a downright grace.  At the start of my baking, I felt almost indulgent on a day in which I was supposed to feel my want.  I weighed the ingredients, mixed, kneaded, let rise and rise again, divided, shaped, let rise once more.

It came time to cross the buns, which, due to the irresistibly sunny day and my neglect of the clock, had over risen.  There was my want, my lack, my need!  There, in the crossing paste.  It was Good Friday after all; the cross had come to me.  It is a humbling thing to feel one’s temper bubbling over, frustration giving way to inordinate anger, and to have it all keenly observed and commented upon by one’s almost-two-year-old son.  “Mama threw dough down!  Mama threw dough down!”  Jacob announced as my eyes began to brim with tears.  To be precise, “Mama threw down crossing paste.”

The poignancy of the moment was not lost on me, which made the tears hotter.  And while the cross certainly merits one’s tears, these were not exactly tears of sorrowful repentance.  Why on earth was I crying?  Because piping flour, water and oil over slightly over risen buns didn’t come easily?  Really?  Poor and needy soul that I am!

Tradition has it that on Good Friday in 1361, Father Rocliff, an English monk and the cook at St. Alban’s Abbey, handed a bun marked with the sign of the cross, along with the usual bowl of soup, to each poor person who came to the abbey.  The tradition spread throughout the country.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, Hot Cross Buns became exceedingly popular (perhaps due to the Victorian culture of medievalism?), and have remained a traditional English bread for the Easter season.

I wonder how Father Rocliff piped his crossing paste across the buns?  Lacking a pastry bag, I attempted to make one out of parchment paper (tape wouldn’t hold), and then by snipping the corner of a plastic bag, but the seam of the bag burst.  I think the paste was too thick and the hole too small.  That’s when “Mama threw dough down.” And cried.  Mama cried over the over-risen buns and the too-thick crossing paste, and all the other piled-up-inside wordless frustrations that bread–and crossing paste–is so skilled at helping release.  The paste was too thick and the hole too small.  There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

There is much lore surrounding Hot Cross Buns, and rhymes, like the street cry quoted above.  Apparently, Cross Buns never grow moldy, and have the power to protect against disease and danger and shipwreck.  Perhaps, with time and practice, and years of eating, they will also make for a more patient–even prayerful–baker.

Hot Cross Buns, adapted from Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman

Sponge:

Bread flour, 1.3 oz / 1/4 cup

Milk, 6.7 oz / 7/8 cup

Sugar, .3 oz / 1/2 Tablespoon

Yeast, .26 oz / 2 1/4 teaspoon

Final Dough:

Bread flour, 12 oz / 2 3/4 cup

Butter, soft, 2 oz / 4 Tablespoons

1 Egg

Sugar, 2 oz / 1/4 cup

Salt, .1 oz / 1/2 teaspoon

Ground allspice, .1 oz / 1/2 Tablespoon

all of the Sponge

Dried currents, 4 oz / 3/4 cup  {I used a combination of raisins, dried apricots and dried cranberries, all chopped}

Candied lemon or orange peel, finely chopped, 1.3 oz / 1/4 cup, packed  {I omitted this, but added the zest of one orange, and made up the 1.3 oz by adding more dried fruit}

Crossing Paste:

{Note: this made far more paste than needed to cross 12 buns.  Try halving, or, if you think you may be liable to ‘throw dough down’ like I am, and would like more heft to wield, by all means, proceed as listed.}

Pastry flour, sifted, 8 oz / 2 cups

Vegetable oil, 2.4 oz / 5 1/2 Tablespoons

Water, as needed, 5.6 oz / 3/4 cup

Simple Syrup:

Sugar, 4 oz / 8 Tablespoons

Water, 4 oz / 1/2 cup

Instructions:

1.  Sponge.  Disperse the yeast in the milk, add the flour and sugar, and, using a whisk, mix until smooth.  The sponge will be very thin.  Desired temperature: 80F.  Cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 30-40 minutes, when the sponge will have risen to about 3 to 4 times its original height.  It should be quite light, and in spite of the minimal amount of flour in it, there should be an unusual but quite evident structure to it.  Give it a little jiggle to check.

2.  Mixing.  Place the final dough flour in a large bowl and cut in the butter, using your fingertips.  Add the egg, sugar, salt, and spice and mix them all together.  Next, add the sponge.  Mix until thoroughly combined and knead until a moderate gluten development is achieved.  I kneaded for about 10 minutes, steadily.  Then add the fruit.  Mix until evenly distributed throughout the dough.  Desired dough temperature: 78F.  Cover with plastic.

3.  Bulk fermentation.  1 hour, with a light fold after 30 minutes.

4.  Dividing and shaping.  Cut dough into 12, 2.7 oz pieces.  Round the pieces well, and place them on a sheet pan in an even configuration.  Cover with plastic.

5.  Final fermentation.  About 1 hour at 76F.

6.  Crossing paste.  While the buns proof, make the crossing paste.  Combine the sifted pastry flour and the oil until the oil is incorporated and the mixture becomes pasty.  Add water steadily, but only as much as is needed to make a paste that is loose enough to pipe, but not runny.  Herein lies the challenge.  Give it your best!  I used my hands to work the mess into a paste, but if you have a mixer with a paddle attachment, this might make life a little easier.  Use a round tip with a 1/4 to 3/8-inch diameter, and fill the piping bag with the crossing paste.  Or try cutting off the tip of the corner of a strong plastic bag if you don’t have a piping bag.  When the buns are fully proofed, pipe lines in one direction on each of them, then turn the pan and pipe in the other direction to form an even cross.

7.  Baking.  Bake at 440F for 14-16 minutes.  They will show some browning on the surface, but still have some softness and give when squeezed.

8.  Simple Syrup.  While the buns are baking, make the syrup by combining the water and sugar in a small pot.  Bring to a full boil, stirring once or twice so that the sugar doesn’t burn.  Take off the heat and brush onto the hot buns as soon as they are removed from the oven.

9.  Enjoy fresh, or reheat the next day at 350F, covered in foil.  With any luck–I should say, grace–your almost-two-year-old will not only learn to say, “Mama throw dough down!” but also, “Hot Cross Bun!” (or, Hot Cross Mun!, as Jacob said it), and eagerly reach for another.

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One thought on “Hot Cross Buns, or “Repentantly Yours”

  1. Pingback: Lent | The Seasoned Table

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