At this time of year I can’t help but remember Sister Mary in our religion classes telling us that Christmas is an easy celebration because everyone loves a newborn baby but Easter is more difficult because it is about death and mystery. It is a lot harder to understand and celebrate.
It is Good Friday today. Shops, schools and businesses have closed their doors. Holiday makers have left town. The streets are quiet. All you will find is the silence and emptiness reminiscent of the bereft feeling after a loved one departs. Best to stay at home and bake hot cross buns. That is what I have done the last few years, including this one.
My mum always baked hot cross buns for Good Friday when I was a child. She baked a lot of bread and I loved helping her. But it was the hot cross buns that were special. The cross is symbolic of Jesus dying on the cross which we were told showed how much God loves us. We learnt that it is the holiest and darkest day on the church calendar. Even then, I think we understood that food was connected to religion and culture. My mum still bakes with her grandchildren. When I rang today she was over to visit my nieces with hot cross bun mixture.
Baking bread with yeast is something I don’t do as often as I would like, but it is easier thanks to the time helping my mum as a child. My mum has baked enough bread to be quite comfortable with yeast. She prefers fresh yeast so she would show us how the cake of yeast became runny and gooey when mixed with sugar. We would have a go at kneading the dough before she did it properly. She made us feel the dough to check how the texture changed to resemble an ear lobe. She told us that the dough was ready when we stuck fingers in it and it didn’t bounce back into shape. There were lots of little finger marks in her risen dough! Then she would cut the dough into small pieces and we would help to roll them into buns.
We weren’t allowed to eat hot cross buns until close to Easter. So unfair, I would tell my parents. The hot cross buns seem to have hit the shops this year straight after Christmas but we only started having them this week. Old habits die hard!
On Good Friday my mum would have hot cross buns warming in the oven. We called them HCBs. She would put out a plate of buttered halves. Top or bottom? I loved the tops on my mum’s hot cross buns. The crosses were thick and chewy. The buns were sweet and spicy, crisp outside and fluffy inside.
Now that I make my own hot cross buns, I remember doing it with my mum. A bowl sitting on the table filled with rising dough is reminiscent of her kitchen (although she didn’t have a cat on a computer beside it). I make thick chewy crosses just like she used to. The shop buns have thin crosses but they look mechanical and processed. Thick crosses are genuine and made with love. The smell of buns baking, the stickiness of the glaze and the fantastic taste of fresh hot buttered buns all fill me with a nostalgic glow. I wont be going to church this year but the hot cross buns are still imbued with meaning. The crosses remind me of my heritage.
I am sending this to Susan at Wild Yeast who is hosting this month's Bread Baking Day which was founded by Zorra. March's BBD is all about spring holiday bread baking traditions. Well this is sort of mine except it is really an autumn holiday tradition down under :-)
Hot Cross Buns
Makes 15-16 buns
2 x 7g dried yeast (or or 4 tsp dried yeast or 30g fresh yeast)
300ml milk, warmed
4 cups (600g) plain flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
90g butter, chopped
1½ cups (285g) mixed dried fruit (or sultanas)
¼ cup (55g) castor sugar
1 egg (optional)
1 cup (150g) plain flour
8-10 tbsp water
½ cup (125g) water
¼ cup (55g) castor sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
Place milk in a jug and sprinkle yeast over it. Stand 5 minutes til frothy (mine doesn’t really go very frothy – just a bit of swelling at the sides but the buns rise anyway).
Place flour and spices in the bowl and rub in butter til mixture resembles breadcrumbs. You could do it in the blender but it is quite a relaxing activity. Stir in fruit and sugar.
Whisk egg into milk and yeast mixture. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the milk mixture. Mix to a soft dough. Tip onto a lightly floured board. (This is a dough that hardly needs any flour.) Knead for approximately 10 minutes until smooth and elastic (this is the moment it should feel like an ear lobe). Use the heel of your hand to knead and put some good rocking music on the stereo and enjoy the rhythm.
Lightly oil a large bowl. I rub the bowl I mixed the dough in to remove as much of the dough and then spray it with oil – or you could put a little oil in and rub it around the bowl with your fingers or a brush. Turn the dough in the bowl so it is covered with oil. Cover with cling wrap. Stand in a warm place til doubled in size – this should take about 45 minutes. I turn on the heater to make sure the house is warm enough (thankfully the heatwave is over).
Punch down the dough – this is the fun bit! Knead a few minutes til the dough is smooth. Divide into 15 or 16 pieces and knead each bun til smooth. Arrange close together on a tray and cover with a damp teatowel. Stand in a warm place til doubled in size – this should take about 40 minutes.
About 10-15 minutes before the buns have risen, grease a baking tray (I use a swiss roll tin), preheat the oven (220 C) and prepare the cross mixture. To make the cross mixture, mix the flour and water in a small bowl until it forms a paste.
Note: I have doubled the cross ingredients because I like thick crosses. I just create a paper piping bag when I need it and don’t use a nozzle but just snip the thickness that I want to pipe from the bottom of the bag. There is nothing worse than not having enough so I make too much so I can refill if needed. Any piping equipment will do but it is quite a thick mixture so I wouldn’t advise a really thin nozzle. Don’t worry that this mixture is tasteless. Once the glaze goes on at the end it tastes great.
Once the crosses are piped, put buns in the oven at 220 C for 10 minutes. Then reduce to 200 C and bake a further 10 minutes or until buns are browned and hollow when tapped.
About 10 minutes before the buns are cooked, prepare the glaze. To make the glaze, place all ingredients in a small saucepan. Stir to combine and bring to the boil. Simmer for 1-2 minutes without stirring.
When the buns come out of the oven turn out onto a teatowel-covered wire rack. (My recipe says to turn on to rack after glazing but I think it is easier when not sticky.) Brush glaze on to buns a few times to ensure they have a thick coating. You will have more glaze than you need so be quite generous with the glaze.
Serve hot from the oven with melted butter. To reheat, my favourite way is to place in 180 C oven for 5-7 minutes. (Update: I don't know if it is my current oven but I am finding myself doing 10-15 minutes to reheat now.)
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