Hot Cross Buns: What Are These Damned Things?
I have a vivid memory of a bun-related conversation with my grandmother. As she walked me home from day camp, I remarked that I wanted a bun in my hair. (I never had long hair; my mother thought a pixie haircut was “just so cute!” Naturally, long hair was all I ever longed for. That and braces.) My grandmother’s retort: “You want a bun from the bakery in your hair?” Perhaps that’s when my fascination for buns, rolls and all other warm, yeasty and sometimes sweet delights began.
Springtime rolls around and out come trays of hot cross buns, adorning the display windows of European bakeries. An obsession with their soft tender crumb, fragrant spices and candied orange rind, and the strangely satisfying chewy texture of the doughy cross, is a cross I have to bear.
I try to sample as many as possible — sometimes suddenly stopping my car to park when I come across a new bakery, just to compare them to the many dozens of buns I’ve enjoyed since childhood. I’ve tasted them while traveling throughout the south of England (on a tour of cathedrals, no less); I’ve sampled their Italian and Austrian counterparts on Good Friday in Florence and Vienna; and I’ve had countless rolls made by the plump-fingered Polish ladies whose bakeries I frequented while growing up on Chicago’s north side.
Yet all of that abruptly came to a stop a few years ago, thanks to our dean of bread baking, Sim Cass. His recipe for hot cross buns is the absolute best I’ve ever tried. It is downright perfect, easy to execute and traditional in its roots — my kind of recipe. I’ve tweaked it ever so slightly, so I hope Chef Sim doesn’t damn me forevermore… keep reading, I’ll explain.
A few fun facts about these underappreciated buns:
Some people believe they can ward off evil spirits. The cross is said to symbolize holiness; but, delicious as they are, I have no faith that these tasty little baked goods will save us from any harm.
The darned things have been damned! These delectable sweets, with origins tracing back to ancient Greece, were recently banned in England from being served in schools, hospitals and other public institutions, as a means to prevent public endorsements of any one religion.
Icing evolution. Traditionally, the cross decorating the buns was made from a simple paste of flour and water. Over time the cross has changed and some bakers mark their buns with a sweet frosting called fondant, which is similar to the icing used to top a cinnamon roll.
Let’s break bread, shall we? Just as the saying goes, hot cross buns are quite commonly given as gifts during Easter, as a symbol of friendship and kindness. So regardless of your religious beliefs, you can gladly accept and enjoy them if you so choose. Just turn them 90 degrees and you'll have an X instead of a cross — X marks the delicious spot.
Hot Cross Buns
Servings: makes two dozen rolls
- 7 cups bread flour
- ¼ whole nutmeg, finely grated
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground allspice
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 ¾ sticks unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- ¼ cup honey
- 2 envelopes (½ ounce) instant active yeast
- 4 large eggs, divided
- Finely grated zest of 1 orange
- ½ cup (2 ounces) candied citron peel, finely minced
- 1 ½ cups raisins
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 recipe cross paste (recipe follows)
- 1 recipe honey syrup glaze (recipe follows)
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, spices, sugar and salt and mix on low speed for one minute. Add the butter and continue to mix on low speed until the mixture resembles grated Parmesan cheese and absolutely no lumps or pieces of butter remain, about eight minutes. Meanwhile, warm the milk to about 100° F. Add the yeast and honey and stir to combine.
- Switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly add the milk and yeast mixture to the dry ingredients and butter mixture in the mixer bowl. Add three of the eggs to the mixer, one at a time. Add the orange zest. Once the dough has mixed into one solid piece, mix the dough on low speed for three minutes. Increase the mixer to medium speed for four minutes until the dough is smooth. Add the candied citron and raisins to the mixer and continue to mix on medium speed for two minutes to combine. Remove the bowl from the mixer, lightly cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in size, 45 minutes to one hour.
- Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Once the dough has risen, divide the dough into 24 equal-sized pieces (about 2 ½ ounces each or a piece the size of a racquet ball). Roll each piece into a small ball, taking care to tuck in any raisins poking out of the dough (they can burn easily in the hot oven). Arrange the rolls of dough on the baking sheet in a 4 x 6 roll grid. Lightly spray the rolls with nonstick cooking spray and lightly cover with a sheet of plastic wrap. Let the rolls rise at room temperature until increased in size by about 75%, about 45 minutes.
- Remove the plastic wrap. Lightly beat the remaining egg in a small bowl. Brush the entire surface area of the rolls with the beaten egg. Carefully pipe a line of the cross paste across the rows of rolls in one direction, then repeat in the opposite direction to create a cross pattern.
- Bake the rolls until a deep golden brown, rotating the tray halfway through the baking, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove the rolls from the oven and let cool on the tray placed on a cooling rack. Immediately brush the rolls evenly with the honey syrup glaze until no glaze remains. Let cool until just warm enough to handle and serve immediately, or cool to room temperature and store in an airtight container for up to two days. To store longer, transfer the cooled rolls to a freezer bag and freeze for up to four weeks. Thaw at room temperature and microwave to warm up for a few seconds before serving.
- 1 cup bread flour
- 1 cup water
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a small round piping bag and set aside at room temperature until ready to use.
Honey syrup glaze
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup honey
- 2 pinches of salt
- Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Let simmer for three minutes and set aside at room temperature until ready to use.
Learn to bake buns (and more!) like a pro with Chef Jenny — click here for information on ICE’s career programs.