Traditional sweet, spicy yeasted buns for Good Friday, but wonderful all year round.
Easter dinner is heaped in traditions all over the world, both because of the religious meaning of Easter, and the fact that it roughly coincides with the beginning of spring. Easter dinners of my childhood featured glistening hams as the table centerpiece, glazed with a sweet-savory maple and mustard concoction my mom whipped up. My favorite, a creamy potato gratin oozing with gooey cheese, and crisp asparagus topped with lemony breadcrumbs rounded off the meal, along with soft Parker rolls. For once, there wasn’t anything at the table I was trying to avoid. No dreaded peas to try to hide under my plate, no yucky carrots to slip to our dog, Duke, always planted at my feet under the table. No fool he.
Mom was a great cook, and loved to experiment on us with things like veal scaloppini, chicken croquettes, and oysters Rockefeller (served in shells!), all very daring fare in the 60’s in western Pennsylvania. But one area she eyed with great trepidation was making yeasted breads. Her own mother hadn’t been a baker either, and at that time there wasn’t the wealth of cookbooks we now enjoy, complete with tutorials with step-by-step photos. So all of our breads were store-bought, and likely baked somewhere across the country in some mega factory, as this was the beginning of mass-produced food on a large scale.
I followed suit for years, ok, for decades, until the third week of culinary school, when I was suddenly plunged into the world of yeast, and it was instant love. I relaxed into the meditation of kneading dough, lulled by the constant motion of my bench scraper across the worn wooden workspace, and watched the magic of yeast billow dough into large soft bubbles. I learned ways to build structure, techniques for shaping and molding, and how to get a thick crust. And I’ve never looked back.
I mastered whole wheat breads and Parker rolls, and boldly graduated to braided breads and brioche. I spent long peaceful hours making laminated doughs for puff pastry and croissants, and confidently began to develop my own bread recipes. But one bread I hadn’t tried yet was hot cross buns, my only reference to them some half-forgotten nursery rhyme. With Easter on the horizon, I knew I had to make them.
Hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday, are spiced, sweet yeasted rolls, made with currants or raisins, and topped by a piped white cross as a symbol of a crucifix. Many variations of this theme abound, and after some fun experimenting, my favorite version now includes dried cherries and dates along with the traditional currants, and a mixture of cinnamon and cardamom spices.
- I strongly recommend only making this dough using a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook. Like many sweet yeast doughs, it’s fairly sticky, and difficult to knead by hand without a fair amount of additional flour.
- Feel free to use dried fruits to your choosing. Dried apricots would be another wonderful option.
- Like my other yeasted breads, I like to do the first rise by tucking the dough into a bowl, covering it loosely with plastic, and sliding it into the cavity of the microwave oven. I place a cup of very hot water in the cavity with it, to keep the space nice and warm; and once you close the door, it’s free of any drafts.
- 1½ packages of active dry yeast (I use Red Star)
- 1 cup milk (I use 1% milk, but milk higher in fat is fine too)
- ¼ cup honey (I use orange blossom honey)
- 3½ cups (15.7 ounces) all-purpose flour (I recommend King Arthur flour)
- 1½ tsp orange zest
- ½ tsp lemon zest
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cardamom
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup mixed dried fruit (I used a combination of currants, dates, and cherries)
- Olive oil
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 Tbsp milk
- 1 tsp milk
- ¼ cup powdered sugar
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
- Warm the milk to 105 -110˚ F. Stir in the honey and add the yeast. Stir and set aside to allow the yeast to bloom, about ten minutes.
- In the bowl of a standing mixer, whisk the flour, orange zest, lemon zest, salt, and spices together. Create a well in the flour mixture, and pour in the melted butter, foamy yeast and milk, and eggs. Using the dough hook, begin to mix on the lowest speed of the mixer. Once the liquid begins to be absorbed by the flour, increase the speed of the mixer to a moderately low speed until the liquid is completely absorbed and the dough becomes soft and elastic (about five to seven minutes). A great way to test the elasticity of the dough is by removing the dough hook from the mixer, dipping it into the bottom of the dough, and stretching it upwards. If the dough readily snaps, it’s not elastic enough. Once the dough can be stretched several inches without breaking, it’s ready for it’s first rise. Just add the cup of dried fruits with a few turns of the dough hook and you’re done.
- Lightly oil a bowl or container large enough to accommodate the dough rising and scrape the dough into it. Lightly cover with plastic and place it in a warm, draft-free place in the kitchen. I like to warm up a cup of water in the microwave, tuck it into the corner of the microwave, and place the bowl of dough next to it. Once I close the microwave door, I have the perfect incubator to allow the yeast to grow undisturbed. Allow the dough to double, about ninety minutes.
- Lightly flour a workspace, and scrape the dough onto it. The dough will be sticky, so lightly flour the surface and well flour your hands before working with it. Knead it a couple of times to start to shape it into fat sausage. Cut it in half with a bench scraper or sharp knife. Cover one of the halves with plastic while you work with the other half.
- Roll the dough into a sausage roll, and cut into eight pieces. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and mold the eight pieces into balls the size of a small lime, flouring your hands as needed. Place the dough mounds about one inch apart, and repeat with the other half of the dough set aside.
- Cover the mounds with plastic and place in a warm, draft-free place in the kitchen for the second rise. Allow the buns to rise for thirty to forty-five minutes. They should be starting to touch each other. Preheat the oven to 400˚ F.
- Mix together the egg yolk and milk in a small bowl for the Glaze. Remove the plastic from the mounds. Lightly baste their tops with the yolk and milk mixture. Bake for twelve to fifteen minutes, or until the buns are lightly browned and feel firm to the touch. Remove, place on a cooling rack, and allow to cool slightly.
- Combine the Icing ingredients in a small bowl to form a paste. Spoon into a small Ziplock baggie, snip off a very small tip from one of the corners, and pipe white crosses on the tops of the buns. Allow to firm up, about thirty seconds.
- Serve slightly warm, and enjoy!