Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Traditional Hot Cross Buns

I am quite late with this particular post.  Not only is Good Friday (the day when tradition dictates that Hot Cross Buns appear) past, but Easter has passed as well.  Such is my life at the moment.  Posting anything at all is a bit of a stretch.  Posting something in a timely manner probably isn’t going to happen.  But since Good Friday and Easter will come around next year—and I will be making these every year from now on (they’re that good!)—I’m going to go ahead and post the recipe now.

As a lover of English foods in general, for many years I was a bit mystified by the popularity of the Hot Cross Bun.   I have made them on more than one occasion.  And I’m sure that I probably had a commercial version when I was living in London.  But I don’t ever remember having one (mine, or otherwise) that impressed me too much.  I knew this could only be because I hadn’t been to the right place…or found the right recipe.

Since I wanted to love them, (What’s not to love about the idea of a soft, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, roll—filled with dried and candied fruit?) last year, as the Lenten season drew to a close, I finally decided to do some serious research and try them again.  I turned first to the recipes and writings of Darina Allen (of the Ballymaloe House & Cookery School in Ireland).  I can think of no better living resource for the traditional foods of the British Isles.  Then, while poking around on line, I ran across a recipe (also from Ireland) that looked promising from a place called the Firehouse Bakery. 

The two recipes are not dissimilar, but I liked the method that Patrick Ryan (of Firehouse) used for incorporating the butter.  Somewhat like a brioche, the butter isn’t added until the gluten begins to develop in the kneaded dough (after 5 minutes or so).  This method takes a bit longer—and requires a stand mixer—but ultimately allows for better gluten development (fat is a gluten inhibitor).  I used this method for the pumpkin dinner rolls I posted a few years ago, and I love the light and tender results.   There is a great vimeo available on line of Ryan making his rolls.  It is very instructive. 

In the end my recipe was basically a combination of these two.  My greatest change was to switch to all-purpose flour from the strong/bread flour called for in their recipes.  I may be wrong, but my suspicion is that American all-purpose flour has a protein content that is fairly close to (although not quite as high as) British “strong” flour.  It is always difficult to translate a recipe from one country to another because of the differences in the ingredients.  I thought erring on the side of a lower protein flour (with the all-purpose) would be better than using one that had more protein (American bread flour).  The latter might have made the rolls too hard.  A Hot Cross Bun is supposed to be soft.     

I did look at other British recipes…and a few American ones…mostly to get a feel for the range of butter and sugar and quantity of spice and dried fruits.   There was a fair amount of variation among recipes in this regard.  In the end, I went on the high side with butter, sugar and dried/candied fruit.  These are the things that make them special for the holidays, in my opinion.  My rolls are not too sweet or too rich—but they are definitely not plain.   I can see how they would seem quite decadent—and a welcome treat on Good Friday—after the traditional Lenten fast from dairy-rich foods.

You will find that most American versions of these buns are topped with a piped cross of powdered sugar frosting after they have been baked.  I have never seen a British recipe finished this way.  Traditionally the buns are topped with a couple of strips of crossed pâte brisée/pie dough…or a piped “liquid cross”…prior to baking.  Some recipes slash each proofed roll in a cross (similar to Soda Bread)—but this doesn’t seem to me to be the norm.  I ended up using the Firehouse bakery “liquid cross” …mostly because I was curious about it.  It was like nothing I had ever worked with.  I’m so glad I tried it.  It is very easy to make.  And since it is baked on, it can’t be smeared or smudged off.  It also looks pleasingly neat and precise.

And for Americans who are used to using the term “bun” to refer to something that you fill with a hamburger or a hot dog, according to Elizabeth David (English Bread & Yeast Cookery…among others), in the British Isles a “bun” is a ‘small, soft, plump, sweet, fermented (yeasted) cake.”  There are of course loads of traditional English breads that fall into this category: Chelsea Buns, Currant Buns, Spice Buns…and Hot Cross Buns…to name a few.  So even though Easter is past for the year, you could still make these delicious little rolls.  Just leave the liquid cross off and you’ll have a Spice Bun.  Or make them with all currants and you’ll have a Currant Bun.   Either would be delicious with an afternoon cup of coffee or tea.  Or do as I do and enjoy them with your breakfast (they freeze beautifully).  And then, when Easter rolls around again next year, the making of the buns will be easy and you can focus on learning how to make and pipe the cross. 

Hot Cross Buns

454 g. (4 c.) all-purpose flour  
75 g. (6 T.) sugar
1 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. allspice
2 T. warm water
7 g. (2 1/4 t.) instant or active dry yeast
1 large egg, beaten
240 g. (1 c.) whole milk, tepid
Zest of one orange
85 g. (6 T.) unsalted butter—cool but malleable, cut into 6 chunks
170 g. (1 c.) mixed dried and candied fruits (see notes)

1 egg beaten with 1 t. of water and a pinch of salt for egg wash

50 g. (1/2 c.) cake flour
50 g. (1/2 c. less 1 T.) all-purpose flour
40 g. (1/3 c.) powdered sugar
60 to 75 g. (4 to 5 T.) whole milk

28 g. (2 T.) water
25 g. (2 T.) sugar

Place the flour, sugar, salt and spices in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.  Set aside.

Place the water in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Sprinkle the yeast over the water.  If using active dry yeast, let it sit for a minute or two to soften.  Add the egg, milk, orange zest, and dry ingredients.  Using the dough hook mix on low speed (no. 2 or 3) until the ingredients are homogenous (a minute or two).  Increase the speed to medium (no. 4) and mix until the dough is just beginning to pull away from the sides—about 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the butter while the mixer is still running and continue to mix for a minute or two, stopping to scrape down the sides a couple of times, until the butter is absorbed.  Continue to knead until the dough is no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl and is smooth, velvety and elastic—about 6 to 8 minutes.  

(The first time you make this, waiting for the dough to come together will be an act of faith.  But eventually—and suddenly—it will.  If your butter is warm...or very soft...it will take longer.  Resist the temptation to add more flour.  This is a soft sticky dough.)  Add the dried fruits and continue to mix until distributed throughout the dough.

Lightly butter a large bowl.  Butter your hands.  If the fruit is not well distributed, scrape the dough out of the mixing bowl and onto a lightly floured surface and use a bench scraper to help mix and fold until the fruit is spread uniformly throughout the dough.  Using your (buttered hands) form the dough into a ball by stretching the surface around to the bottom four or five times, rotating the ball of dough after each stretch.  

Place the ball in the buttered bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Let the dough rise at a warm room temperature until doubled in bulk—about two hours.  

(At this point you may form the rolls—or chill the dough over night and form the rolls in the morning.  If chilling over night, deflate the dough before covering the bowl with plastic wrap and placing in the refrigerator.)

Scrape the dough out onto the counter and deflate.  Cut dough into 16 equal portions (about 70 g. each).  Round each piece into a smooth ball.  (The dough will be only slightly sticky—and should be very manageable.  You should only need a whisper of flour…if any at all.) 

Place the formed rolls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spreading them out evenly so that they (hopefully) won’t touch when they bake.  

Cover loosely with sprayed plastic wrap.  Let rise until doubled in size—about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 

When the rolls are almost fully risen, mix the cake flour, powdered sugar and 4 T. of the milk.  You should have a stiff mixture.  Add a little more milk only if it is too stiff to pipe.  Scrape into a piping bag fitted with a scant 3/16-inch tip.  Carefully brush the rolls with egg wash. 

Pipe crosses on the buns.  

Bake in a preheated 375° oven until golden brown and cooked through—about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the rolls bake, bring the water and sugar to a boil.  When the buns are done, transfer to a wire rack and brush immediately with the simple syrup.  Serve warm…or room temperature…with butter.  Makes 16 large buns.

  • If you have any candied orange peel left from the Christmas holidays, use some in these buns. I like a mix of 1/4 cup each diced candied orange peel, dried currants, golden raisins and dried cranberries.
  • Recipe adapted from the Firehouse Bakery and Darina Allen.
  • I have made the “liquid cross” with 100 percent all purpose flour and with half cake, half all purpose. It is much better when made with half cake flour—less stretchy and easier to pipe. Also, the all all-purpose version becomes a bit hard/crisp when baked—giving it a discernibly different texture from the bun.
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