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March 25, 2002: Vol. 25, No. 12
On the street Browse past issues

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Delectable hot cross buns have been pleasing families for centuries

The Brooklyn Paper

Just as the flowers and trees rejoice in physical rebirth at this time of year, Easter celebrates hope and the renewal of the spirit. This is also a time of year with many food associations that remind us that eating is for more than mere nourishment or pleasure, it is also a means of triggering and reinforcing deep emotions through rituals that bind individuals to one another in communities of shared tradition and belief. Among the numerous foods associated with Easter, my own favorite - and one of my very favorite forms of bread - are hot cross buns.

My mother's hot cross buns were always a part of my family's Easter celebration. There is something particularly wonderful about the foods we eat only on specific occasions. They have an almost mystical way of encapsulating the spirit of the holiday. I wouldn't even consider making hot cross buns at any time of year other than Easter. I loved the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked bread as we would sit down to the Easter brunch table, the light yeasty flavor with a hint of nutmeg, and that fluffy white texture topped with melting butter and honey.

Hot cross buns have long been associated with Easter. Their origins go back as far as Tudor times in England, when they were traditionally made on Good Friday to be eaten over the holiday weekend, according to the "New Food Lover's Companion" (Barrons, 1995). Light and yeasty, these buns were sometimes flavored with currants or other dried fruit, and always had a symbolic cross on the top, either in frosting on top of the finished buns, or cut into the risen dough before baking. Mother's hot cross buns were less sweet than some and didn't incorporate dried fruit.

None of my three sisters - or me - remembers the origins of our mother's hot cross bun recipe. We just assumed they were a part of everyone's Easter. The production of the buns was all the more special because, while mother was naturally a very talented cook, bread was not her forte. Preparations would get under way on Easter Saturday when she would sit down to reacquaint herself with the particulars of the recipe. Then she would go to the kitchen and mix together the butter and sugar, yeast and scalded milk, flour, eggs, nutmeg, and salt to produce the sticky, yeasty dough that would magically become her glorious hot cross buns the next day.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized the skill that goes into pulling off a successful Easter brunch that includes hot cross buns. The first time I really participated in making the buns was the Easter of my senior year in college when I went to visit my sister, Claudia, at Berkeley.

Neither Claudia nor I was experienced at baking, so we approached the process with a little trepidation. A first foray into making a yeast bread can be daunting, and this recipe has a couple of steps that might rattle the novice cook.

At one point, the recipe calls for stiffly beaten egg whites to be folded into a rather dense dough, which seemed like an impossible task.

At another point, my mother's handwriting warned, "Don't be alarmed at the stickiness and softness of the dough," which, of course, immediately struck fear in our hearts. But Claudia and I forged ahead - not without a couple of phone calls to mother on the East Coast - and went to bed Saturday night with the soft, spongy mixture left to work its wonders.

To our delight, the next morning the dough had doubled in bulk - as it should - and we carefully plopped it on the floured counter to start the kneading process. As my sister and I stood side by side kneading the soft, swollen dough the way our mother had year after year, fragrant spring air wafted through the open window and birds sang deliriously in the glory of the new season.

I now felt a deeper meaning in the motions of our breadmaking. Here, in these simple gestures that so many bakers had repeated over so many generations, making this same kind of bread at this time of year, lay the physical testament to the spirit of Easter and the message of rebirth.

Hot cross buns don't get any better than the ones we made that Easter. Everything about that brunch came together with an uncanny perfection. We ate the first round of buns with our bacon, eggs and coffee, and the second round with strawberries and cream, good dark chocolate and champagne. Then we went for a walk to take in the splendor of the season.


Hot cross buns

This recipe has been adapted from my mother's original. The result is a bun that is easier to make than hers without losing any of that fluffy, yeasty, nutmeggy goodness.

2 packages active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons melted butter

In a large bowl soften yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. In a small saucepan heat the milk, sugar and 1/4 cup butter till warm. Add the milk mixture and the eggs to softened yeast, mixing well. Add 2 cups of the flour, and the salt and nutmeg to the yeast mixture.

Beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Using a spoon, stir in the remaining flour. Brush a large bowl with some of the melted butter. Place batter in bowl and brush top of the dough with more melted butter. Cover bowl and leave overnight in a non-drafty place.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface. (Dough will be soft.) Roll the dough to 1/2-inch thickness and cut into two 2-1/2-inch rounds. Place rolls onto greased baking sheets. Brush with more melted butter. Cover and let rise till nearly double (45 minutes to 1 hour).

With a very sharp paring knife, gently slice crosses on top of buns. Bake buns in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.


Where to GO

In Brooklyn, hot cross buns are available at many Italian and American bakeries. To insure buns for the holiday weekend, it's a good idea to place your order early. Each of Dizzy's Kitchen's buns goes for $2, but they are much larger than those at other bakeries.

Hot cross buns are available at:

Caputo Bakery
329 Court St. at Sackett Street, (718) 875-6871
$6.60 per dozen

320 Avenue X at West First Street, (718) 336-1944
$6 per dozen

Dizzy's Kitchen
52 Seventh Ave. at St. John's Place, (718) 230-8900
$2 per bun

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