In many homes around the world, Good Friday isn't Good Friday without egg- and butter-rich Hot Cross Buns, fragrant with spices and topped with a cross to signify Christ's sacrifice.
I learned to make Hot Cross Buns many years ago when I took a class focused on dough made with yeast. I was a young mom at the time, I didn't have much experience working with yeast dough, and it seemed a little intimidating to me. I soon discovered the great pleasure of watching yeast come to life, foaming up in a cup as it bubbled and grew. I began to appreciate the feel of the soft, smooth dough as I kneaded it with my hands. I loved the sweet perfume of baking yeast dough wafting through my home. I became hooked on creating breads and buns with yeast dough.
There are a few things to keep in mind when working with yeast dough.
--Be sure the yeast is fresh enough to grow. This is why recipes instruct you to proof the yeast. By dissolving the yeast in warm water with a teaspoon of sugar, you will soon find out if it still has the power to grow.
--Hot liquid will kill yeast. Use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the water. It should be between 105 and 115 degrees.
--You may not need all of the flour called for in the recipe. Measure all the flour into a separate bowl. Gradually add the flour to your mixing bowl. The humidity, the amount of moisture in the flour and the brand of flour you use can make an impact on how much you will need. When you turn the dough out onto your work surface, it will be sticky. I almost always have measured flour remaining in the bowl to use on my work surface.
A little research shows there are many different recipes for these sweet, soft Easter buns. This recipe for Hot Cross Buns is the one I made in my class so many years ago. They are lightly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Feel free to add more. Sometimes I've used a store-bought blend of baking spices that includes cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and cloves. You can add any mix of your favorite baking spices to these Hot Cross Buns. Grated lemon or orange zest is also a nice addition.
Unseasoned mashed potatoes mixed into the dough contribute flavor and moist chewiness to Hot Cross Buns. The same dough, without baking spices and currants, can produce pull-apart dinner rolls.
But for Hot Cross Buns, little balls of currant-studded sweet dough bake snuggled together in a pan. Mark them with a cross, then pull them apart and start eating.
Hot Cross Buns
1/2 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 cup sugar plus 1 teaspoon
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup unseasoned mashed potatoes
1 cup dried currants or raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Sprinkle yeast over 1/2 cup warm water. Add 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Use a small whisk to stir the mixture. Set aside and allow the yeast to bubble and grow. It will get foamy.
Pour warm milk into a large mixing bowl. Add yeast mixture. Stir in 1/2 cup sugar, eggs, salt, butter, mashed potatoes and currants. Add 1 cup of the flour along with the cinnamon and nutmeg. Beat with a wooden spoon. Gradually add more flour until dough begins to pull together into one mass. It will be a little sticky. Sprinkle some of the flour you have measured out onto your work surface. Place the dough on the floured surface. Turn the mixing bowl upside down over the dough to cover.
While dough is resting, grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Grease another large mixing bowl and set aside. Use your fingers for this job. Then, rub greasy fingers together to lightly coat your hands. This will make it easier to work with the dough.
Dust your slightly greasy hands with flour and knead the dough for 8 minutes, sprinkling the work surface with a little more flour as needed. Form the dough into a ball. Place in the prepared mixing bowl. Then, turn the ball of dough over so the greasy side is up. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until double in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch dough down and divide in two equal pieces. Form each half of dough into 16 balls. Place in the prepared cake pans, 16 balls in each. Cover lightly with a clean kitchen towel and allow to rise for 30 minutes, or until almost double in size. Brush with egg yolk glaze. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 20 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then remove from pans. When the buns are cool, use glaze to make a cross on the top of each bun. Makes 32 Hot Cross Buns.
Egg Yolk Glaze
Whisk 1 egg yolk with 2 tablespoons cold water. Brush over buns just before baking.
Powdered Sugar Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons milk or half and half
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
Mix all ingredients until smooth. Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time. It should be on the thick side for making crosses on Hot Cross Buns. Place icing in a zip-top bag and snip a corner to easily mark the crosses.
Tips from the cook
--Active dry yeast is the most common form of yeast available. It has all the moisture removed so it can be kept for several months at room temperature or in the refrigerator and indefinitely in the freezer.
--If you plan to give Hot Cross Buns as a gift or will be transporting them, put dollops of icing in small bags, just enough for applying later without fear of muss or mess during transportation.