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Monday, August 1, 2011

Hot Cross Buns

Gen X Quilters Summer Fair

When I was a kid, I used to enter my baked goods into the county fair. I earned my fair share of ribbons from them. I loved going to the fair but I haven't been for years. When I happened across the Summer Fair at Generation X Quilters, I wanted to play along and enter something! The following recipe is a re-post from a few years ago. (I am slowly collecting my recipe posts from hither and yon across the internet and putting them all here so I can find them.)

This recipe is slightly out of season for a summer fair, but that is sort of how I feel posting to a Gen X group. I don't technically qualify as gen x. And yet, I find myself, the youngest in my traditional quilt group, by quite a bit and the oldest in the mommies with babies quilt group by not so much. I'll do my best to blend in...

Hot cross buns. I was challenged to make hot cross buns.

bun on blue plate

Hot cross buns are bread, rolls flavored with nutmeg and cinnamon. My mother taught me how to bake bread. Following her instructions you add flour and knead the dough until it makes the perfect thwack sound when you hold the ball of dough in one hand and strike it with the open palm of your other hand. It is a tactile and audible sensation that cannot be replicated. You then put the dough into the greased bread bowl. The bread bowl is not just any bowl. It is a very old crockery bowl with a beautiful dark brown glaze that you couldn’t afford if you could find it in an antique store. You let it rise until it pushes back just the right amount when you poke it. I really can’t explain any of it any better than this. All I can say is that until I baked bread with my mother where I was able to smell and touch and poke and listen I couldn’t bake bread. I made rocks and paperweights and doorstops and poofy,floofy pasty things, but not bread. No matter how closely I measured and timed and followed each step precisely (which if you know me you understand that much as I dislike precision I can punctiliously replicate a set of instructions) I never made bread.

The problem is that yeast is a living breathing organism. Bread is a set of chemical reactions. Slight variations can alter the chemistry and the microenvironment in ways that completely change the final product. Humidity affects the amount of flour. There are slight changes in yeast. Yeast can be less effective as it ages. Subtle changes in the size of the egg, the type of salt your use, regional differences in milk…. all affect the happy world the yeast inhabit.

This is all a round about way of saying that I can tell you how to make hot cross buns. And I can provide you with pictures, but I really cannot teach you to make them unless you are in my kitchen. You need to experience dough in the real world. I suggest you find a master baker. They are every where. Go to the nearest church supper and you will find one. Spend a day. Bake some bread. Poke and smell. Touch and knead. You will see what I mean.

Now having said that, I am going to give you the road map to hot cross buns. Not a recipe, a road map. Some of the measurements are precise. I’ll try to explain what and why. Some are not. Again, I’ll try to explain what and why. Try it for yourself. And if you have the magic words to explain dough, share them in the comments.


Hot Cross Buns

Oil a medium sized crockery bowl and set aside in a warm spot.
Set out two eggs to bring to room temperature.
Melt 3 Tbsp butter and set aside.

Heat one cup of whole milk in the microwave or in a pan on the stove until it is very warm to the touch. The amount of liquid you start with really determines the size of the batch of dough. One cup of milk makes enough dough to fill my 9 x 13″ rimmed cookie sheet.

Pour the milk into the bowl of your mixer. Sprinkle one package (2 1/4 tsp) yeast over the top. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the top. (Sugar is a relative thing as long as you don’t overwhelm your dough with it. I never measure precisely but I seldom use more than 1/4 – 1/3 cup.) Slip 1 tsp salt down the side of the bowl. (Salt is important. I almost never cook with salt and I always try to skimp if I do use it, but it is a critical part of the chemistry of baking. Use what the recipe calls for. No more. No less.)

Let the whole thing stand for 5 – 10 minutes until the top is a tan-colored foamy sponge. This step proofs the yeast and lets you know that it is viable. If it doesn’t turn foamy you may have the milk too hot and killed it. It may be too cold and just take longer. It may be that your yeast is too old. Test your yeast by adding some to a bit of warm sugar water. You should see it bloom on the surface in short order. If your yeast is active, start over but don’t get the milk as hot. If it doesn’t spread out and start to open up and blossom, get new yeast. If the whole thing feels cool, try setting your mixing bowl in a bowl of very warm water or in your oven set at 130 degrees fahrenheit for a while.

Add about 1/2 tsp nutmeg. (I used freshly grated. If I was using the usual preground I would add up to a 1 tsp.)
Add about 1/2 tsp cinnamon. Use more if you want a stronger cinnamon taste. I keep the cinnamon light. The real and distinct flavor of all the hot cross buns I’ve ever had is nutmeg.

At this point you can start to mix your dough. First add your melted butter which should have cooled but not solidified by now. Crack your eggs into a small bowl and beat them with a fork or whisk until they are well blended. Add them to the bowl and mix them in.

Start adding flour. You want to have at least 3 – 4 cups of flour (as determined by the scoop and level method) handy. You may use less. You may use more. but make sure you have that much handy. You can add the first 1 – 1 1/2 cups of flour in one dump. Start mixing. you will get a very soft dough that pools in the bottom of your mixer. Your dough hook will pull through it, but it won’t form a ball. Scrape down the sides if you want. Once that first bit of flour is incorporated, you can start adding more flour. The next couple additions can be 1/2 cup at a time. Add the flour and then let the dough hook work its magic until the flour is completely incorporated. By now, the dough should start forming a ball and climbing up the dough hook. The sides of your bowl will still be covered with dough and flour and the dough will stick to the bottom of the bowl when you pull the hook up. At this point you start adding smaller and smaller amounts of flour each time. You can probably make a few quarter cup additions. The dough will start to form a slightly firmer ball. It won’t stick to the bottom of the bowl and the sides of the bowl will become clean. If you touch the dough — with the mixer off silly! — it will still feel sticky. Little bits will stick to your hand as you pull it away from the dough ball. You will probably have to scrape it off your hand and back into the bowl. You are getting close. You need to add a few tablespoons of flour at a time. Let each addition become fulling incorporated and handled the dough before you add anymore. Sometimes the flour will stay on the bottom of the bowl and the dough nearest to it will look like it is getting dry and nasty while the dough climbing the top of the hook looks like dough. Stop the mixer. Give it a few turns in the bowl to mix it all up and knead it together then restart your mixer for a few more turns. If the dough is still sticky to the touch you will need to add a bit more flour. Once the dough is smooth to the touch and all forms a nice smooth ball it is ready to rest. This is the point where you give it a thwack. You should see a nice hand print in the dough ball with nothing sticking to your hand.

Take your perfect ball of dough and roll it around in your oiled bowl until all sides are covered with oil. Note how much it fills the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or clean dish towel and set in a warm spot. Let it sit in a warm room for an hour or two. I use my oven set on its proofing temperature which is about 130 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour.

Yeast is like Goldilocks. It wants the temperature just right. It likes warm. The warmer it is the faster it grows. Until it is too warm and you kill it. It slows down in cold. The fridge is place to stash your dough if you suddenly remember a meeting or that you have to pick up the kids. Keep your dough Goldilocks warm.

While you are waiting, oil your baking pan. Be sure to get the oil or cooking spray into the corners! The egg wash will stick like glue if you don’t. Actually the egg wash will stick like glue even if you do if it is one of those sorts of days.

When your dough is double in bulk or when you have run out of time and you absolutely must have hot cross buns in the next hour punch it down. That’s right. Take your fist and punch it right down into the bowl so that the whole thing deflates. Now is the time to knead in 1/2 cup of raisins or dried currents if you want. I don’t.

Actually, I never remember to punch the dough down. I just reach in and pinch off a wad of dough about 1-1/2 inches in diameter and start working it into a ball. You can’t really roll it like you would playdough. You need to pull it across the top and then pinch the edges together at the bottom. My mom does this funky thing where she pushes the dough up between her finger and thumb allowing the finger and thumb to pull the sides of the dough down as the rest squeezes through the middle. Then she pulls the bottom together with her hand and pinches it tight. (I think I will have to try and link a video to show that.)

Set your perfect or not so perfect dough balls in neat or not so neat rolls on your oiled baking sheet. I usually manage to get about 6 rows of 4 buns across my sheet. Leave some space in between. Cover them with plastic or a towel and let them rise again. They should fill the pan with their sides touching. In the proofing oven this takes about 15 more minutes. Your time and temperature will vary.

While you wait. Crack another egg into a teacup. (I don’t know why it has to be a teacup but Grandma always used a teacup and I don’t have a stack of custard cups handy like Mom does so use a teacup!) Add a tablespoon of COLD water. Blend or whisk this until it is a consistant pale yellow color. You do not want to be able to distinguish bits of egg white and egg yolk. So take your time and make sure it is completely mixed.

If you are using your proofing oven, take the tray out of the oven before you preheat it. Preheat it to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once your buns are double in size… I mean your hot cross buns. We don’t have that long. Brush the tops with the egg wash. Bake the rolls for 20 minutes in your conventional oven. I used the bake/convection setting and they were done in 8 minutes.

Set out to cool.


All of the recipes call for some sort of glaze to be drizzled over or frosting to be piped on top in the shape of a cross. You could use the canned stuff, but after going to all this trouble why ruin it with canned flavor. Frosting in easy but you need to know what texture you are going for. Humidity and the size of your lemon will affect how much sugar you need. So mix and stir until you get what feels right. Besides, you can always use that extra three pounds of frosting on something else. Right?

Squeeze the juice of one lemon into a small bowl. Add about 1/2 cup powdered sugar. Mix well. Add 2 Tbsp melted butter. Mix well. Add powdered sugar a little at a time until you get a runny glaze consistency that will coat the tops and run down the sides. Or you can keep adding sugar until you get a stiffer frosting that will easily squeeze out the snipped corner of a zipper lock bag. This makes a lemony sour frosting. It goes great with the nutmeg but it is not what most people expect. You can make it more traditional by using 2 – 3 Tbsp of milk instead of the lemon juice.

Once the buns have cooled to slightly warm drizzle with glaze or pipe with frosting crosses. Serve warm.
texture closeup
Look at that texture. See those flecks of nutmeg. Check out that lemon icing.

I’ll make these again soon and add some pictures of the intermediate steps. As I said, this was a challenge and I didn’t have much time to get them done, let alone take pictures.

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