Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns

This Sunday is Easter. I myself did not grow up in a particularly religious household, though occasionally I would put on a (very) ruffly pink dress and go to Easter service with my grandpa. Mostly Easter in my house was a day for finding plastic eggs full of candy hidden in Kleenex boxes and shoes; a day for making myself sick on Cadbury Eggs; and a day for my mom to tell me about the Palm Sunday tornadoes of 1965, which might explain why I was such an anxious child.

Hot cross buns were also not a part of my Easter celebration growing up. In fact, prior to experimenting with them this week, I had never eaten them and, perhaps like you, I only really knew about them from the “Hot Cross Buns” nursery rhyme.

An English tradition, the buns are traditionally eaten on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter). Lent of course began with semlor, to use up sugar and fats in the house, which are forbidden during Lent. The other delicious bookend are these slightly different spiced buns.

While there is no documentation that shows exactly when the buns were invented, every one of their many origin stories start with a monk. Some theories put their creation back as early as the 12th century. Others say it was a monk in St. Albans in the 14th century.

Like many of the recipes I have researched that have a religious link, hot cross bun ingredients are meant to symbolize historical events. Remember Hannah Spiegelman’s haroset? And, sometimes they’re a little dark. The cross on top of the bun, of course, recalls the cross that Jesus died on. The various spices inside symbolize the spices used to embalm Jesus’ body after the crucifixion (see what I mean?), and the dried fruit is meant to remind Christians they no longer have to eat plain food, because the resurrection is at hand.

The buns have had a life beyond Good Friday as well. In the past, the buns were sometimes grated up and used for medicinal purposes. Superstition also states that buns baked on Good Friday will never spoil. In earlier times, they were sometimes hung from the rafters for a whole year for good luck, which hints at their… ahem… hardiness. Those buns would be replaced every Good Friday. They were also said to protect from evil spirits and prevent shipwrecks when taken on sea voyages.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, laws were passed to keep people from selling hot cross buns on any day other than Good Friday, Christmas, or during burials, because they were too sacred for any other day. Bun fans were able to prepare their own in their homes to get around the law, but if they were caught, this apparently benevolent law required them to give up their buns to the poor. Luckily, we are allowed to bake hot cross buns any time we want.

For this recipe, I essentially used a variation of the cinnamon roll recipe I used for my mom’s pecan rolls. (And I want to apologize for my shaky glaze job. I’m not a hot cross buns pro yet!)

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Hot Cross Buns
Makes 9 buns.

Ingredients:
6 tbsp sugar
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup milk, warmed to 115-125 degrees
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, very soft
For egg wash: 1 egg, plus 1 tbsp milk, whisked together
For glaze: 1 cup confectioners sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp cardamom (optional), and 4 tsp milk, whisked together

Instructions:

Combine the sugar, yeast, raisins, and warm milk in a large bowl. Whisk to combine and allow to sit for about five minutes to allow the yeast to activate.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Whisk to combine.

Once the yeast mixture has become frothy, whisk in one egg until combined. Then add the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until mostly combined. It will look quite shaggy and dry at this point. Add the butter and continue stirring just until the dough begins to form a ball.

Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until the the ball forms a little more. The surface will not be smooth, but a ball should be well-formed.

Place the dough into a large clean bowl, cover with a dishtowel, and allow to sit in warm place for an hour. (Note: I always had a little trouble with yeast doughs in my house, I think because it’s so dry. However, I have started raising my dough by covering it and placing it into the oven, with a pot of boiled water on the lower rack. Yeast loves warm dry places, so this gives it a nice spa where it can grow. It works for me every time now.)

Either grease an 8×8-inch pan, or line it with parchment. After an hour, pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut into 9 equal parts and roll each into a ball with your hands. Place each ball into the pan. It’s OK if they are touching. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 45 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together your egg wash. In a larger bowl, whisk together your glaze ingredients. (The glaze will be fairly thick, which is good). Spoon the glaze into a plastic baggie.

Brush the egg wash over the buns. Bake for about 20-22 minutes, until lightly golden brown on top.

Remove and allow to cool. Snip a very tiny corner off the baggie filled with glaze. Place a cross of glaze across the top of each bun.

They are best enjoyed the same day that you bake them. (Unless you take them with you to sea, in which case…)

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If you don’t like raisins, skip them! Or, you could use currants or other dried fruit. As for glazing, I’m a fan of adding the crosses before the buns go into the oven. These crosses are supposed to be hot, right?! Jk. But you can absolutely wait until the buns cool and add the glaze then. I did… both, as you can see. I really like glaze. Especially this cardamom glaze situation right here.

If you are celebrating Easter this Sunday, happy Easter! If not, you should make these buns anyway!

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Semlor (Swedish Cardamom Cream Buns)

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Happy Mardi Gras!

If we were still living in New Orleans, this day would have looked much different. I still can’t believe that Chicago hasn’t discovered Mardi Gras: 1) a huge party, 2) costumes, 3) parades, 4) drinking! We like all of those things! I mean, I guess the parade part is the biggest hindrance. We got a foot of snow here in Chicago last week. Most of the cars on my street are still buried. No parades or floats here. And I almost miss getting hit in the head with beads–almost. Because I would always, always, once a year, get hit in the head with beads. For me, it was a Mardi Gras tradition.

Anyway, the snow has kept us indoors for the most part and it has us both going stir-crazy. But the good part of being snowed in is the baking! I never feel like baking more than when it’s cold and snowy outside. And, since it’s Mardi Gras, I thought I would celebrate with the baked goods of the season!

Last year, I made King Cake Paczkis, with moderate success. This year, I took my inspiration from the Swedes and made semlor: Cardamom-scented buns, filled with sweetened almond paste and whipped cream.

Semlor are eaten in Sweden (and throughout Scandinavia) to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), known to the Swedes as Fettisdagen, or “fat day”, the last day before Lent. Like king cake and paczskis, the dish was originally created as a way to use up fats and sugar in the house, before the fasting that accompanies Lent. However, you can now find the buns on bakery shelves from January through Easter. It’s estimated that 20 million semlor (the plural of semla) are eaten in Sweden every year. Semlor are sometimes eaten in a bowl of hot milk, which is known as “hetvägg” or “hot wall.” And, though this might be rumor, it is even said that the Swedish king, Adolph Frederick, died in 1771 of digestion problems after eating, in addition to many other things, 14 semlor!

I tried to make these semlor several times. I used a few different recipes from around the internet. My friend Rasmus said that the most important part was that each semla should be light and airy, rather than bread-like and hard. And my first two tries did come out more like bread. Then I thought of the lightest and airiest rolls that I ever made: A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls! Even though these rolls aren’t meant to be dessert, I used the base of that recipe to create the bun for the semlor. The result was super soft semlor buns, obviously a little sweeter and spiced with cardamom, ready to be filled with almond paste and cream! Semlor

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Semlor
Makes 8-10 buns.

Ingredients:
For buns:
5 tbsp sugar
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk, warmed to 115-120 degrees
1 egg yolk, beaten
4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus another 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour, plus another 1/2 cup for kneading
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp-1 tbsp vegetable oil for oiling the bowl
For filling:
3/4 cup almond paste, sweetened
1/3 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream

Confectioner’s sugar, optional, for sprinkling over the top

Instructions:

In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, yeast, and warm milk. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes to activate.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 cup of flour, the salt, and the cardamom.

Stir the beaten egg and melted butter into the yeast mixture. Add the flour mixture and stir until completely combined, then add an additional cup of flour and stir until combined, then add one half a cup of flour and stir.

Lightly flour a surface and scrape the dough out onto the flour. Knead the remaining half cup of flour into the dough, for about 5 minutes.

Oil a large bowl with vegetable oil and add the dough, turning over in the oil to coat.

Cover with dishtowel and place in a warm area for an hour and a half, until double in size.

Divide the dough into 8-10 balls and place at least 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 30 to 60 minutes. The dough should double in size again.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the top of the buns with a little cream, or a beaten egg, before baking for 15-20 minutes, until slightly golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

As the buns are cooling, whip the remaining whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Mix 3/4 cup of almond paste with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Cut a tiny cone shape in the top of each bun. Fill the space with about 2 tbsp of the almond mixture, then top with whipped cream. Place the lid of the bun back on top of the whipped cream and dust with powdered sugar.

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With their little powdered sugar party hats, they look a lot like every single round, snow-covered surface in Chicago right now, and they were a big hit in this house. I don’t know where to acquire a semla in the city of Chicago. There is stiff competition with paczkis and king cake here. I assume the old Swedish Bakery used to make them, but, alas, the Swedish Bakery is no more. If you find them, please let me know!