It’s Easter next weekend and for me you can keep the chocolate eggs and shower me with hot cross buns, the traditional way for Christians to break their Lenten fast. This recipe is so easy – it doesn’t even need any arm-numbing kneading – you’d be mad not to give it a go. I guarantee they’ll be better than anything you ever bought in a shop.
There was a time in Britain when the monarchy was given to interfering in the baking habits of its people. In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I of England issued an extremely stern edict forbidding the consumption of spiced buns except on certain days:
“That no bakers, etc., at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subjects any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread…except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor.”
Perhaps Britain has become a nation of Republicans or maybe the Brits just can’t resist a spiced bun, but hot cross buns, once only eaten over the Easter weekend, are now available in every supermarket all year round. Though a long way from being a royalist, I resolutely only make hot cross buns at Easter, enjoying the once-a-year treat and the Christian symbolism in my baking. The start of Lent is marked by using up all the rich ingredients (sugar, milk, eggs) in the kitchen to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. After 40 days of abstinence, people would celebrate by eating buns crammed with good things. The buns are made from a soft, yeasted, sweet and spiced dough and marked with a pastry cross to symbolize Christ on the cross. The first record of a bread marked with the sign of the cross is thought to be in the time of Pope Gregory IX when St Clare of Assisi blessed a stale loaf and a cross appeared on it. It is also thought that the spices in the bun represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in the tomb.
There is nothing better (but only at Easter!) than a thickly buttered hot cross bun. They’re also lovely with a slice of mature cheddar—though I wonder what Good Queen Bess would have made of that.
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Hot cross buns
450g strong bread flour or plain flour
7g (1 sachet) easy blend dried yeast
1 level tsp salt
50g caster sugar
2 tsp mixed spice (see note 1)
50g butter, cut into small pieces
200ml lukewarm milk
For the crosses
For the glaze
2 tbsp milk
2 tbsp caster sugar
Grease a large baking tray. Gently heat the milk to lukewarm temperature, then beat in the eggs. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, salt, sugar and mixed spice. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture until it looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the currants. Make a well in the centre of the mixture and pour in the warm milk and eggs. Incorporate all the flour into the liquid until you have a coherent, soft dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a little more flour.
On a floured work surface, knead the dough gently for 10 seconds, then put back in the bowl and leave for 10 minutes. Knead the dough again for 10 seconds, cover again and leave for about 1 hour (these timings are not a misprint—try it and see). When the dough has doubled in size, knock out the air and divide into 12 pieces. Knead each piece into a smooth ball. Put the buns on to the greased tray, place the tray in a large plastic bag and leave until the buns have again doubled in size.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Mix the water and flour to make a stiff paste for the crosses. Put the paste into a piping bag and pipe on the crosses. Alternatively, and quite traditionally, you can simply cut a deep cross on top of the buns. In fact, although I love the aesthetics of the cross, I prefer the taste of the buns without the chewy pastry on top. Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes (see note 2). While the buns are baking, make the glaze by heating the milk and sugar until the sugar dissolves. As soon as the buns are a rich brown colour on top, take them out of the oven and immediately brush with the glaze. Eat the buns warm, buttered on the day they’re made. If there are any left the next day, they are beautiful toasted and buttered.
• Note 1: Ready-made mixed spice blends can be bought but I usually blend my own using these proportions:
1 tbsp ground allspice
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground ginger
• Note 2: Using an electric surface-top oven, I kept the top and bottom elements on for 10 minutes, then turned off the top element for the remaining 5-10 minutes.