You know something’s amiss when it’s only a few weeks to Easter and there’s no sign of Hot Cross Buns anywhere. Italians celebrate Easter with chocolate, lots of it! I’m talking about man size Easter Eggs made from kilos and kilos of chocolate, while their bread of choice during this National celebration is Colomba meaning “dove”. The traditional Colomba is baked in the shape of a dove as a symbol of peace to commemorate Christ’s resurrection. It’s similar to the Christmas Panetonne but with a flavour twist in the crust that’s covered with almond icing. While it’s thoroughly enjoyable, for this South African however, the spirit of Easter is incomplete without the spiciness of a hot a cross bun.
I never thought to make these when I lived in SA because the supermarket variety was readily available from early March till well over Easter. Then home-sickness kicked me into action and now each bite has me questioning why did I not start sooner. Everytime I attempt something for the first time I realise that most things home-made are not as tricky as so many of us think they are. The minute I popped them in the oven I wanted to pat myself on the back for not denying myself the privilege of eating a home-made hot cross bun, and from one food lover to another – neither should you.
Actually hot-cross bun making is quite pleasing just like most bread doughs. Excitement tingled when the timer rang and it was time for the verdict, I couldn’t wait to see how they turned out. Surprisingly though when I pulled the tray out the oven I became melancholic. A sudden nostalgia that I didn’t expect swept over me and stung my eyes. Opening the oven door set free the unmistakable smell of hot cross buns, knit intricately with the immovable memory of my Dad.
It occurred to me only in that moment when notes of cinnamon and cloves breathed life into the kitchen, that the distinctive smell of hot cross buns, reminds me of my father. Isn’t it amazing how a particular scent has the power to trigger off something so deep that one second I was standing at the oven door and the next, I was in our old home (still a teenager) watching my father buttering his hot cross bun and mixing his tea. I don’t know of anyone who enjoyed eating these more than he did and when I took the first bite after they baked, I was filled with regret that he never got to taste the difference between the home-made variety and the ones he used to buy.
The two are worlds apart and I think he would have approved of these with a side smile and his favourite word “genuine”. And genuine they are! Soft, spicy and buttery, the best part of baking at home is being able to eat these warm. Like Dad, hot cross buns have to be eaten with butter and what better reward than seeing the butter melt from the sheer freshness of the bread. This is my variation with candied ginger, orange zest and brown sugar and I’m so pleased with it that I think I’ll do a few more trays as an Easter treat to give to family here in Italy who’ve never had the pleasure. With that said, it’s time to get baking again but first, I need a tea break. 🙂
- 500g bread flour
- 7g dry yeast + 3 tbsp warm water + 1 tsp sugar
- 120g brown sugar ground
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 180ml whole milk
- 100g butter cubed
- 2 small eggs/100g (room temperature)
- 70g raisins
- 30 candied ginger (bits)
- 1 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1/4 tsp clove powder
- zest of 2 oranges
- 2 tbs good quality orange jam
- extra flour for the criss cross pattern
Preparation (makes 1 dozen extra large buns/ 15 medium)
*Note: for this recipe I suggest using brown sugar for the added flavour and colour, however to incorporate it into the dough easily it needs to be of the same texture as caster sugar. To do this I place the brown sugar into a coffee grinder and pulse for five to ten seconds and it’s perfect to use for these buns. However you may replace the brown sugar with 80g of caster sugar if need be. With regards to the fruit, go according to your taste, feel free to add a bit more if you prefer. If kneading with a stand mixer instead of by hand, follow the instructions below as normal and turn up the mixer for the knead to a medium speed for five to six minutes. Cover in a well oiled bowl and leave to prove.
- To activate the yeast place it in a bowl with warm water and sugar for ten minutes.
- In a small saucepan bring butter and milk to heat until butter has melted and leave to cool till warm but not boiling.
- Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl add flour, sugar, salt and mix together.
- Make a well in the centre of the flour and add yeast, milk and beaten eggs.
- Using a rubber spatula, work the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients until everything is combined to form a sticky dough.
- Tip the dough over onto a floured worktop, dust the palms of your hands in flour and begin kneading the dough by holding one part down with the left hand, and stetching the other part away from the body with the right hand before bringing it back again. Repeat this process for ten minutes until the dough is pliable and smooth. If need be a little flour to the worktop to reduce the stickiness although it is not advisable to incorporate additional flour into the dough as it will make the baked result too dry. By continuously kneading, the viscosity will change and strengthen the dough eliminating the stickiness.
- Switch on the oven to the lowest temperature for two minutes before switching it back off again all the while keeping the oven door closed. Form the dough into a boule and place in a large oiled bowl, cover the bowl with cling film and leave to prove in the warm oven for 60 minutes.
- Once the hour is up, remove dough from the oven and add cinnamon powder, clove powder, raisins and candied ginger. Zest the oranges into the bowl and knead all ingredients with the dough inside the bowl. Once combined, replace the clingfilm and leave to prove in the oven for a further 30 minutes.
- Tip the dough onto a worktop , punch out the excess gas and place onto a scale to measure. You shoud yiled approximately 1kg. Divide the dough in half to make 2 equal pieces. Cover one piece with clingfilm and begin working with the other piece. Sretch the dough out into a roll and mark out six equal pieces with a bench scraper or knife. Cut away the peices and roll into individual balls, oiling your hands with canola oil as you go along. Do the same with the remaining dough.
- Grease and line a baking tray with parchment paper (one that will hold 12 buns and still allow room to expand) and arrange buns inside and leave to prove for 60 minutes in a warm oven.
- Preheat oven to 180°C gas fan / 200°C electric fan / 220°C conventional.
- Make a paste with 80g of flour and 40mls of water. Fill paste into a pastry bag with small round tip and form the criss cross pattern along the buns. Begin by piping one full line down the length of the first row of buns. Do the same for the other two rows. Then complete the cross by piping a line along the center of each bun going across from side to side.
- Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes until golden brown.
- In a small saucepan heat jam before pushing it through a sieve to refine.
- Gently brush the jam over the warm buns. The buns may be eaten warm or cooled, sliced in half and spread with salted butter.
Maestros Need to Know *To create your own unique recipe for hot cross buns you may replace the candied ginger with candied citrus peel, dried cranberries, fresh apple or chocolate chips for a modern variation. You can also brush the baked buns with honey instead of jam use or another variation. *It's good to note that hot cross buns do not have to be baked in a rectangular dish as we are so often used to. You can get creative with it and bake the balls in a loaf tin to make a hot cross bun loaf or in a round tin to make an edible Easter wreath for your Easter party. *When forming the dough into balls use the sides of the palms of your hand to tuck the dough on the outer edges of the ball to the underside. This is called forming a boule. By forming a boule, you are ensuring that the surface of the balls are smooth and free from creases. Often you will find that some home-made variations are unshapely. This is a personal preference of course but if you wish to give the buns a regular shape then forming the boule properly is a great way to do it. *Oiling your hands with a neutral oil when forming the boules are a great way to prevent the dough from drying out or forming a crust on the surface during proving. *Be sure to let the hot milk come to room temperature before allowing it to make contact with the yeast. High temperatures cause yeast to die which in turn will cause the dough not to rise. *Baking bread at home means no preservatives which is the best thing you can do for you and your family but you must remember that without those added preservatives the bread will feel stale the following day. There is a science involved behind staling, like I always say, baking is a science and when faced with this problem it is good to understand starch. Basically starch in it's natural state is stiff. But when introduced to water and heat the starch changes its natural crystalline state and undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts called gelatinisation. If you've ever seen the change in flour when mixed with hot water then you have witnessed a part of the gelatinisation process where the starch loses its stiffness. When baked (heat) this process continues, turning flour doughs into bread. As it starts cooling though the starch again begins to change back to its natural state causing the bread to harden and feel stale. The bread may feel stale but is not. Huge bread producing factories use ample and harmful preservatives to counter-act this problem where as small bakeries don't. So if you've ever wondered why fresh bakery breads and loaves "don't last" this is the reason. To preserve the life of home-made bread I've realised, is to heat it up again with steam. Dry heat is ineffective, like placing in the oven. This causes the bread crust to dry out a lot while the inside of the bread because it is protected by the crust may soften due to the steam building up inside. However this takes longer than most of us are willing to wait and the crust is wasted, especially for thin loaves like baguettes. Also refrain from placing them in a microwave. Micro waves tend to alter the structure of the starch in bread rendering them soft at first and rock hard minutes later. To warm them well and fast, my best advice and most commonly used method for baked yeast risen doughs is to wrap the amount you need in aluminium foil and place inside a pot with lid on and steam in a centimeter or two of water, for four-five minutes depending on the size of the bread. This creates a rapid steam vessel for the starch to return to its gelatinised structure again, softening the bread. Once bread or buns have been heated this way it is best to serve immediately.