Not long ago I participated in a career-day event for a local middle school where a student asked me, “What subject does your career focus on the most?” Without skipping a beat I simply responded, “All of them.” Unsatisfied, she probed with disbelief, “Even history?”
History, as many people know, is a blanketed term. The study of science could refer to biology, robotics, or astrophysics. Likewise history could relate to culture, religion, or simply a timeline of events. Can bakers truly be good at what they do if they don’t understand why gelatin products violate food prohibitions of certain cultures and religions? Can you be passionate about baking if there’s no story, no controversy, nor life behind your finished product? Let’s frame this thought process using hot cross buns.
It’s fairly well known that hot cross buns are an Easter food. Even as they are becoming popular outside of the holiday many people recognize that the bread represents the body of Christ, the spices represent the honorific way he was buried, and the icing is a clear symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus.
But did you know that the recipe pre-dates Christianity and has many pagan elements? Though not referred to as hot cross buns until much later, buns with crosses on them were eaten in honor of the goddess Eostre. Her significance in texts is fleeting but it is generally accepted that she represented dawn, spring, and new beginnings. It is also accepted that her name provides the origin for Easter. Meanwhile, the icing cross can symbolize the four seasons or phases of the moon.
The history behind these soft dried fruit-filled buns is fascinating. We could be enjoying a recipe hundreds upon thousands of years old. This is a recipe so captivating that people argue about its very origins and connections in the timeline of the world. How can one resist trying a bun? Each bite is steeped in history, myth, and mystery!
So maybe history isn’t as essential to becoming a baker as other school curricula. But really, I just wanted her to study hard at all her subjects.
Jason Shriner owns the baking & pastry blog The Aubergine Chef, which contains free videos and recipes. He also teaches baking classes at the Manassas Park Community Center. You can visit his blog at www.TheAubergineChef.com.
Hot Cross Buns
This recipe can be kneaded by hand. It makes a fairly stiff dough so please use caution when using your mixer to knead.
Makes about one dozen buns
¼ cups whole milk
1 ounce active dry yeast
6 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 ½ cups bread flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¾ teaspoon salt
The zest of half a lemon
¼ cup dried currants
¼ cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon pasteurized egg whites
1 ¾ cups powdered sugar, sifted
1. Warm the milk with the honey in the microwave until it reaches 105 degrees (“heat on high power for 30 seconds) . Add the yeast and stir well. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Stir in the melted butter.
2. Meanwhile combine the flour, spices, salt, and zest in your electric mixer bowl. Once the yeast mixture has rested, add to the dries and mix on low speed with the dough hook for 7 minutes.
3. Add the dried fruit and mix on low speed with the dough hook for 3 minutes. Transfer to an oiled bowl, lightly oil the dough (to prevent a skin from forming), cover with a damp towel, and place in a warm room to rise for 1 hour.
4. Once it rises take handfuls (about 90 grams) of the dough and roll them into balls. Place rolls on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, lightly oil the rolls, and cover with damp towel. Allow to rise in a warm room for 1 to 2 hours, or until they have doubled in size.
5. Remove towel and bake rested rolls in a 400 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes. If you brush them with egg wash prior to baking they will have a shiny finish. Cool completely.
6. Stir together the remaining three ingredients to make the icing. Fill a piping bag with the icing and pipe a cross on top of the buns. They can be served immediately, or allow the icing to set up at room temperature for 30 minutes. The cross can also be made in the dough with a sharp knife before baking if you don’t want to use icing.