By Susie Stageberg
It’s the Easer season, and spring is making an entrance. (Okay, so today it was 32 degrees when I got up; spring is still making its entrance, only with some hesitation.) There are all sorts of Easter traditions: chocolate bunnies, jellybeans (a personal favorite), joyful trumpet music in church, ham, and hard-cooked colored eggs. The other day at coffee break the subject of Easter food came up and somebody said, “So what’s a hot cross bun, anyway?”
Since the job of any self-respecting library staff person is to know how to look stuff up, I went and found out. Hot cross buns are sweet spiced rolls, often with dried fruit, that have a cross marked on the top. Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) says they date from pre-Christian times and are supposed to confer good luck when eaten during Eastertide. One ancient tradition held that if you kept a hot cross bun during the whole year after Easter, pieces of it given to a sick person would make them well. (Probably an early example of penicillin from bread mold.)
So I decided that I would make some of these and serve them to my family at our Easter dinner. I found several recipes on the Internet, and chose one from www.allrecipes.com
I have made yeast bread before; when I was a stay-at-home mom I made bread regularly. It’s a very tactile process. You can tell by the feel of the dough when you’ve kneaded it enough and when it’s risen enough. You can tell by thumping it when it’s baked long enough. So I felt pretty confident about making hot cross buns. I gathered my ingredients and set to work on Saturday afternoon.
Like many yeast bread recipes, this one called for the dough to be mixed and kneaded and shaped into a ball, then allowed to rise. You start out by adding half the flour called for, then gradually add the rest of the flour until the dough is easy to handle and doesn’t stick. Then comes the kneading, my favorite part. You fold the dough over and push on it with the heels of your hands. You thump it on the counter, then turn it over and thump it again. You pretend the dough is someone with whom you are mightily annoyed—a teen-aged child, perhaps? You pound the dough and squish it between your hands and generally give it a workout. When it is ready to rise, it is smooth and stretchy and does not stick to the counter.
This wonderful smooth stretchy stuff is then placed in a greased bowl to rise for about an hour. I use plastic wrap to cover my bowl of rising dough. When it’s risen enough, it will be doubled in bulk, and when you poke it with a finger the dent will remain. Then you do something counterintuitive: you take the dough out of the bowl and punch it down. Slam your fist into the middle of this light and airy ball of dough and deflate it. Then shape the dough into its final form—in this case, 2-inch balls. Put the balls of dough on a greased cookie sheet. Take a sharp knife and cut a cross into the top of each roll, cover the rolls and let them rise till doubled again, about half an hour.
After this second rising, remove the plastic wrap and slide the cookie sheet into the oven to bake till the rolls are done. They will sound hollow when tapped.
When I took my rolls out, I noticed that the crosses I had so carefully cut were not as clearly defined as I expected. In that second rising, the dough had risen and closed up my crosses. Drat! How can you have a hot cross bun without a cross? I shrugged and decided to carry on nonetheless. The next step calls for mixing some powdered sugar and orange juice and “piping” this mixture into the crosses on the buns. “Piping” means using a pastry bag, as in cake decorating. Now my cooking skills are not too shabby, but I specialize in more basic stuff: casseroles, soups, and pot roast… nothing terribly fancy. So there is nary a pastry bag to be found in my kitchen, and I wasn’t about to go out and buy such a thing for one recipe. So I thought I’d use a brush and brush the blaze in a cross shape. That’ll work, right?
Not so much. The glaze ran out of the crosses and sort of glazed the whole bun. So we had spiced sweet rolls with dried fruit and an orange glaze. Tasty, but they wouldn’t have won any prizes and Martha Stewart would have clicked her tongue at me. (She’d be doing that pretty much every time I enter my kitchen, so that’s no big deal.
Were my buns a failure? Not at all. They tasted really good. They are all gone. I will make them again. I figure the recipe was a success because I learned two things: sometimes the instructions don’t tell you all you need to know to get the food to come out right, and next time I’ll cut my crosses deeper and use a Ziploc bag with the corner cut off (a trick somebody at work shared with me) to “pipe” the glaze on. And on a day when I learned something new and created something tasty for my family, I count it as a good day in the kitchen, or anywhere else.