One of my challenges this Easter was explaining the story of Jesus’s death to my toddlers. Death isn’t really a concept that they understand, and violent, painful death isn’t exactly something I want to describe to them in detail. I’d like them to retain their innocence until life demands otherwise!
We read some of the stories from the Jesus Storybook Bible, but they were honestly still a few years beyond Rondel, and I could tell that though he was listening, the words weren’t making much sense to him. So I ended up making it pretty short and simple, just saying that Jesus was hurt and died on a cross so that He could rescue us and make us able to know and love God.
And my best teaching tool ended up being these:
Throughout the day-long process of mixing, rising, shaping, baking, and glazing the hot cross buns, Rondel would keep asking me, in his toddler vernacular, what we would be drawing on top of the buns (answer: a cross) and what Jesus did for us on the cross (answer: see above). It gave him an interest in the story and something tangible to latch on to in the midst of a lot of things he didn’t quite understand.
So maybe that is part of the reason why these buns, which have always felt distinctly non-fasting to me, are a traditional Good Friday food – they help to teach the story to the youngest of us, and remind the rest of us of the truths we either lose sight of or over-complicate.
Bread making is something I do as much by feel as by measurements, but here’s the basic recipe I use for these buns, adapted from America’s Bread Book by Mary Gubser, if you want to make them next year. They are consistently one of my favorite sweet yeast breads.
First, you’ll need to make a sponge. This lets your yeast get active and happy, and if you’re using some whole wheat flour (as I normally do – I was totally out this year though), it gives the flour additional time to absorb the liquid and soften into the dough, allowing the gluten to develop while blunting some of the wheat’s sharp edges that can damage the gluten strands. It also means that your dough will rise a bit faster later on, since the yeast will already have had a chance to feed and multiply.
For a single batch, about 32-36 comfortably large buns, I start with 2 cups warm milk, 1/4 cup melted butter, 2 tablespoons of yeast, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 2 cups whole wheat flour. (My general rule of thumb for a sponge is equal volumes of liquid and flour. If you’re doubling the recipe, you shouldn’t need to double the yeast as well, although I would still increase it to 3 tablespoons.) This gets all stirred up and then gets to sit, loosely covered, in a warmish, non-drafty place for about 30-60 minutes. Really, 30 minutes is as much as you need, but it can go quite a bit longer if you get distracted with your kids while it’s sponging 🙂
To the lovely, bubbly, slightly risen sponge (releasing that most wonderful yeasty scent into the air), you’ll need to add an egg and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Both of these things can inhibit the development of the yeast, so I like to let the yeast get a good headstart with the sponge before adding them!
At this point you have a good basic sweet bread starter that you could take in a variety of directions. For hot cross buns, I add a heaping teaspoon of cinnamon and about 3/4 teaspoons each of cloves and nutmeg. My additions to the buns vary slightly from year to year depending on what I have on hand, but basically you’ll need something citrusy and some sort of dried fruit. You could use 1/2-3/4 cup diced candied lemon or orange rind or the zest and juice of two oranges for the citrus, and 3/4-1 cup currants, raisins, or golden raisins (or a mix) for the dried fruit, and I’m pretty sure any combination of the above would be excellent. I do like the added texture of the larger golden raisins vs. the currants, and of the candied rind vs. the zest and juice, but if you want a smoother roll without those extra juicy bites, both zest and currants will melt into the batter and give you flavor without changing the texture. This year I used half currants and half golden raisins, and the zest and juice option for my citrus – it was what I had, and it was good.
Once the spices and fruits are added in, you’ll want to add white (unbleached, of course) flour to the dough, slowly, until the dough is workable but still soft and definitely not dry. You don’t want it as wet as a baguette dough, for example, because you’ll need to shape it into little rolls and it’ll have to hold that shape, but you don’t want it so dry that the end result is also dry and dense. This is the part of bread making that is hard to precisely describe without showing you in person! And to give you an idea of how variable it can be, the recipe I’ve adapted calls for about 2 cups more flour than I’m ever able to add to my dough – I live in a really dry climate, and it affects my yeast bread significantly, since most recipes have been tested and created in more humid places.
Anyway, when you’ve gotten the dough to your liking, you’ll want to knead it until it starts to look smooth and elastic, and stretches when you pull on it instead of breaking away in chunks. I have a mixer with a dough hook that I let do the kneading for me, typically, because it gives me more consistent results in less time, but there is something very satisfying and cathartic about doing it by hand from time to time, so don’t let the absence of a mixer stop you! This kneaded dough will then need to rise in a large bowl, coated with either melted butter or oil to keep the dough from sticking. Just like for the sponge, this bowl will need to be covered loosely and allowed to rest somewhere cozy until it has about doubled in size, which will probably be about an hour but will depend a lot on the health and happiness of your yeast.
Finally, at this point, you get to shape your little buns! I like a roll about the size of a typical dinner roll or average muffin, a piece of dough that comfortably fits in the palm of my hand and is easy to shape; this gets me about 32-36 rolls. Mary Gubser recommends making them with pieces of dough about the size of a walnut, resulting in 84 or so tiny little two-bite rolls, but I honestly quiver at the though of drawing crosses over that many tiny buns. Also, I never really want fewer than one hot cross bun anyway, so I’d end up eating 3 or 4 little ones at once…
These newly shaped rolls should sit on parchment paper or a buttered baking sheet, under a light towel, for about 45 minutes to let them rise one more time before baking, during which time you can preheat the oven to 375 F. The rolls will only take about 12-15 minutes to bake, even at the larger size, and should be golden on both top and bottom, light to the touch but not too squishy.
To cross them, after they’ve cooled, make a basic glaze with lemon juice and powdered sugar to get to a spreadable consistency, pipe with a pastry bag/ziploc bag with the corner cut off, and let sit to harden. I usually only cross part of the batch because they’re easier to store unglazed, and I can glaze the rest of the buns the next day if I need to or just eat them unadorned, which is still very tasty if not quite as edifying and delicious.