Category Archives: Bread

hot cross buns: it only sounds like they’re ticked-off

We were never one of those families that hunted for eggs out under the shrubbery on Easter morning.  Our Easter Bunny always hid our baskets somewhere inside the house.  Behind the long drapes in the living room or under the big chair with the scratchy plaid cushions or in back of the dining room hutch. The Easter Bunny took time on his long trek across the country to fill our baskets with plastic green grass into which he nestled jellybeans and Peeps and chocolate eggs and Cadbury Cream Eggs and those eggs with the chocolate-covered malt ball center and thin, pastel-colored candy coating and miniature stuffed animals such as Lamby the Lamb, for example, who still, as far as I know, lives in a box in my parents’ basement.

Like many American kids, we went to church on Easter morning wearing shoes with little buckles, and proudly hugging those brand-new stuffed animals to the busoms of our pretty pink and yellow Easter dresses with their bows and flowers.  As we got older, the Easter Bunny continued to drop by, but Lamby the Lamb and his ilk morphed into teen-appropriate lace-accented sleepwear and pastel-colored lingerie. (The Easter Bunny apparently shopped with some zeal at Victoria’s Secret when I was a teenager.)

We also never had one of those big green-bean-casserole-and-ham-centric dinners after the Easter service.  Our Easter Sunday food traditions were much simpler: green, blue, and pink-tinted egg salad sandwiches,  the creamy ears and tails and paws of the big chocolate bunnies sent by my grandparents, and cold glasses of milk.

During the pre-lingerie, Lamby the Lamb era-Easters which took place in the late 1970s and early ’80s, we did have one other Eastertime tradition.  As the holiday approached, my mother would bake hot cross buns – slightly sweet, yeasty rolls studded with raisins and decorated with thick crosses of white icing. She’d arrange several of the buns in baskets for my sister and me to give to our teachers.  It’s been many years since she’s made hot cross buns, so my memories of them have faded – or maybe just narrowed in the way old memories do to include only certain parts of the experience.  I remember, for example, the pleasure of licking off the icing crosses and the soft sweetness of biting into the raisins.  I remember leaving chunks of the bread itself uneaten, after the raisins and the icing were gone, because the bread is only mildly spiced with cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and/or cardamom, and it’s on the dry side – hot cross buns aren’t moist and dense.  They’re not cake-like.  They’re not very sweet and they go stale quickly. They have little in common with, for example, Cadbury Cream Eggs or chocolate bunnies.       

The origin of  bread marked with a cross pre-dates Christianity, although the “cross” on hot cross buns has come to symbolize the Crucifixion for modern Christians.  Ceremonial breads and cakes made with honey and spices were offered by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egytians to their gods.   The Egyptians marked theirs with the horns of an ox and gave them to the goddess of the moon.  In honor of Eostre, the  Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, whose name is the origin of “Easter”, buns were marked with a cross meant to symbolize the four quarters of the moon and consumed during the spring festival. 

Today, hot cross buns are typically eaten during breakfast on Good Friday.  An English tradition persists of hanging one of the buns in the house and leaving it all year for good luck.   

I’d never made hot cross buns before.  My mother let the tradition slide as we got older, but I saw a recipe for them in a magazine she sent me recently and it sparked my memory.  The recipe I used isn’t my mom’s old recipe because she can’t remember where it is, but every recipe I found looked very similar to every other recipe, and the one I wound up using produced buns that are very similar to the ones I licked icing off of when I was a kid. 

Hot Cross Buns
(Makes 16)
Modified slightly from the recipe here.
This is a very sticky dough, so don’t despair if 1/2 a cup of flour doesn’t make you feel better.  I wouldn’t add more than that.  These buns also go stale quickly, so don’t make too many unless you’re going to eat them right away.  They can be eaten plain or toasted with butter.  Currants seem to be the more traditional addition to hot cross buns, according to many of the recipes I’ve come across, and many people add candied fruit or orange zest. My mom always just used plain old raisins, so I went with raisins.  You might want to add additional raisins, however, because 3/4 cup was, honestly, kind of sparse for my taste. And be sure to use plenty of icing. Remember, those are the best parts. 

1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
3/4 cup warm milk (between 100 and 110 degrees F)
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
4 Tbsp butter, softened
2 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup raisins

For glaze:
1 egg
1 Tbsp milk

For icing:
2 teaspoon milk
about a half cup  of powdered sugar (or enough to make a thick icing – add more if needed)

Stir together 1/4 cup of warm milk and one teaspoon of sugar. Sprinkle yeast over the milk and let sit for 5-10 minutes until foamy.

In a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups of the flour (reserving additional flour), salt, spices, and 1/4 cup of sugar.

Make a well in the flour and add the yeast mixture, softened butter, eggs, and the remaining milk. With a wooden spoon, mix the ingredients until well-incorporated. The mixture should be shaggy and very sticky. Stir in the raisins.

Knead in additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to incorporate after each addition, until the dough is still tacky but no longer completely sticking to your fingers when you work with it. It will still be very sticky even after 1/2 cup, but do not add more than that.   Form a ball of dough in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit, covered, in a warm spot, for 2 hours or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Press down on the dough to gently deflate it. Roll the dough into a log shape and cut it into two halves. Place one half back in the bowl while you work with the other half. Cut or twist the half into eight segments. To do this, roll one half of the dough into a log, cut or twist it in half, then roll those pieces into logs, cut or twist them in half, and then repeat process until you have eight pieces.

Take the eight pieces and form them into rounded mounds, placing them 1 1/2 inches apart from each other on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Work the remaining dough into 8 equal pieces and place them on a baking sheet, also covering loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough sit in a warm place about 30-40 minutes or until the mounds have doubled in volume.

Whisk together one egg and a tablespoon of milk and brush egg wash over buns after they have risen.

Place pans in the middle rack of the oven and cook for 10-16 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool on the pan for a few minutes, then transfer the buns to a wire rack to cool completely before icing.

For the icing, whisk together milk and powdered sugar. Add more powdered sugar, if necessary, until the consistency is thick. Spoon icing into a plastic sandwich bag. Cut off a small bit of the corner of the bag and pipe an icing cross on each bun.

Read about Easter foods here.


feast of the dead

Stiltwalkers and silk flowers. Ghostly bagpipers. Dead brides and belly dancers. Dogs dressed like skeletons. Babies dressed like skeletons. Skeletons riding bicycles and wearing hats and posing for photos. And far more papier mache and fire than you could normally combine in polite society. These are some elements of Tucson’s strange and wonderful All Souls Procession. The event takes place after dark in November in downtown Tucson. A slowmoving river of people illuminates the streets, swelling block by block as spectators step off the sidewalks to follow the procession. More than 20,000 people came out this year. The whole thing culminates in a glittering theatrical finale comprised of aerialists lifted with a giant crane to spin over the crowd, music and mighty drumbeats, and plenty of things on fire.

My significant other, Raphael, can’t step out the back door without making new friends or randomly running into and then engaging with Tucson celebrity. And so, only days before the commencement of this year’s All Souls Procession, he met (she’s a friend of a friend, I think is how it goes) the woman who founded it back in the 1990s. The gist of her answer (and my apologies to her if I haven’t got this exactly right) is that she developed, after the death of her father, a fascination with the myriad ways in which death is celebrated throughout the world. Although the All Souls Procession today takes many elements from the Mexican Day of the Dead (which occurs on November 1 and 2), it was never meant to adhere strictly to Day of the Dead traditions, but rather was based more on an amalgamation of the various ways in which people all over the world approach death.

The Procession has apparently taken on something of a life of its own, morphing into something that differs from but also takes elements from both its original form and the Latin American El Dia de Los Muertos as well as incorporating other, more paganistic aspects. This makes sense, as my understanding is that the folks in Mexico don’t go around slipping prayers into a giant urn that is then hoisted up into the night sky by a huge crane and set spectacularly on fire. And there is a marked absence of bagpipes at their celebrations.

What they have in Mexico and in other Latin American countries is a celebration that has emerged over the course of about three thousand years as a combination of ancient Aztec rituals performed to honor Mictectacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, and the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1 and 2, respectively). During Dia de Los Muertos, it is believed that the dead are able to hear and communicate with the living. They are welcomed by their loved ones among the living with gifts of flowers, candy, alcohol, and food. Altars are prepared in homes and businesses for the dead and visits are made to the cemeteries where family members were laid to rest. In Latin American countries where the Day of the Dead is one of the most important holidays of the year, humor and color and flowers and food are key elements in this communion of the living and the dead, but as far as I have been able to ascertain, belly dancers are generally not.

Food plays an important role in traditional Latin American Dia de Los Muertos activities. In Mexico, for example, people leave favorite foods on altars or at the graves of their ancestors that include nuts and fruits, chocolate and tequila, moles and tamales, atole (a sweet, thick corn drink), sugar skulls decorated with jewel-colored icing, and pan de muerto – a sweet, egg-based bread that can be flavored with anise seed, cinnamon, and orange and shaped into skulls, bones, angels, or animals. The dead take sustenance from the flavors and scents of the food left for them and once they’ve had their fill, actual consumption of the food falls to the living.

I did not make sugar skulls in honor of Tucson’s All Souls Procession this past Sunday, although I considered it briefly and will try it one of these years. Instead, I made my face up like a skull (With glitter! Just like a real skull!) and made a sign honoring my grandpa who passed away last November.

I also attempted some pan de muerto. I’ve stumbled across some reference to the possibility that the preparation of this bread has its origins in anthropomorphic figures shaped from sweet amaranth dough and used in mortuary rituals by the Aztecs way back in the day. The recipe I tried lacked in the amaranth department (as did every other recipe I saw) but did feature anise, orange zest, and a bright, sweet orange glaze that gave the finished loaf a golden glow. Others I’ve read call for a brush of egg whites or melted butter and a sprinkle of sugar. People also decorate the finished loaves with colored sugar or white icing. Given that I made my pan de muerto for Tucson’s All Souls Procession, an event that takes a little something from Day of the Dead traditions and a little something from everywhere else and mixes it all into something sparkling and surreal, the act of making pan de muerto and consuming it while preparing for the Procession could be considered an homage to the re-shuffling and mixing of the elements of old traditions into wonderful new ones.

Pan de Muerto with Orange Glaze

(altered slightly from the recipe found here:
• 1/4 cup unsalted butter
• 1/4 cup milk
• 1/4 cup warm water (about 110 degrees F)
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons anise seed
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• 1/4 teaspoon orange extract
• ¼ cup fresh orange juice
For glaze:
• 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
• 1 teaspoon orange zest
• ¼ cup sugar

1. Heat the milk and the butter together in a saucepan, until the butter melts. Remove from the heat and add the warm water. The mixture should be around 110 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of flour, yeast, salt, anise seed, and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Stir in the warm milk mixture. Add beaten eggs, orange zest, and ¼ cup fresh orange juice and stir until well combined. Stir in 1/2 cup of flour and continue adding the rest of the flour until a soft, sticky dough forms.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about ten minutes.
4. Lightly grease a large bowl with butter and place the dough into the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp, clean towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours until doubled in size. Punch the dough down and remove two to four golfball-sized lumps (depending on how you want to decorate the loaf.) Shape the remaining large lump of dough into a large round loaf and place dough onto a baking sheet. Form the smaller lumps of dough into bone shapes or other shapes and attach them to the loaf. Loosely cover the loaf with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size.
5. While dough is rising, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
6. Bake bread for about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and place loaf on a rack to cool slightly before glazing. (Bread should still be warm when glazed.)
7. To make glaze, combine 1/4 cup sugar, orange juice, and orange zest in a small pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 2 minutes. Brush over top of bread while still warm.