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
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
1 Tbsp milk
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.