Even though I was Catholic growing up, I probably never would have eaten a hot cross bun if it weren't for that cute little song (see the lyrics here), which I probably learned in pre-school or someplace like that. With such a catchy tune running through my head, I naturally wanted to eat a hot cross bun. Luckily, a bakery near our house made them during lent, and I remember liking the sweet little yeast rolls studded with bits of fruit and spices.
What we know as a hot cross bun became popular in Tudor England in the 1500s, but the pagan inhabitants of the British Isles probably made similar bread marked with a cross to honor Eostre, their goddess of light for whom Easter was named, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. This tradition of offering bread to the gods goes back to the Greeks and Romans and even further to the Egyptians who took a great leap toward modern civilization when they traded blood sacrifices for far less messy offerings of bread.
Today, hot cross buns aren't really an offering, but a traditional holiday food eaten on Good Friday (also known as "the day of the cross") and throughout Lent to remind us of Jesus' cross.
When I decided to recreate this sweet little catholic-school-girl memory, I was surprised that there weren't many recipes to choose from when I looked to my cookbooks and searched online. There's a needlessly complex one here on epicurious, and you can probably turn up a few more from less reliable sources via google.
I found what looked like a good straightforward recipe on foodtv.com from Emeril of all people. Unfortunately, his recipe did not come off without a hitch. The dough was so slack and sticky that it wasn't "kneadable" until I added an extra 1/2 cup of flour. The dough took 2 hours instead of 1 to double in bulk, but I was happy that it rose at all.
Maybe I should have had more faith (bad joke, I know) because my buns turned out very well in the end. The flavor was just right with cardamom at the forefront. I couldn't resist adding a little ginger and allspice, two spices that are often included in hot cross buns. With those aromatic spices, the buns were perfect with the rose petal jam I was raving about in this post.
Here's the link to Emeril's recipe. My changes are as follows: 4 cups of flour instead of 3 1/2, but add more only if you need it; 1/3 cup of currants instead of 1/2 cup raisins (currants are more traditional); I used a generous 1/2 tsp of freshly ground cardamom and 1/4 tsp each of ginger and allspice; 2 hours for each rise. I got 19 buns and they took no more than 25 minutes to bake. If I made these again, I would reduce the milk to 1 cup. For the icing, I used just 1 tbs. of milk, otherwise it is too runny.
This is the type of thing I want to bake for breakfast, so after the second rise, I cover the buns well with a kitchen towel and put them in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning I let them come to room temperature for 1 to 2 hours, then bake. They're really good warm.
Here's another hot cross bun recipe from Levain Bakery, they of ginormous chocolate chip cookie fame. It seemed less traditional, so I opted for Emeril. Then, after all was said and done, I was flipping through Feast by Nigella Lawson looking for something totally unrelated and found her recipe for hot cross buns. Why the heck didn't I think of consulting her in the first place? If you have access to the book, give it a look.
If you have a favorite traditional Easter food, tell me about it in the comments!