Hot Cross Buns.
Fragrant, soft buns with hints of warm cinnamon and star anise, hot cross buns have always been for me what Easter is all about.
Yes - my mum used to make me go to the Korean church in Sydney at Easter, but she did love them buns as well. Thank god there was one thing we had in common about Easter. (Going to the Korean church, small chat with all the Korean mums was NOT one of my favourite activities, as you could imagine.)
Hot Cross Buns usually show up at the supermarket aisles in Australia at the beginning of February, and they're super common. I'd been taking their presence for granted. Who would have thought that in Italy they know of no such thing?
Sure, here there are other traditions, Italy would be nothing if it weren't for their wonderful regional traditions, like the dove-shaped enriched bread 'colomba (is it Milanese or Veronese?) or the 'pastiera Napoletana' that have a ton of history behind them and are actually a lot more complicated to make at home (and takes a lot more time, and a lot of technique also - RESPECT 🙇).
When the colomba is good, oh dear, it melts in your mouth like butter and all I can think of is grabbing the whole thing and just bread-facing it. Or just eat the whole thing. Usually the latter, but bread-facing does seem so enticing when its that cushy and soft.
By the way, if you have been living in a cave the last couple of years and haven't heard of BREAD FACE, here it is, get with it guys, come on. It's the strangest, most satisfying thing to watch.
(NOTE: as I was writing this, I just spotted her second last post smashing her face into a COLOMBA, just as I was thinking... "great minds think alike". 😎)
The pastiera on the other hand, I've spent my last 5 Easters in Italy trying to understand this pie made of ricotta and cooked wheat berries (which itself takes 2 days to cook, if done from scratch). I just don't get it. It's soooo filling and I can't understand people who go crazy for it and eat it after a 3 course meal. (Can they teach me how to have such an expandable stomach capacity?)
It actually reminds me a lot of a sweet rice pudding put inside a pie with a sweet crust... it's not really my cup of tea. Keep that to yourselves. Only David Chang is allowed to make analogies like this, finding an Asian parallel for every food in the universe - even a taco has an Asian brother - and I'm inadvertently picking up such David Chang-isms because I've been binging on Netflix's "Ugly Delicious" like I binge on pickled gherkins. (yes, really, I can eat a 1 kg jar of gherkins in a sitting. It's gross.)
Slight detour here:
Ugly Delicious is a truly delightful show for foodies with a refreshing take on food culture. I learnt about how fried chicken can be racist, how 'authenticity' in food is merely a social construct (taking pizza in Naples vs 'authentic' sushi pizza in Tokyo), the secret to the squirting juices of xiao long bao, and how Rene Redzepi never cooks at home. Food God Massimo Bottura makes a cameo, so does Aziz Ansari, plus a whole host of famous chefs and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critics.
It's great, take my word on it and go binge, guilt free.
Anyway, that seems like enough foodie talk.
On to these totally bread-faceable hot cross buns.
In Australia we find them everywhere around this time, and you MUST have them smeared with butter. Salted butter. Yes, back at home salted butter is more common - the opposite to the butter situation in Italy. What I normally do is I soften a knob of plain butter with a butter knife on the cutting board with a sprinkle of salt on it. Keep picking it up with the knife and smearing it back onto itself until it gets soft and the salt gets incorporated.
(I assume you knew that already, so sorry for talking to you like that, I'm the real knob.)
These are delicious to have with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or, keeping in line with the Italian tradition, for breakfast with a cappuccino. And it will make your house smelling just wonderful.
I've tried many recipes, trying to find the right one, but it seems that no matter how hard I try, the day after they all seem to get a bit tough. If you don't end up sharing them the day of the bake, do yourself a favour and zap it in the microwave for like, 5 seconds max and they should be springy again.
Warm buns = Butter melt = Greeeeeaaaat.
This recipe is from The Guardian. It was rather minimal compared to Paul Hollywood's recipe that makes you go through 3x rises, which, unless you are some sort of house-elf like Dobby, chained to your kitchen, you won't have the time to follow through with it. (Tried it myself, and the thought of trying it again just... makes me want to grab a glass of wine.)
The kneading is crucial - be gentle with it because tough love here leads to tough bread.
I upped the cinnamon content and added some orange zest to give it a nice kick. Do it, it's better.
Regarding other flavour additions - I had to omit the candied peel because 🐸hates them and he is usually the principal eater of such bakes. I personally think they are delicious in hot cross buns, and never seem overly pronounced as they do in say, panettone.
Feel free to substitute all the fruit with chocolate chips, but just remember to keep the portions the same.
Hope you are all gearing up for a lovely, lovely Easter with friends and family, religious or not.
And if you make these and squish your face in them, tag me please because it would give me so much pleasure, in a non-sexual way.
HOT CROSS BUNS
Recipe very slightly adapted from The Guardian
Makes 16 buns (or easily halve the recipe for 8 buns)
250ml milk, plus a little extra for glazing 3 cardamom pods 1 cinnamon stick 2 cloves ¼ tsp grated nutmeg 450g strong white flour (like Manitoba, if in Italy) 7g sachet yeast 100g cold butter, cut into small cubes 50g caster sugar ½ tsp salt ½ tsp ground cinnamon
zest of one orange 2 eggs, lightly beaten 150g currants 50g mixed peel, roughly chopped
For the crosses on top:
1/2 cup plain flour
4-5 tbs water
For the glaze:
About 2 tbs orange marmalade
1 tsp water
(alternatively, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 tbs water)
1. Infuse the milk: add the milk, smashed cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, cloves and nutmeg to a small pan and gently heat it until it just starts simmering. Remove from the heat and let the spices infuse for about an hour.
2. Gently reheat the milk so it's warm to the touch, not hot. Pour it though a mesh strainer into a separate bowl and discard the spices. Flour and yeast goes into a large bowl along with the butter. Cut the butter into the flour, so that it roughly resembles bread crumbs. Stir in the sugar, salt, extra cinnamon, and orange zest.
3. Make the dough: Make a well in the middle, and pour in your warm milk and the beaten eggs. Use a fork to mix it all together into a sticky dough. Chuck it onto a lightly floured cutting board and gently knead the dough, about 7-10 minutes, until it looks smooth and feels springy.
4. Place in a lightly oiled bowl (use the previous large bowl if you want), cover with a tea towel, and let rise for about an hour in a warm place. The oven turned off with just the light on should do the trick if the temperature in your house is not being supportive. It should approximately double in size.
5. Take your dough and tip it onto a lightly greased surface, and punch it down to knock out some of the air. Add the currants, and mixed peel if using - or replace all of this with chocolate chips - and gently knead it just enough to get the ingredients incorporated.
6. Line a large baking sheet or two smaller ones with baking paper. Divide the dough into 16 even balls, eyeballing or using the kitchen scales to get them approximately the same size. Round them off by rolling the dough between your palms and place them on the baking paper with 1-2 cm in between each bun. They should expand a bit but as they prove and bake it's not a problem because tearing them apart is part of the fun. Cover loosely with plastic and put them away in a warm place again to prove for about an hour.
7. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan-forced. (Take out the buns from the oven if you had them in there to prove!)
8. The finishing touch: In a small bowl, stir the flour with water to a thick pasty consistency. Scoop it into a zip-lock bag, close it, snip off a 5 mm hole in one corner and go over all the buns to create the crosses.
9. Bake for about 25 minutes, until they are golden and bouncy. Gently heat up the marmalade with a dash of water in a small pan, and brush over all the buns whilst they are still warm.
Alternatively, you can use a simple sugar syrup - stir together the sugar and water in the small pan on a gentle heat until the sugar has melted. Brush this over instead.
10. Transfer to a rack to cool completely, or, enjoy them slightly warm with a smearing of salty butter.