Hot Cross Buns are an Easter favorite

Sweet and delicious, warming and comforting, hot cross buns are a delight any time of the year, but they have always traditionally been celebrated at Easter, from New Zealand to South Africa, Canada to the U.K. Meanwhile, their sister bun, Bolzanese, is a deliciously nutty alternative and is a popular bun served in Italy at this time of year. 

In essence, a hot cross bun is a spiced sweet bread bun made with currants or raisins and marked with a cross on the top, and it is traditionally eaten on Good Friday. It’s steeped in history, some say back to ancient times, when references have shown the ancient Greeks marking cakes with a cross. When archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ash and lava for almost 2,000 years, they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins.  

During Elizabeth I’s reign in the 16th century, a decree was issued forbidding the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads, except at burials, on Good Friday or at Christmas. So when they were finally available, women selling these sweet favorite bakes in the streets would cry “one-a-penny, two-a penny, hot cross buns” to signal the wait was over.  

 

Steeped in superstition  

English folklore includes many superstitions surrounding hot cross buns, one of which states that buns baked and served on Good Friday will not spoil or mold during the following year. Another superstition says that if a piece of bun is given to someone who is ill, grated and mixed with water, it will help them to recover. Sharing a hot cross bun with someone else is supposed to ensure friendship throughout the coming year. It is believed that hanging a hot cross bun in the house on Good Friday offers protection from bad luck in the coming year. Some superstitions say that hot cross buns are even supposed to protect sailors against shipwreck. 

Wide variation  

There are lots of variations to the basic sweet dough and currant/raisin filling. In the U.K., additions of flavorings such as toffee, orange and cranberry, and apple and cinnamon are favored, while in Australia and New Zealand, a chocolate version is popular, using chocolate chips instead of currants. In the Czech Republic, mazanec, a similar cake or sweet bread eaten at Easter, is often marked with a cross on top. 

But it is to Italy that we turn to for the following recipe, courtesy of Icoa in Cayman. Chef Jurgen Wevers and his team of night bakers have been making the traditional Bolzanese buns for many years. These almost spaceship-looking buns are a treat, coming originally from Bolzano, the capital city of the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy.  

 

Ingredients  

For the dough:  

  • 3¾ teaspoons active dry yeast 
  • ½ cup sugar 
  • ¾ cup warm water 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1 egg yolk 
  • 4 oz unsalted butter 
  • 3 ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour 
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt 

 

Begin by stirring the yeast and two tablespoons of sugar into the water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy for about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining sugar and egg yolk; stir in the butter until blended. Add the flour and salt and stir until the dough comes together. Knead on a floured surface until soft and elastic, eight to 10 minutes 

 

First rise  

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise until soft and puffy but not quite doubled, about two hours. 

 

Filling and topping:  

  • 2/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted and skinned 
  • 2/3 cup chopped candied fruit peel 
  • 2/3 cup raisins 
  • 1 egg 
  • 1 tablespoon water 
  • ¾ cup blanched whole almonds 

 

Flatten the dough on a lightly floured surface into a large circle. Mix the hazelnuts, candied fruit and the raisins and work the mixture into the dough in three stages: first, sprinkle the dough with a third of the nut mixture, fold the four sides of the dough into the center and flatten. Repeat the process twice more, flattening the dough as much as you can 

 

Shaping and second rise  

Cut the dough into five equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball, rolling the dough between your cupped hands and pulling the skin of the dough taut over the fruits and nuts. (At this point, Chef Jurgen says, you can add an optional 2 oz of fresh almond paste into the bun). Place the bun on an oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet. Mix the egg and water in a small bowl. Brush the buns with the egg wash and cover with the almonds. Let rise until doubled, about three hours 

 

Baking and serving  

Heat the oven to 400F. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes. Cool completely on a rack 

Dust them with powdered sugar and they are ready to serve. 

 

For traditionalists, Weekender has also gleaned Chef Jurgen’s hot cross bun recipe. 

 

Ingredients  

For the buns:  

  • 1 pound 2 oz white bread flour 
  • 2 oz sugar 
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg 
  • 1 tsp ground cloves 
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon 
  • 2 oz cold butter cut into small pieces 
  • 4 oz raisins 
  • 1 oz candied fruit peel 
  • 2 teaspoons instant dried yeast 
  • 10 fluid ounces warm milk 
  • For the crosses: 
  • 3 oz all-purpose plain flour 
  • 1 ½ oz cold butter, cut into small pieces 
  •  

Glaze:   

  • 1 ½ tbsps apricot jam, warmed 

 

Mix together the flour, sugar, salt and spices. Add the butter pieces and rub the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse sand. Then, add the dried fruits and mixed peel and stir. 

Sprinkle the yeast over the mixture and finally, pour in the warm milk. Mix with a spatula until a soft sticky dough is formed. 

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for no less than 10 minutes or until a silky smooth dough is formed. Place in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, this should take about two hours. 

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface, knock all the air from the dough and knead again for two minutes. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll each into a bun shape. Place the buns on a lightly oiled baking sheet. With a sharp knife cut a shallow cross into the top of the bun. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise again for approximately 45 minutes or until well risen. 

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Make the crosses by rubbing the butter into the flour, add a little cold water and stir to make a thick dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more water. Roll the dough into a ball, cut in half, then each half into six. Place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. The balls will become hard and be easier to roll. 

Roll each small dough ball, roll into a long thin sausage, cut in half and firmly press each “sausage” half into the cross of the buns without knocking out the air. 

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until the buns are well risen and golden brown. Remove from the oven and brush the buns with the jam. Lift the buns onto a wire rack and leave to cool. 

Chef-Jurgen-S

Chef Jurgen Wevers of Icoa with his freshly baked hot cross buns. -Photo: Lindsey Turnbull