One of the first songs I learned to play on the piano was ‘Hot Cross Buns’. I was six years old, tapping out my first quarter notes, looking at the lyrics and wondering what a ha’penny was. It wouldn’t be until I moved to Ireland in my twenties that I’d actually eat a hot cross bun, and it was only this year that I made them myself for the first time.
Hot cross buns are a traditional Easter treat, though they start appearing in shops and bakeries around St Patrick’s Day. One interpretation of the cross is that it’s a symbol of the Crucifixion, while another is that Saxons ate the buns in honour of the goddess Eostre, with the cross symbolising the four quarters of the moon. There’s also some folklore surrounding them, such as the old belief that a hot cross bun made on Good Friday won’t go mouldy, and if hung in your kitchen will protect your house from fire. I wouldn’t want to eat an old bun, mouldy or not, but you wouldn’t turn down one that’s fresh from the oven, spread with butter while still warm and served with a cup of tea.
My sister has the piano now. I try to play a song or two when I go back to visit, even though I’m badly out of practice and rely on muscle memory from a decade of lessons to find the notes. Following the thin thread back in time to my six-year-old self sitting on that piano bench, could I ever have imagined the connection that would one day exist between that nursery rhyme and the bread I’d make thirty years later in my Irish kitchen?
Hot Cross Buns with Cranberries and Apricots
Makes 8 buns
Hot cross buns are usually made with raisins or currants and mixed peel, but I love the pink and orange jewel tones of the cranberries and apricots in this version. Next time I make these, I’m going to try adding in some orange zest to give the buns a little lift.
for the buns:
180 ml (3/4 cup) milk
1 x 7 g sachet of instant yeast (or 1 1/2 teaspoons)
60 g (4 tablespoons) butter
4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed (optional)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
450 g (3 3/4 cups) strong white bread flour
75 g (3/4 cup) dried cranberries
75 g (1/2 cup) dried apricots, chopped
50 g (1/4 cup) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
for the egg wash:
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
for the paste cross:
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons water
Measure out the milk, then take out 2 tablespoons and put it in a little bowl. Add the yeast and a pinch of sugar and set aside to let the yeast dissolve and get to work.
Place the rest of the milk, the butter and the crushed cardamom pods in a small pot and gently heat until the butter has melted, taking care not to let the milk boil. Allow it to cool slightly (so the eggs don’t scramble when you add them!), then remove or strain out the cardamom pods. Mix in the beaten eggs and set aside.
Sift together the flour, fruit, sugar, spices and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the milk and egg mixture and the yeast mixture. Stir everything until it just comes together, then tip the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough for 5 to 10 minutes, until it’s smooth, springy and elastic. Lightly oil a large, clean bowl and place the dough in it. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled in size, which should take 60 to 90 minutes.
Line a baking tray with parchment paper. When the dough is ready, knock it back and briefly knead it again. Divide the dough into 8 sections and shape each part into a round bun. Place the buns on the lined sheet, and using the back of a dinner knife, very lightly score a cross on the top of each bun (don’t be tempted to score them too deeply or the buns are liable to split while they’re baking). Cover the buns with a clean tea towel and allow to rise again until doubled in size (which should take about 30 minutes) in a warm, draft-free place. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F).
When the buns are ready to cook, mix one beaten egg with 1 tablespoon of milk, then brush the buns with this egg wash. Make the flour paste for the cross by whisking together the flour and water in a small bowl until there are no lumps, then place the paste into a piping bag and pipe a cross onto the top of each bun using the marks you scored earlier as a guide (if you don’t have a piping bag, put the paste in a plastic sandwich bag, cut a very small hole in the corner and pipe it out that way). Bake the buns for 15 to 20 minutes, until they’re golden brown and cooked through. Allow to cool for at least a few minutes before serving. These are best eaten on the day they’re made.