While many of my Christian friends await the miracle that characterises this most solemn holiday, I am privileged to announce that a minor miracle has occurred in my suburban refuge here in Prospect.
Surely we have been visited and blessed by my favourite saint, San Lorenzo. Here is a saint with a wry sense of humour, to be sure. When he was deacon of Rome in the third century, he was ordered to surrender all the treasures of his Church. He rounded up the poor of his parish and presented them, saying, "Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown."
Photo Credit: from Wikipedia. Bernardo Strozzi depicts the Distribution of the Treasures of the Church.
Needless to say, this was met with blind anger. The bishop of Milan was so incensed that he had Lorenzo cooked alive on a giant rotisserie. As the story goes, Lorenzo’s last words were, "I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!"
And for this clever and brave witticism, San Lorenzo became the patron saint of cooks, chefs and comedians.
Photo Credit: from Wikipedia. This stained glass window by Franz Mayer and Co. shows San Lorenzo holding a palm, a symbol of martyrdom in one hand. In his other hand, he clutches the spit which was the instrument of his death.
So it was to San Lorenzo that I said a silent prayer when my husband, Stephen (usually a stranger to the stove but well acquainted with the sink), announced that he was going to make Hot Cross Buns and I could help, if necessary.
Those who know Stephen will understand that first he had to Google the history of the Hot Cross bun to provide some cultural context, while I measured and set out the ingredients. (At this point, he had not sullied his sanitised hands.)
His edited research is presented for your edification after the recipe.
STEPHEN’S HOT CROSS BUNS (a recipe adapted by me for nervous first time bakers, mostly using cup and spoon measures. All measures are for level cups and spoon measures)
Makes 16 large or 20 normal size
1 level tablespoon dried yeast (Lowan or Mauri brand or 2 tablespoons fresh yeast)
1/3 cup caster sugar
5 level cups bread flour
1 teaspoon each mixed spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt
(add more spices if you like, but do not increase the salt)
1 cup milk, warmed to blood temperature
100 g unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup currants
1/3 cup candied orange peel or mixed peel
½ cup plain flour mixed with ½ cup water
2 tbs caster sugar dissolved in 2 tbs water
1. First make the sponge starter by dissolving the yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar (from the measured sugar) with ½ cup warm water. Set aside for 10 minutes to activate the yeast, It should become foamy which indicates that the yeast is active.
2. In another bowl, mix together the flour, spices and salt. Set aside.
3. Combine the remaining sugar, milk, melted butter, and eggs with 1 cup of the flour. Mix until silky and smooth.
(This step can be done by hand in a bowl, using a wooden spoon or as Stephen did, using an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. There is some hand kneading either way.)
4. Add the yeast mixture, currants and mixed peel. Set the machine to a low speed and add the flour one cup at a time, mixing in the flour well before adding the next cup.
5. Every so often scrape the sides of the bowl.
6. Once the dough has come together, tip the dough onto a lightly floured bench and knead by hand for at least another 5 minutes. Be sparing when adding flour while you are kneading – adding too much flour will make the dough heavy. The dough should be soft, smooth and elastic.
7. Smear a clean, large bowl with oil and add the dough, turning it over so that it is all covered in oil. Cover with a tea towel and set aside for at least 2 hours to allow the dough to double in size.
At this point, Stephen had a socially responsible beer and chat with his mates, so in the interest of total disclosure, I have to confess I knocked back the dough and shaped the buns.
8. At the end of this time, punch the dough once with your fist. Gather the dough into a ball and turn it out onto a floured bench. Shape into a large log and cut it into 16 -20 pieces even pieces. Use a set of scales to ensure all the pieces are the same weight.
9. Roll each piece into a bun shape.
10. Set each bun onto a baking paper lined tray, at least 5 cm apart.
11. Cover with a tea towel and leave for another hour, until doubled in size.
Stephen is back in charge at this point: the miracle approaches its climax.
12. In the meantime:
a) preheat the oven to 180C.
b) Make the cross dough and roll into a fine rope of 2 mm, cut into 10 cm lengths and drape over the buns making a cross. Brush the ends with water so that they adhere to the surface of the bun.
13. Bake the buns for 20 minutes at 180C.
14. In the meantime, prepare the glaze.
15. When the buns are golden brown, remove from the oven and brush with the glaze.
16. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
Photo Credit: Stephen rolling the dough crosses. Below, brushing the baked buns with sugar syrup glaze.
HISTORY LESSON FOLLOWS
The English family of Victor Street, Mount Gambier, had strict rules surrounding the eating of Hot Cross buns. They were first eaten on Good Friday morning with a cup of tea. Over the years, these rules relaxed but certainly they were rarely consumed before Palm Sunday which is when our wonders were made.
The family’s stricture has some historical support. It is often cited that the buns were first baked by Brother Thomas Rodcliffe, a 14th-century monk at St Albans Abbey, who distributed the buns to the poor on Good Friday.
Elizabeth I, in the sixteen century, issued a decree forbidding the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads, except for burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Further attempts to regulate the sale of these items took place during the reign of James I of England (1603–1625). The wails of these monarchs would join our despair to see Hot Cross buns in the supermarkets on Boxing Day.
Neither are we ready to surrender all our sacrosanct principles to the gods of capitalism and populism. Stephen shuddered at the thought of adding sultanas rather than currants; a high moral decision which occasioned a quick trip to the shop. I didn’t even venture the prospect of adding chocolate chips.
Stephen’s research did not go back far enough, however.
Easter is a Christian feast which was superimposed on an ancient pagan spring rite. Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, or Eastre.
Celebrated at Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere, Eostre marks the day when light is equal to darkness. The goddess brings fertility and light after a long, dark, and barren winter. She is often depicted with a hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fecundity of the season in the animal world. The Saxons ate buns marked with crosses in honour of Eostre.
On the other hand, other European languages use one form or another of the Latin name for Easter, Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew Pesach, meaning Passover.
Historians note similar practices among the Druids, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. Indeed, in Pompeii one can see the remains of such buns in the bakehouse.
All very interesting, of course. But Stephen, the erstwhile pragmatic science teacher, leapt into life to remind me that the kettle had boiled and his buns had sufficiently cooled.
And so it came to pass that a week before Easter proper, we celebrated the Hot Cross bun – even in our lapsed household – and commemorated the coming of Good Friday with our dough cross to represent the crucifixion and the spices which symbolise those used to embalm Jesus at his burial.
Our Hot Cross buns were made with goodwill and peace, in a time of unusual harmony, and we offer this recipe in the same spirit.