Home with the Lost Italian: Hot Cross Buns are a tradition for many this time of year

There are myriad stories and superstitions surrounding the custom of serving Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday, but for most of us, it’s simply a matter of tradition.

Adorned with their signature white cross on top, hot cross buns were an Easter season mainstay throughout my childhood, and each year we eagerly awaited the arrival of these wonderfully spiced, gently sweet yeast buns.

You can typically find hot cross buns available in our local grocery bakeries in the weeks leading up to the Easter holiday, and until this year these are what I have served my family. However, after playing with a recipe over the past month from one of my favorite baking websites, Joy of Baking (hosted by Stephanie Jaworski), I may never go back to a store-bought bun.

These homemade hot cross buns are just delightful, with a rich, spiced flavor and beautiful texture that includes a lovely, firm crust encasing a thick, soft crumb inside.

Traditional recipes, including Stephanie’s, use dried fruit like raisins or currants to add flavor, but I prefer dried cherries instead to give these buns even more seasonal appeal (available at Costco in Fargo).

You don’t need to be an advanced baker to make these buns from scratch, but an electric stand mixer is ideal as the dough requires a good bit of kneading. Time is also an essential element. Hot cross buns are a yeast bread, and after the kneading is done the dough requires two lengthy periods of proofing for the dough to rise.

The first proofing takes about one and a half to two hours for the dough to almost double in size and occurs after the dough has been thoroughly kneaded. After the first proofing, the dough is divided into individual portions, shaped into round balls and then allowed to rest again for one hour until the buns have almost doubled in size.

After brushing with an egg wash, the buns are then baked in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes, until they have puffed up in size and the tops are a lustrous, golden brown. The buns are ready when the tops are firm to the touch, but the sides are still somewhat soft.

There are two schools of thought on how and when the signature cross should be applied to the tops of each bun. Some folks heartily believe that the cross should be added before baking, by creating an almost paste-like dough made from flour and water.

I grew up enjoying the white-topped version with crosses created from a sweet, powdered sugar glaze which are added to the tops once the buns have cooled. This is an easier option than fussily making the crosses out of dough, and since the buns themselves aren’t overly sweet, this added touch of sugary goodness is a welcome complement.

Easy to make, these Hot Cross Buns are deliciously aromatic and will fill your kitchen with the comforting warmth of homemade bread and tradition. When properly stored, they’ll stay fresh for up to three days and even longer in the freezer — but if your family is anything like mine, they won’t last that long. Happy baking.

“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.

Hot Cross Buns

Makes: 12 buns

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons instant yeast

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 cup milk, at room temperature

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)

3/4 cup dried cherries, cut in half or roughly chopped if large — do not use a food processor for this step

Egg wash:

1 egg, at room temperature

1 tablespoon milk

Pinch of salt

For the glaze:

3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1 tablespoon milk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

An electric stand mixer is best for this recipe.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the flour, yeast, sugar, spices and salt. With the paddle attachment, mix on the lowest speed until combined.

Add the milk, butter, egg and vanilla and mix on low speed just until combined. Add the dried cherries and mix on low just until incorporated.

Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook and knead on the first speed (not the stir setting), until the dough is silky smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Use vegetable or canola oil or a nonstick cooking spray to lightly grease the inside of a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, then turn it over so that it is greased on top and bottom. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until almost doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. A microwave is a great place for proofing the dough.

When the dough appears puffy and soft, use a dough scraper to divide the dough into 12 equal portions, making quick, straight-down cuts for best results. To ensure consistency, use a food scale to weigh the dough first to calculate the amount needed for each portion (roughly 85 grams or 3 ounces per piece).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. To shape the dough pieces into balls, form a rough ball by tucking the sides in toward the center and place on an unfloured work surface, tucked side down.

Cup your palm firmly around the dough and quickly rotate your hand in circles until the dough forms into a springy, smooth ball. The unfloured surface helps to create a little resistance so that the dough will roll more easily into a smooth ball.

Place each ball on the parchment-lined baking sheet, about 1 1/2 inches apart. With cooking spray or oil, lightly grease a piece of plastic wrap and place lightly over the buns so that they are free to rise. Proof at room temperature until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees with a rack placed in the center position.

Prepare the egg wash by vigorously whisking the egg, milk and salt together until fully combined. The salt will help to break down the egg white to create a smoother wash. When the buns are read to bake, brush the tops of each bun with the egg wash.

Bake in the 400-degree oven until the buns are a rich, golden brown, the tops are firm to the touch and the sides are still somewhat soft. Remove from oven and let cool on the baking sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer the buns to a wire rack to cool completely before adding the glaze.

To prepare the glaze: In a small bowl, use a whisk to combine the powdered sugar, half of the milk, vanilla extract and salt. If the glaze is too thick, add more milk in small amounts until desired consistency is achieved. For a thicker glaze, sift in more powdered sugar and whisk to combine.

Transfer the glaze to a small piping bag fitted with a small, plain tip and pipe a cross on the top of each bun. Let dry at room temperature. If you don’t have a piping bag, you can cut a bottom corner off a plastic zip bag and use that instead.

To store: Store glazed buns in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

To freeze: Unglazed buns may be stored in an airtight container and stored in the freezer for 1 to 2 months.

Adapted from a recipe by Stephanie Jaworski at joyofbaking.com

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