Recently I came across a baking statistic that intrigued me.
Every year, the British supermarket chain Tesco sells upward of 70 million hot cross buns. Woolworth's sells 50 million in the lead-up to Easter. That's a lot of buns for a country with a population of only 53 million.
Traditionally served as a Good Friday treat, the buns are now baked year-round in England due to popular demand. They're not quite as celebrated here, maybe because Americans are unaware of their special powers. Not only are hot cross buns sweet and rich and spicy, but they have also been purported to protect against kitchen fires, cement friendship when shared and prevent shipwrecks when brought onboard a boat. My favorite bit of hot cross buns lore is the story that buns baked on Good Friday never grow mold. In support of this belief, the Daily Mail published a story several years ago celebrating Britain's oldest hot cross bun, a 192-year-old specimen owned by 94-year-old Nancy Titman, handed down to her by her great-great-great-grandfather, a bakery owner.
My experience validates most of these claims. Because they contain butter and eggs, hot cross buns will stay soft and fresh longer than leaner breads. Buns baked in my kitchen keep for 2 to 3 days. I've yet to have any leftovers to set aside as family heirlooms. Friends with whom I've shared them have certainly promised to come over any time I'm baking. And I haven't had a kitchen fire since I first made hot cross buns several weeks ago. I suffer from motion sickness, so I'll leave it to a Long Island baker with better sea legs to determine whether the buns guarantee safe ocean travel.
As yeast breads go, these buns are relatively simple to make. Baking powder added along with yeast makes the dough extra-light and quick-rising. Rum-soaked raisins and spices give them sweetness and a beautiful aroma. You can certainly eat your buns warm from the oven, but if you want to add the crosses you'll have to wait until they cool a bit, so your frosting doesn't melt.
HOT CROSS BUNS
For the buns:
2 tablespoons dark rum
¾ cup golden raisins or dried currants
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 large egg
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
Pinch ground nutmeg
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
For the icing:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1. Make buns: In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine the rum and raisins. Cover with a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high until hot, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Let stand, covered, until raisins have absorbed liquid, about 15 minutes.
2. Combine milk and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and stir to dissolve yeast. Add egg, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, baking powder, and flour and mix a few times with spatula until a rough dough forms. With the dough hook, knead on medium until the dough is shiny and elastic, about 5 minutes. Add fruit along with any remaining liquid and knead to incorporate.
3. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until slightly risen and puffed, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
4. Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Divide the dough into 9 equal pieces. Pinch ragged edges of each dough piece underneath and rotate on the countertop a few times with cupped hands to form tight balls. Place balls in three rows of three in the prepared pan. Lightly drape with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place until balls are slightly risen and pushing against each other, 1 to 1 ½ hours hour.
5. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake until golden and risen, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool in the pan on a rack.
6. Make icing: Beat together butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar, salt and vanilla in a small bowl until smooth. Scrape the icing into a small zipper-lock bag. Snip one corner of the bag with scissors to make a small hole. Squeezing bag from top, pipe icing in a cross shape atop each bun. Makes 9 buns.