For most of my life, I’ve observed the Christian holiday of Good Friday, both through prayer and fasting (as a Catholic school girl) and afterwards, by the eating of hot cross buns. Hot from the oven, split in half and slathered in butter, soft and fragrant with a slightly crunchy glazed crust. There was nothing better after Good Friday services (the liturgy) at the conclusion of Holy Week.
For those of you who don’t have a Christian background, the latter may sound a little antiquated. After all, big supermarkets stock hot cross buns for most of the year these days due to ‘high demand’ from the general public. Well, at least that’s what Woolworths says (much to the disdain of small bakeries).
It wasn’t always this way. In 16th-century England, these buns were baked on Good Friday only as a representation of the cross and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In fact, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1592) it was considered a transgression to bake these fruited, spiced buns on any other day. The London Clerk of Markets could legally confiscate any baked products that defied this rule, common practice being to give any confiscated buns to the poor and needy.
I badly want to resurrect this rule, particularly in regards to the supermarket duopoly. These days, chocolate eggs and hot cross buns appear in early January (amidst Australia day flags and Valentine hearts) and stay long after resurrection Sunday. You can buy Belgian chocolate buns, orange and cranberry buns, apple and cinnamon glazed or fruitless buns… pretty much any type you like, nestled cosily next to jam-filled donuts and fudge brownies.
Now, I’m not against flavour variations in the slightest (as you can see, I’ve created a variant myself) but I do oppose the fact that these variations and loose selling times are desensitizing people to the fact that there is meaning behind this ancient tradition (I’m definitely not alone). The flour cross isn’t just there to look pretty and be peeled off after toasting; it’s significant, reminiscent of the meaning behind Easter itself.
Ok, rant over.
Back to this particular recipe post for hot cross buns. Let me start with an admission: I’m not an expert when it comes to bread. I’ve tried and failed many times over with sourdough starters, no-knead recipes, dried yeast and fermentation processes, all of which left me with rock-hard loaves of disappointment.
However, about two years ago (after eating what seemed like my umpteenth slice of chewy, dense rye) I decided to try my luck with the simplest of Italian focaccia: Italian ‘tipo‘ flour, lots of hydration, extra virgin olive oil, yeast and crunchy sea salt flakes. It turned out beautifully, baked on a pizza stone to a golden crunchy crust with a soft and airy crumb. I was inspired to try again, so I did, with rosemary and caramelised onions. Something started to make sense. It clicked.
Now, focaccia is a very easy and forgiving bread so in the first instance, I set myself up for a win. However, it was a combination of good quality products from All About Bread in Wanneroo (purchased through Swansea Street Markets in Victoria Park), following recipes (very difficult for an intuitive cook who hardly measures) and the pizza stone that led to continued success.
That and a fair whack of good ol’ fashioned practice. It makes perfect, as they say*.
*I’m taking about yeasted baking, of course, I still have a ton to learn. Next, I’m going to reattempt spelt sourdough with some dehydrated starter from the lovely Sandra aka Lady Redspecs (thanks Sandra! I’m excited and just a little bit afraid). Her notes, alongside those from Emilie and Brydie, will form my Sourdough Bible Version IV (yep, I failed a lot).
Now, after completely ruining any chance I had of being respected as a baker (uh, just being honest), let me say that these hot cross buns are utterly delicious. They have a soft and tender crumb, a slightly crunchy exterior and gentle heat from the chai spice and ginger. They’re wonderful warm, slathered with cultured butter and sea salt, particularly if accompanied by a cup of steaming tea. You won’t want to stop at one.
Happy Easter, everyone x
Ginger Chai Hot Cross Buns
Adapted from Hobbs House Bakery
Makes 16 medium buns
- 680g strong white baker’s flour
- big pinch of sea salt
- 70g golden caster sugar + pinch of sugar, extra
- 80g soft butter
- 1 tbsp (15g) chai spice (I used Herbie’s ground chai spice. Substitute any ground chai spice or traditional mixed spice)
- 1 free-range egg
- 270ml warm water
- 15g dried yeast
- finely grated rind from 1 orange
- finely grated rind from 1 lemon
- 100g good-quality sultanas
- 60g chopped preserved ginger (the ‘naked‘ kind, preferably not crystallised or in syrup**)
- a little plain flour, to dust
Flour paste (for the crosses):
- 100g strong white flour
- pinch of salt
- pinch of sugar
- a good knob of butter
- 100ml water
Bun wash (optional):
- 1/4 cup of boiling water
- 1 pinch of chai spice
- 2 tsp golden caster sugar
For the buns: Firstly, dust your dried fruit with a little flour, working it through with your hands to ensure there are no clumps of ginger or sultanas. Grate over the citrus zest and set aside.
Combine the dry yeast and warm water in a bowl, add in a pinch of sugar and leave to activate (the mixture should become clouded and frothy). Meanwhile, combine the dry dough ingredients in a large bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture is ‘sandy’ and no visible clumps of butter remain. Make a well in the centre, crack in the egg and pour in some of the frothy yeast mixture. Mix from the ‘outside in’ with a wooden spoon or, if you don’t mind getting a little messy, just use your hands.
Once the dough starts to ‘come together’, turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 15 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Gently work in the fruit mixture, then place your kneaded dough back into the mixing bowl. Cover with a clean tea towel and place in a warm, drought-free spot* for 30 minutes or until doubled in size.
When your dough ball has risen nicely, tip it back onto a floured surface and punch it down with your fist. Knead it slightly to form a log, then cut into sixteen equal portions.
In the palm of your hand, firmly shape the pieces into flat-based rounds so that they’ll sit nicely in your baking dish. Assemble the sixteen buns with a finger-width between each.
Cover the tray again with your clean tea towel and leave in a warm, drought-free place* to rise (about 30-50 minutes or until doubled in size).
Preheat your oven to 210 degrees C (410 degrees f).
Make your flour paste: Whisk together the paste ingredients in a small bowl until smooth (the mixture should be runny enough to pipe but viscous enough to not run everywhere; add a little extra water if it’s too thick). Place the mixture into a piping bag with a round, small nozzle or a snap-lock bag (as I did, if using the latter, snip off one corner of the bag to pipe). Lightly score the buns with a cross pattern, then pipe a lattice of the paste mixture into the scored lines (I find it easiest to do all of the ‘length of the tin’ lines, followed by the ‘width’ lines).
Place buns into the oven to bake for 12-15 minutes, or until they have golden tops and bottoms (tap the surface of the bun, it should sound ‘hollow’. Whilst the buns are baking, prepare the bun wash (below).
Make the bun wash: Whisk the sugar and chai spice with hot water until the sugar is dissolved (there should be no granules at the bottom of the bowl). Using a pastry brush, generously glaze each bun as soon as it comes out of the oven.
These buns are delicious eaten warm, slathered with salted butter and (if you’re a sweet tooth) a bit of jam or honey. You can also keep them for 1-2 days in an air-tight container to enjoy at room temperature, or (my favourite) split, toasted and buttered with a cup of tea.
- *if you can’t find any warm, drought-free places in your house, just switch on your oven to pre-heat, switch it straight off and then place your dough inside to rise (covered with a clean, damp tea towel). I’ve fallen into a habit of doing this at all times of the year, as it guarantees a rise each time. Tricky, I know, but it’ll all be worth it when you see your little bread children puffing up with pride.
- **if you can’t find ‘naked’ ginger, you can use either glacé (candied in sugar syrup) ginger or crystallised ginger (candied, dried then coated in sugar crystals) in this recipe. Just make sure that you wash any extra sugar off, dry the ginger in paper towel and then dust it in flour as per the recipe. If your ginger pieces seem particularly hard or chewy, I’d probably also soak them in hot water for half an hour to rehydrate before chopping them up for the recipe.
- Though I’ve called for chai spice in this recipe, you can easily substitute traditional mixed spice if you’ve got some in the cupboard. The main difference is the kick of black pepper, aamchur (citrusy dried mango powder) and cardamom that chai provides alongside traditional ginger, cinnamon and cloves.