Growing up, my family always celebrated Mardi Gras. We actually always celebrated every holiday: Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s, back when they were separately noted, cherry pies and log cabin cakes. St. Patrick’s Day too, but Mardi Gras was a crowning occasion in the year long fetes. My dad would go all out decorating the house in home-grown Carnival style. Crepe paper and balsa wood construction would be suspended from the ceiling, streamers and noisemakers, tambourines and maracas would be distributed throughout the house and raucous costumes would be designed. Many of our celebrations were just for the family, but Mardi Gras was an invited guest soiree, costumes expected.
Why am I going on about Mardi Gras as we approach Easter? Because of the colors. We would suspend a large flag decorated in the purple, yellow and green of the holiday in our hallway to greet the guests as they arrived. And I watch each spring as nature unfurls banners in the same colors to greet me on my walks. Yellow forsythias or daffodils, yellow-rumped warblers and jonquils. The greenest green of a Kentucky spring morning dotted with purple violets and the magenta of redbuds. The trees, so long stripped to their winter vestments, austere and stark, grow shaggy with bud, then seemingly overnight become misted with the pale greens of newborn leaves.
The smells too, fragrant after the long chill of winter. The warming air is redolent with the aroma of damp earth and the faint perfume of the flowering trees. After a rain, worms litter the sidewalks like pine needles. Robins hop and sing, trilling their pleasure at the abundance of good living that is present. It is a time when coats are unbuttoned, then abandoned. Thoughts turn to yard work, then picnics. It is a time for putting the remains of last year away in compost piles and preparing our space, ourselves for the new growth.
So too it is with baking. Our focus becomes a lightness befitting the season. Some of the substantial loaves of winter give way to the airier breads of spring. Reserved and sensible yields to fun and flippant. Fruit tarts which seem cold and out of place in our winter’s showcase now glow with the vibrancy of spring. The warm morning sun streaming in the windows illuminate the danish, making them sparkle like God’s breakfast. And one of my favorite breads of the year emerges from the recipe cupboard where seasonal products are stored: hot cross buns.
These light, airy jewels of a bread are a wonderful blend of spice and sweet. The are “hot” because of the spices in them. We use cloves and nutmeg, spices usually reserved for pies, and the resulting aromatic flavor surprises and delights the palate. They can be decorated on the top with a cross cut in them, with a cross of short crust pastry dough laid on top at baking time or with a cross of icing applied after they cool. I prefer the last as it adds just the right amount of sweet.
As bakers, we are given the gift of embellishing the seasons, adding to the moments that brighten our lives. Whether it be a daily morning slice of crackly crunchy toast, a cookie for a snack, a pie for Thanksgiving or the ultimate, the cake to be sliced at the joyous joining of two lives onto one path, ours is a profession which gets to share in the delights of living. And products like hot cross buns are once yearly exclamation points.
Hot Cross Buns
This is a soft dough, easily mixed by hand or by stand mixer. The final dough will be soft, supple and a bit tacky. When rolling the dough into the bun shape, be stingy with the flour; you want it to stick a bit to the table.
All Purpose Flour 4 cups
Salt 1 tsp.
Instant Dry Yeast 1 packet (2 tsp.)
Ground Nutmeg ½ tsp.
Ground Cloves ¾ tsp.
Unsalted Butter, Melted 1 stick (4 oz.)
Milk, Warmed 1 cup
Eggs, Large 2
Dried Fruits 1 ½ cups (some combination of raisins, chopped apricots, dried cherries, dates, dried pineapple…)
Add all dry ingredients in mixing bowl, either hand bowl or mixer.
Add all liquids and begin mixing, either with a wooden spoon or with the hook attachment of the mixer.
Mix until it is a cohesive, somewhat sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, you will want to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and supple.
Add the dried fruit and mix just to combine.
Put into greased, covered bowl and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
Turn out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 18-20 pieces.
Round into tight balls. Place on baking tray and cover, let rise till doubled, about one hour.
Place into preheated 350 degree oven and bake 16-18 minutes, until golden brown and firm.
While they are cooling, make the icing:
Two cups powdered sugar
¼ cup milk
Mix until the consistency of firm honey. If it is too wet, add more powdered sugar, too dry, more milk.
With a pastry bag or spoon, draw a cross on top of each of the cooled buns. Let the icing set then enjoy!