Earlier this week I was asked what my Easter menu was going to be and honestly, as I thought about indispensable Easter foods, I'd rather forgo the ham or the lamb and just focus on sweets.
Spring, among the women in my family, is usually marked by the arrival of Cadbury Mini Eggs in the store. There seems to be an unwritten agreement that the first person to acquire the first bag of mini eggs of the year is "the winner." (Kent happened to win this year, beating Holly by about 18 hours.) The Easter ritual of mini eggs (and Russell Stover's Chocolate Coconut Nests) simply involves consuming as much of said candies as one can without getting sick or gaining a pants size until they disappear altogether for another year. Being from an entirely Protestant family, it could be argued that rather than celebrating the denial of lent, we celebrate the opposite: the splurge of sugar gorging.
Easter would not be complete, however, without one homemade sweet: the hot cross bun. My mom has made hot cross buns for every Easter I can remember. They are a rich yeast bun. Their dough is fortified with a whole stick of butter, several eggs, and studded with dried currents. The bread is barely sweet and the additions of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg give the slightest perfume of spice to the buns. But really, these buns are nothing without a healthy, fat, criss-cross of vanilla butter cream frosting.
Growing up we were taught the the cross on the buns symbolizes the cross Christ died on; however, the tradition of hot cross buns may in fact pre-date Christiandom, and may have been merely adapted to a Christianized tradition. Food Timeline states, "The pagans worshipped the goddess Eostre (after whom Easter was named) by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross, at their annual spring festival. When archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ask and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins." Other theories imply that the cross symbolizes the four quarters of the moon, important in pagan ritual.
Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the stigma surrounding these hot little buns. At one time, protestant England tried to ban hot cross buns because they were too much like Catholic communion wafers and considered a threat to the church; however, the buns were just too good to be excommunicated entirely, and instead the church of England relegated their consumption to Eastertime (and Chrsitmastime) only.
Superstitions involving hot cross buns are many, but perhaps the most fascinating is that by "hanging a hot cross bun in the house on [Good Friday] offers protection from bad luck in the coming year. It's not unusual to see Good Friday buns or cakes hanging on a rack or in a wire basket for years, gathering dust and growing black with mold--although some people believe that if the ingredients are mixed, the dough prepared, and the buns baked on Good Friday itself, they will never get moldy."
If you do make a batch of these hot cross buns, don't do it for good luck because in all likeliness you won't be able to help yourself from eating every last one...long before they gather dust.
Hot Cross Buns
5 1/2 cups flour, divided
2/3 cup sugar
2 packages dry yeast (approximately 5 t.)
1 1/2 t. salt
2/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup butter, cut in chunks
2 eggs (+ 1 egg for egg wash)
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup dried currants (take the time to hunt up dried currants...raisins will work if the situation is dire, but the results won't be nearly as good--you want the delicate texture and flavor of currants here.)
In mixer fitted with dough hook, mix together 2 cups of flour, surgar, yeast, and salt.
Heat milk, water, and butter until very warm, but not hotter than 120 degrees or you will kill the yeast.
Gradually beat liquid mixture into flour. Add two eggs and gradually add the rest of the flour. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and currants. Mix until dough is elastic.
Let rise, covered in a warm place 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Then, roll dough into 2" balls and place 2" apart on parchment lined cookie sheets. Pre-heat oven to 375. Let dough rise a second time, for about 30 minutes.
Just before baking brush buns with 1 egg beaten with 2 T. water.
Bake ate 375 for 15 minutes.
When cooled, make iced crosses with vanilla butter cream frosting. Makes about 24 hot cross buns.
P.S. What indispensable Easter candy was in your basket this year?