Friday, April 10, 2009

DAILY BREAD: Hot Cross Buns

Seventh in a series for Lent.

Until today, the only thing I knew about Hot Cross Buns was hot to play the tune on the recorder.

A few years ago, I remember firing off an email to Rita, my conversation partner on the connection between food and theology, about my misunderstandings about hot cross buns. Why do Christians eat them on Good Friday—aren’t we supposed to be fasting? How is a food with a black raisin cross on it supposed to celebrate the resurrection? After an embarrassingly long discursus on the symbolic possibilities of using golden raisins, I closed my email to Rita, and apparently my mind, to hot cross buns.

But the nature of my kitchen, cycling in and out of liturgical and agricutural seasons, means every recipe comes back again, and like the crocuses popping out of the brown earth to remind me of spring, the idea of hot cross buns came back to my mind this Holy Week.

My research into the recipe and tradition of these sweet rolls made me eat a little crow. The cross is not made of black raisins, but instead, is made of white icing, making the symbol of resurrection more appropriately than my misunderstood and misinterpreted black raisin symbol of death. Eating them on Good Friday is a grand way of actually starting the feast that will culminate on Easter Sunday (or after the vigil Mass on Saturday). The raisins go into the dough, like reminders of the black and bleak moments which flavor all our experiences, even the most delicious ones, and the dough rises around them.

Because I’m a first-year catechist at a Catholic middle school, I’ve been especially adamant about correcting the confusion between spring symbols and Easter symbols this year. Given the delicate age of our students, the teachers follow a policy of allowing, if not exactly defending or encouraging, belief in family traditions about the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. When I ask about Easter traditions, all I get are explanations of Easter Egg Hunts. Of course, what I want to explain is, “By showcasing the fertility symbols you’re actually participating in a vernal equinox celebration, so when your Uncle Barry shows up in a large rabbit costume, please address him as the Spring Sex Celebration Bunny not the Easter Bunny!” But instead I bite my tongue because I cherish my memories of Easter Egg Hunts (remember the year there was an egg in the chandelier!) and a basket filled with peeps, chocolate bunnies and a kite.

Maybe the symbols are a little confused, but there’s really no harm. But when I’m honest about what I love about Easter: trumpets and crumpets, White lilies and Lily Pulitzer, I realize that there is, and has to be, room for all sorts of symbols at the feast. I can’t imagine the Easter without lamb (is there any better time to roast the sacrificial agnus dei?) but I also make a puffy risen souffle, a reminder that the cycle of death into life repeats every spring and every Lent.

Hot Cross Buns
(makes 7 buns)
8 ounces bread flour
1 ½ teaspoons yeast
½ cup sugar
pinch orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces whole milk
1 ounce water
6 tablespoons butter
1 egg
½ cup raisins
For icing:
2 ounces confectioner’s sugar
2 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons milk or water
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, yeast, sugar, and zest. Whisk in the salt and set aside. In a saucepan, scald the milk and water and add the butter, stirring until the butter melts. Allow the liquid to cool slightly and then carefully whisk the warm liquid into the beaten egg. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients, mix until a wet ball forms, then knead for about ten minutes, or until smooth and glossy. Either a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook or a food processor makes kneading the dough easier. Add the raisins and allow the dough to rise until doubled in bulk, about 90 minutes. Form the dough into seven balls and place in a buttered cake pan and allow the rolls to rise again until puffy, about 60 minutes. Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes, or until browned. To make the icing, whisk together the cream cheese and confectioner’s sugar, adding water as necessary to make a thick but spreadable consistency. Allow the rolls to cool, then mark each bun with an icing cross.