Hot Cross Buns
The world is made, it sometimes seems, to pucker around us. It has a drawstring of rules and regulations, substitutions and evaluations, examinations, meter readings, caliper-pinchings and drive-by assessments. The worst of it is: we consent to these cinchings in. We sign on to living in the small print. We come to believe that black-out dates should apply, and that if we don’t fulfill requirements, we have only ourselves to blame. Then we add our own astringencies: sideward glances and snide gossip. When we manage to squeeze past bureaucratic barbed wire, we turn to check if those behind us will snag their clothing. Sometimes it is hard to know how to live around and about these fetters. And most times it is hard to remember that they are fetters at all; so natural have our self-policings become.
I was recently nudged to consciousness regarding culture’s tendency to criminalise the good life, when I learned that in 1592 a law was passed against buns. Yes, the tender bun, that sticky friend. Once this mild-mannered bun stared mournfully out from behind a legislative portcullis. The law was passed under Queen Elizabeth I, and it forbade bakers to “make, utter, or sell” any “spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread (being bread out of size and not by law allowed).” An exception was made for funerals, Christmas and the Friday before Easter. It’s difficult to imagine that a Queen could forbid a baker to utter a bun. Putting forth pastry hardly seems like treason. But the decree was issued in a time when any whiff of Papistry was exactly that: treasonable. And Papistry was brought to mind by the incense-like spicing, and the heavy symbolism of the cross-bearing bun.
The law was roundly flouted and finally revoked. Like most regulation, it refused the weight of history even as it pushed against it. The Springtime practice of eating small, spiced cakes marked with a sign of the season is found in many ancient cultures. The Egyptians marked theirs with a pattern representing the horns of an ox. The Greeks and Romans also made flour and honey cakes and marked them in honour of Athena, goddess of the moon. The Saxon, after daubing himself with wode, made crossed buns in honour of the goddess of light, Eostre. Christianity, of course, asked Eostre to slide over and before she could blink, it had stolen her hat. Eostre became Easter and the cross on the bun that had represented the four phases of the moon and the four seasons of the year, came to be seen as the cruciform. Now in spite of my Catholic upbringing, it seems clear to me that no baked goody should be asked to sport a reminder of an unpleasantly stretchy death. And yet the Hot Cross Bun has proved affable enough to withstand even this. It has a kind of portable hospitality. The bun is the culinary equivalent of the vanity case: a domed supply of the small luxuries that can help you put yourself together again. Cushy, sweet, sociably spiced and jeweled with dried fruit, it appears on street corners, and in nursery rhymes, and in tuck boxes. It even gets taken, like an apology, to bears unfortunate enough to live at the zoo.
This year I had been feeling caged and melancholy myself, and I decided that I would cheer myself up by trying my hand at Hot Cross Buns. Down from the shelves came my battery of English cookbooks, and I spent a happy hour leafing through various ladies’ various bun strategies. Not a single American cookbook could help me. Like many English treats, the Hot Cross Bun does not please the puritanical palate of the average American. I believe this is because of its affinity to fruitcake. Speckled with dried fruit, a Hot Cross Bun carries a suspicion of Christmas across the calendar to Easter, and the American tongue, offended by fruitcake in December, is doubly insulted by the little spiced bun come springtime. Many people loathe the slow, philosophical chewing that must accompany the consumption of dried fruit, and they wrinkle their noses at the crystallized citrics of mixed peel.
I have a nanny-like, tutting disdain for such pickiness. I adore the tartness of the peel and the way its parched texture interrupts the downy dough. I procured currants – not raisins, which would be too big and fleshy – and light brown sugar, to impart the warm colour that would best co-ordinate with its spicy scent. (Elizabeth David rightly sniffs at the commercial turn towards whitening the bun). As for my spice mix, I ground it myself from allspice berries, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves – and then I added that most mystical of flavours: mace. Made from the amber caul of the nutmeg. I played favourites with the spices, holding back a bit with the cinnamon and topping up the nutmeg and clove. The spring eggs I’ve been able to buy these days are extra broad of chest, with proud brown shells and intently saffron-coloured yolks – worthy components for my buns. The milk too, has become rich with the new season. A couple of sunny walks to the market and everything was lining up nicely. The last ingredient, however, was an important one. I had a particular ambition for my bun dough to be decidedly yeasty. I wanted it to carry the brewy tang of yeast as part of its posy of aromatics, and I desired dough that was soft and bready, rising high, but eager to compress like a good feather pillow. Given these aims, I decided that this was no time for character-less dried yeast – I must make my buns with fresh.
Because I make my bread from a sourdough starter, fresh yeast was not something I’d shopped for before. I knew from some web research that it was a relatively rare commodity, so I set out early on Friday morning – Good Friday – prepared to devote a few hours to the quest. I suppose it is a sign of how far I have strayed from the One True Holy and Apostolic, that on the day when I should have been at mass, mourning the death of Jesus, I was charging around Philadelphia in search of a rising agent. But truth be told, I’ve never had much patience with waiting, be it for the resurrection or for the rising of my bread. B. is always cautioning me to give it just another hour, keep the oven door closed just a few more minutes – wait, wait until it’s done. Well, it turned out that I was going to have to summon what little stamina I possessed for my yeast quest. I began with the posh supermarket around the corner, the chainstore that markets the “wholeness” of its foods under the grand cynicism of having swallowed up independent health food stores and cooperatives. Unsurprisingly, no fresh yeast there. Nor, indeed, bread flour. Consume, ye bourgeois hipsters, but don’t cook! My research had warned me that middle-class shops rarely carry fresh yeast and that I am more likely to find it at the cheaper supermarkets with working-class customers. Sadly this logic failed me when I dipped into the Value-Mart down the street – no fresh yeast there, either. Undaunted, I trotted off to the local cookshop in the Italian Market, happily chancing upon a shiny dime en route. Ever since moving to Philadelphia, I have made it a habit to pick up pennies whenever my path crosses them.
The small, brown, forgotten coin – I have even seen people toss them aside with irritation, and I like to take the poor orphans into my custody. They go into an ancient wooden box in my sitting room, and their humble aggregations remind me how happy I am to live in such a walkable city, and how friendly a city this is: paved with gold it might not be, but it is dotted with copper. But the best pennies are, of course, dimes, so I was smug about my Good Friday find.
Yeast, however, was proving more elusive than the loose change of brotherly love. The cookshop had none, neither did the co-op. Worse still, people were automatically testy about my request. “This is fresh yeast,” one server insisted after guiding me by the elbow to the familiar packets of freeze-dried nodules. “It’s fresh yeast that’s been dried.” More than one person wanted to know why on earth I would want such a thing, and the woman at the stuck-up urban artisan bakery was downright mean. No, they wouldn’t sell me fresh yeast, yes they used it themselves, but no I couldn’t buy any, not even a tiny piece. I trailed home dusty and downcast. How could it come to this – that yeast, the earliest domesticated organism – foundational to our culture – our leavening - could prove so out of reach that I could be ridiculed for wanting it? Even the discovery of another two city pennies on the way home couldn’t console me. As I turned the corner, however, I saw what I see every day. The two bread factories at the end of my street. And I realized that what I searched for had been beside me all along (although don’t ask me to admit that this was where two sets of footsteps on the beach became one . . .). Like elves, or stone-rolling archangels, or perhaps like Easter Bunnies, the men who work at those bread factories only do their magic at night. I went home and whiled the afternoon away until I could go and beg them for yeast.
When I returned, at midnight, the teams of white-t-shirted South Philly guys were in full corps de ballet action, swooping and sliding huge pallets of bread from factory to truck. But they good-naturedly stopped to field my quirky inquiry, ruefully informing me that they stopped baking there a month ago, and that now they are only a distribution center. Still, they eagerly climbed on board the yeast-finding mission, shaking their heads at the news that daytime bread purveyors had laughed at me. “There’s lots of bakeries who will give it you,” they said. “But you have to go to the big ones, the ones that bake at night. Or try a pizza parlour tomorrow.” Once they’d established that I had a car, and wouldn’t be traveling on foot, their chorus settled on Anastasio’s as the bakery to try. “They’ll probably even give it to you for free!” I liked how happy they were to give away the goods of others, and I persuaded B and our nieces (who’d lurked around a corner while I did my importuning) to pile into the car and set off for the address deep, deep in South Philly that my neighbour-bakers had given me.
By this time it was 1.30am, and the reason the merry bread-men had not wanted me to be on foot is that I had to make my way through some of the more burned-out parts of the city. We passed many a rusted corpse of a car, and then something that looked like an actual corpse. My companions grew somewhat squeaky, and I felt the mood of our charabanc turned a little against me. What had seemed like a charmingly batty quest was now edging toward the scary. By the time we reached the bright lights of Anastasio’s, my companions were like a pack of twitchy-whiskered, swivel-eared nocturnal creatures, perhaps ready to defend me from the talons of danger, but just as likely to melt into the night at the least sign of trouble. As I disappeared through the battered swing doors to the factory, I caught sight of their three intent faces, on the look-out from behind the rear window, faintly striped by the windshield heating element.
But of course, entering Anastasio’s was like entering the Emerald City. The dozens of friendly bread men were practically singing, and the hot, toasty, utterly permeating smell of sweet white bread made my head feel like it was going to float off my shoulders and bob around like a balloon. For the umpteenth time that day I repeated my request. It was met with hearty good cheer and I was waved towards “the big guy, with the Chicago Bears hat – he’ll help you.” Occupied at the falling-off point of a massive conveyor belt of Kaiser rolls, a truly enormous specimen of Philadelphia manhood stood like the PSFS building, red of face and happy to help. He tipped back the peak of his hat, stuck his yellow pencil in the waist of his white apron and told me to follow. Leading me through an obstacle course of crates of rolls, loaves and hoagies, he beckoned me into a cold room. There, like the iridescent ghosts of gold bars, were piled hundreds upon hundreds of white, wax-paper wrapped bricks of fresh yeast. With an enormous hand, he gave me one and for what I received, I was truly grateful. I asked how much I owed him. “75 cents,” he answered. I gave him a dollar bill and practically wafted out of the factory, brandishing my prize at the waiting entourage. As I opened the car door, I saw it – another penny, mangled and chipped – my thirteenth cent of the day. Recognizing a baker’s dozen when one literally appears at my feet, I reasoned that this windfall might well buy me an indulgence -- a pardoning of my own chips and fissures.
And indeed, the next day I produced a spirit-lifting double batch of the soft, fragrant buns. The fresh yeast frothed into a thick mousse, and the dough rose as swift and certain as the sun. Having read that yeast is good spread thickly on toast, I nibbled at crumbs of it as I cooked, savouring its tongue-coating creamy pungency. My tranquility was punctured by one further test: the flour paste crosses I piped on the buns before baking contracted and broke into segments as the buns beneath them puffed in the oven. But the debris brushed off easily and the replacement I lit upon – marzipan – tasted so good, I relearned the lesson that never sticks: failures often force us to forgo convention for obscurer, better options. What did stick, magnificently, was the bun wash which I fashioned from thinned Golden Syrup. That buns need bun wash enchants me. And that this wash turns you sticky seems too bucolically wonderful to be true.
Long ago the bun broke loose from legal snares, and now – with a little persistence, and some midnight questing - the bun can help us leap over stricture and strain, and even find gratification in it. Oscar Wilde knew all about finding pleasure at the end of a tether. The ever-hungry Algy, who eats all the auntly cucumber sandwiches and devours muffins “calmly,” so as not to get butter on his cuffs, learns the art of Bunburyism from his gallivanting chum, Jack. The fictional friend Bunbury is the alibi that allows these fellows to pursue many a wayward jaunt. And the delicious nature of this waywardness is semaphored to us by Wilde across the footlights, over the heads of the dress circle and through the centuries: there is, he shows us with the arch of an eyebrow, many a lawless pleasure to burying oneself in bun.
SYLLABUS: HOT CROSS BUNS
Makes about 18
1 lb (500g) white bread flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 oz (30g) fresh yeast
2 oz (60g) soft brown sugar
1/2 pint (300ml) whole milk
3oz (90g) butter
1 egg, lightly beaten.
3 tsp mixed spice*
1/2 tsp ground mace
3 oz (90g) currants
2oz (60g) candied chopped peel
marzipan for cross
bun wash: Golden syrup thinned with water, or 2oz (60g) sugar and 5 tablespoons water
*Elizabeth David’s mix: 1/4 oz nutmeg (1 large nutmg), 1/4oz allspice (3 level teaspoons), 1/8oz cinnamon bark (one 6” stick), 1/8oz whole cloves (2 scant teaspoons, about 30 cloves), 1/8oz dried ginger (a piece about 2 inches long). Grind all ingredients in a spice or coffee grinder.
Warm the milk to blood heat.
Crumble the yeast into a separate bowl, add 1 heaped spoon of the sugar and enough of the warmed milk to cream the yeast. Set it aside to froth – which will take about 10 minutes.
Put flour and salt and spices into a warmed mixing bowl. Rub in the butter, then stir in the sugar. Form a well in the centre and pour in the frothy yeast mixture and the beaten egg. Gradually adding the warmed milk, mix into a dough, adding as much of the milk as the dough can hold. It should be soft, but not too liquid. Add the currants and peel and knead for about 6 minutes in a mixer, or 10 by hand. The dough should come together in a ball and start to look smooth and glossy. Place in a clean, greased bowl, cover tightly with plastic and leave it to rise until it is doubled in size. Depending on the warmth of your kitchen, this might take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. Plan on an average of 1 hour.
Knock down the dough, cutting it into manageable portions for rolling into several large sausages. Cut the sausages of dough into a total of 18 portions and shape each one into a round, tucking its edges under and smoothing its top. Place on a baking sheet and leave to prove again for another 30 minutes. Slice or snip fairly deep cross shapes into the tops of the buns (don't worry that the buns turn misshapen at this point) and then bake in a preheated 450F/230C/Gas mark 8 oven for 10-15 minutes until assuredly brown. On removing, brush liberally with bun wash while the buns are still warm. Then decorate with rolled or cut strips of marzipan.
These buns will be magnificently soft when right out of the oven. To eat the remainder (supposing there is a remainder), either split and toast them, or warm in a gentle oven (the marzipan turns wonderfully golden brown). I believe the bun then fares best when slathered with good butter.