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For the past decade, late March/early April has been defined by: important birthdays, the first lilacs, asparagus, the worst part of allergy season, the first day the windows can be open for multiple hours without wearing a sweater, and hot cross buns at Great Harvest. Traditionally associated with Easter or Lent, these wonderful rolls appeared like magic in the case a few weeks before the holiday, and I would invent a reason every year to wander into Ballard so I could stop by and grab one, sometimes two. I love raisins and spice in bread and there is something so specific, so spot-on about the combination of flavors in a hot cross bun– I can’t resist them. I think I love the scent more than anything, the perfume of yeast with citrus, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Wonderful stuff.

I vaguely remember hot cross buns from childhood, though I don’t think they were an every-year tradition for us; instead, Easter meant dinner at Gram’s with the extended family, baked ham, Aunt Judy’s potato salad, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, soft rolls and Mom’s adorable bunny cake. I remember malted milk candies that we only had at Gram’s house and bickering over orange jelly beans because they were the best ones. Fast forward to the early 2000’s and you find me three thousand miles from family, no longer a fan of jelly beans and without the need (or time, as I often worked Easter Sunday to give colleagues the chance to be with family) to bake a ham for two people. Picking up a hot cross bun at Great Harvest was my nod to the memories of Easter Sundays past. Sadly, Great Harvest closed just a month or so ago. My immediate reaction to the news was despair over having eaten my last G.H. hot cross bun, not knowing it was the last, followed by general sadness at the loss of a good local business. Though Mom has sent us homemade hot cross buns for a few years in a row, I decided that this was the year I would make my own, so I could continue my little tradition. As a bonus, I could play with the recipe a little, as you know I love to do.

Many recipes call for candied citron, but not mine. No thank you. I like the idea of using candied orange peel, but citron is too assertive and I don’t usually like the texture. I also prefer currants to raisins, simply because their smaller size allows for better distribution in the dough and you get a currant in every bite. The largest change I made to this recipe from The Joy of Baking (I used it as a template to determine ratios of flour, milk, spices and eggs) was the addition of dried blueberries. When I was imagining my ideal recipe, I was thinking of Maine, as I so often am, and I thought it would be a fun nod to my home state. Though hot cross buns don’t have much sugar, they get their signature sweetness from the candied fruit within; taking out citron meant I needed to fill that void. You could certainly use more currants or raisins, but I love the flavor the blueberries add to these rolls; a proven friend of cinnamon, nutmeg and orange zest (another addition, to add the necessary citrus element), blueberries are very much at home in these hot cross buns, almost to the point where I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before… My final change concerns the cross of frosting. I am not a frosting girl. Though I did make a very light glaze for the top, it is optional. They are pretty and tasty without, though it does look and taste nice. It will be up to you whether you add icing or leave them plain.

For Easter or not, hot cross buns are a treat for any fan of fruit-studded, spiced breads. They make a nice addition to a brunch table any time of year and are a great vehicle for sopping up coffee or tea. I would love to hear your thoughts about the addition of blueberries, and what your family’s recipe looks like if it’s different than mine, which I’m guessing it probably is. Hot cross buns are a sure sign of spring and I am happy to have a recipe that will allow me to carry on with my late March/early April tradition.

hot cross bun

Hot Cross Buns (adapted from The Joy of Baking)

For the hot cross buns:

  • 1 c. whole milk
  • 2 1/4 tsp. yeast (1 packet)
  • 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 5 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • zest of one orange
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 c. dried currants (or raisins)
  • 1/3 c. dried blueberries

For the egg wash:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 T. whole milk

For the (optional) glaze:

  • 1 tsp. milk
  • 3 T. powdered sugar

This recipe is made easier by a stand mixer, and the instructions will be written as though you’re using one, but you can absolutely do the mixing/kneading steps by hand.

Heat the milk until it’s warm to the touch (about 100 degrees); you can do so on the stovetop or in the microwave. Add the yeast and let the mixture sit for 5-10 mins., until it is completely dissolved and the mixture is fragrant. While the yeast dissolves, add 3 1/2 c. flour, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and salt to your mixer bowl and stir to combine. With the mixer on low speed, using the dough hook attachment, add the yeast mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until mostly combined. Add the orange zest to the melted butter and let it sit for a few minutes (not crucial, but it does seem to intensify the orange flavor in a good way), then add the melted butter to your dough and mix. Mix in the lightly-beaten egg, still on low speed, then add the currants and blueberries. Increase the speed slightly and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic. (If the dough is sticky, add more flour, 1/4 c. at a time.) When the dough is ready, transfer to a lightly-greased (with canola or grapeseed oil) glass or ceramic bowl; turn the dough ball until all sides are coated in oil and cover the bowl with a cotton tea towel. Place in a warm spot and allow the dough to double in size (1-2 hours).

dough, coated in oil, before first rise

When the dough has doubled, punch it down and let it rest for a few minutes. Lightly flour a cutting board or bread board and use a sharp knife or bench cutter to divide the dough into twelve equal portions. If you have a kitchen scale, it will help make sure your dough is evenly portioned, within an ounce or two, but it’s not necessary. You don’t need every piece to be exact. I did use a scale, and was happy when each portion weighed between 3.0 and 3.4 ounces.

evenly-sized dough balls, ready to rest until doubled

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and have it nearby. Roll each portion of dough into a ball and place it on your sheet with room in between, three rows of four rolls. Make your egg wash by lightly beating one egg with 1 T. milk; brush the top of each ball of dough with egg wash, then cover the sheet lightly with parchment paper or wax paper. Place the sheet in a warm spot and allow the rolls to rest until they have doubled in size, which takes about 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees in time for it to be ready when the buns are ready to bake.

hot cross buns, ready to bake

When the rolls have doubled, carefully remove the parchment or wax paper. Using a sharp knife or clean kitchen shears (my recommendation), cut a cross in the top of each roll. Brush again with egg wash and bake in your preheated oven for 15 mins., until golden brown. Use a knife or skewer inserted into the center of a middle bun if you need to test for doneness. Allow to cool on the sheet pan for 5-10 mins. (or until cool enough to handle) and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Voila! At this point, the hot cross buns are ready to go, or you can top them with the optional glaze of icing.

finished product

For the icing, mix powdered sugar and 1 tsp. milk until smooth. Transfer to a ziploc bag with a hole cut in the corner and carefully pipe across the cuts you made before baking. Enjoy hot cross buns warm from the oven or at room temperature. I like to reheat one in a 250 degree oven to have with coffee. Stored in a tightly-covered container, they should keep for 3-4 days.