Lebkuchen (Austrian Gingerbread Cookies)

Sad to say, this blog has a regrettable dearth of Christmas cookies.  (Or cookies in general).  I hope this post can help make amends.  With marmalade (if like me you have too much), brown sugar, molasses, a riot of spices, plenty of eggs, and of course candied ginger, these cookies are full of flavor and well worthy of the holiday season.

Christmas Lebkuchen (8 of 8)

I’ve loved this slightly chewy, soft gingerbread cookie (in contrast to the crisp, snappy variety) since enjoying is as often as I could in the Czech Republic.  Besides beautifully decorated showpieces, every grocery store stocked multiple varieties single serving cakes filled with your selection of jam and glazed in a thin veneer of chocolate.  Years later, I even imposed upon  my friend Jennifer to bring me back some from her annual trip to Austria, along with marzipan and plum paste.  (That’s sort of a lot, isn’t it?)

Christmas Lebkuchen (1 of 8)

These cookies are so easy to make–it’s whirred up in the food processor and frozen for at least four hours to stiffen it up a little.    I left mine in the freezer a full twenty four hours, and you can see how soft and viscous it is even after that–so don’t skip that step or you may turn an easy cookie making venture into a frustrating one.

Christmas Lebkuchen (3 of 8)

Scooping out with a cookie scoop is definitely helpful (see that part about being sticky and viscous above), but the good news is even as imperfect as my scoops started looking, they all baked up into lovely rounds.  Even my younger son enjoyed helping–that’s his cute little hand.

Christmas Lebkuchen (2 of 8)

Christmas Lebkuchen (4 of 8)

The frosting is as simple as can be–sugar held together by milk and a bit of butter.  It’s nothing but pure saccharine, which actually is the perfect icing for such complex and rich cookies.  Everyone I shared these cookies with gave them rave reviews, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we all did!

Christmas Lebkuchen (6 of 8)

Lebkuchen (Central European Gingerbread Cookies)

Ingredients
  • Cookies
  • 1 1/2 cups blanched whole almonds
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sweet orange marmalade
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped candied ginger (1 ounce)
  • 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 5 large eggs
  • Icing
  • 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, or toast, stirring frequently in a hot dry skillet for about 5 minutes, until fragrant and lightly golden. Remove to a plate to stop the cooking, and let cool completely.
  2. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, allspice, salt and nutmeg.
  3. In a food processor, pulse the cooled almonds until coarsely chopped. Add the brown sugar and pulse until incorporated. Add the marmalade, candied ginger and molasses and pulse until the mixture is well blended and the nuts are finely chopped. Add the eggs all at once and pulse until just incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and pulse until incorporated and the batter is uniform in color.
  4. Scrape the soft batter into a bowl, cover and freeze until very firm, at least 4 hours.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350° and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. Using a 2-tablespoon ice cream scoop, scoop 8 level mounds onto each baking sheet, about 3 inches apart. Freeze the remaining batter between batches.
  7. Bake the cookies in the upper and lower thirds of the oven for about 20 minutes, until risen and slightly firm; shift the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. Transfer the sheets to racks and let the cookies and pans cool completely. Repeat with the remaining batter.
  8. In a bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar with the milk and butter. The butter will eventually incorporate. Spread the cookies with icing (it’s easiest to pick each cookie up and frost it rather than frost them on a plate) and let dry completely before serving or wrapping.
Notes

The cookies can be stored between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Christmas Lebkuchen (7 of 8)

Hot Cross Buns

I’m really a sorry case when it comes to holiday preparedness.   True to form, I’ve had to remind myself several times as to what day Easter is coming.  (I’m not so bad about Christmas, but then again, it’s the same day every year, so I can’t take too much pride in that).  I’m even worse about decorations.  I always mean to, but then I don’t feel like spending the money and I procrastinate.  By the time that interlude is over, so little time remians before the big day that I realize I’ll be taking things down moments after putting them up.  Ideally, at least.  Our Christmas wreath is, well, still on the door.  Nothing says springtime like brown-tipped dried-out evergreens and holly berries, non?

I’ve been trying to do better, now that my boys are getting older.   I’m only making halting progress:  while we’ve decorated eggs, I haven’t bought baskets yet.

At least there’s one area where I don’t fall short, which is remembering to do holiday baking.

Hot Cross Buns (4 of 4)

Each year I try new recipes–this year, full of nostalgia for an Easter trip I took to Kiev while we lived in London, I made Anastasia’s Kulich–but I always come back to hot cross buns for some reason.  No reason you can’t bake more than one festive treat, right?

I’m not entirely sure why:  while we’d have hot cross buns from time to time on Easter growing up (sometimes bought, sometimes homemade) I can’t quite say it’s a strong family holiday tradition–that would have been watching Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade.  But there’s something charming about making a treat from a nursery rhyme.  And it’s the soft-focus pull of memory — perhaps there’s more than a bit of nostalgia for something British to remind me of the few years my husband and I lived in London.

Hot Cross Buns (2 of 4)

So this year I’m revisiting a post I made a few years back, based on a Nigella Lawson recipe, with some tweaks and hopefully some much improved photos.  And let’s just lay it all out on the table about those photos–there’s no lovely backdrop of a burnt toaster oven this year (I am sorry to disappoint).  On the other hand, my lack of decorating skill means that as much as I scoured the house, no charming Easter props to gussy up these photos were to be found.  (We have some window decals from the dollar store, which my kids think of as giant stickers, but desperate as  I was, I went with my gut on this one).

Hot Cross Buns (1 of 4)

More importantly, it’s not just new pictures.  I find nothing so festive as the warm heady aroma of a mix of spices, so I’ve added allspice and vanilla to Lawson’s original recipe.  I’ve also substituted in spelt flour to enrich the backdrop that sets off these flavors.  I didn’t add much, however.  Spelt flour is somewhat lower in gluten, and consequently doesn’t rise as easily as regular bread flour.  Given that this dough is so heavily studded, and consequently weighed down by, fruit, I proceeded with caution.   Nigella Lawson notes the importance of using bread flour (as opposed to all-purpose) for this very reason–it’s strong enough to support the dense sweetness of currants and raisins.

And these are even more delicious than they were last year.  At a minimum, next year’s tweak will be doubling the recipe.  And hopefully by then I’ll mend my ways, so that these buns won’t be the only sign of Easter in our house.

Hot Cross Buns adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast

Notes on the recipe

I’ve included a recipe with U.S. measurements below, but if you want metrics or want to proceed using a kitchen scale, head on over here.

Feel free to vary the spices as you wish.  And if you only have the ground spices on hand rather than whole cardamom pods, allspice berries, and cloves, just add them along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.

Dough

  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter
  • zest of a lemon, meyer lemon, or orange
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1 vanilla bean (optional)
  • 3 cups bread flour (substitute up to 3/4 c with spelt or whole wheat flour)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast or 1 package active dry yeast (1/4 oz)
  • 3/4 cup currants (or dried fruit)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 egg

Egg wash

  • 1 egg, well beaten

Icing for crosses

  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water

Glaze

  • 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water

Heat the milk, butter, zest, clove, cardamom, allspice, and vanilla bean (if using) in a saucepan until the butter melts, then let infuse as it cools to body temperature.

Measure the flour, yeast (if using instant) and dried fruit into a bowl, add the remaining spices, and stir. When the milk is ready, remove the spices and vanilla bean and beat in the egg.  If using active dry yeast, dissolve this into the milk-egg mixture.  Add this mixture to the flour.

Knead the dough either by hand or in a stand mixer.  (I use speed 2 and mixed for about 8 minutes).  Add extra milk if necessary.  Knead until the dough holds together and becomes elastic, though the fruit in the dough will mean you won’t achieve a perfectly smooth dough.    (The fruit may take some time to fully incorporate, don’t worry.  You could also add the fruit halfway through kneading if you like).

Form the dough into a ball and set in a buttered bowl.  Let rise overnight in the refrigerator or otherwise let it rise at room temperature (about an hour to an hour and a half, it will not quite double).

If refrigerating, remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature (about an hour and a half).

Dump the dough onto a work surface, and divide in half; divide each piece in half again, then again, and yet again–you will have 16 pieces.  Form into balls (don’t worry if you can’t get perfectly round; although that is the ideal, this dough is so studded with fruit it makes it difficult to do).  The pieces will seem very small–don’t worry as they will rise as they rest and rise even more in the oven.

Set the buns about 3/4″ apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Use a butter knife to make a cross-shaped indentation on the top of each roll.  Cover with plastic and set to rise for 45 minutes to an hour; preheat the oven to 450 while you wait.

When the rolls have risen and are almost touching, brush with the egg wash.  Then mix the icing for the crosses:  stir the flour, sugar, and water into a smooth thick paste.  If it’s too thick to work with you can sprinkle a bit more water in, but go slowly–a little goes a long way in this case.  Drizzle the frosting along the crosses you marked in each bun.

Bake for 15-20 minutes.   Remove the buns from the oven, and make the glaze by mixing the sugar and boiling water together.  Brush each hot bun with the glaze, and allow to cool.

Hot Cross Buns

I’m really a sorry case when it comes to holiday preparedness.   True to form, I’ve had to remind myself several times as to what day Easter is coming.  (I’m not so bad about Christmas, but then again, it’s the same day every year, so I can’t take too much pride in that).  I’m even worse about decorations.  I always mean to, but then I don’t feel like spending the money and I procrastinate.  By the time that interlude is over, so little time remians before the big day that I realize I’ll be taking things down moments after putting them up.  Ideally, at least.  Our Christmas wreath is, well, still on the door.  Nothing says springtime like brown-tipped dried-out evergreens and holly berries, non?

I’ve been trying to do better, now that my boys are getting older.   I’m only making halting progress:  while we’ve decorated eggs, I haven’t bought baskets yet.

At least there’s one area where I don’t fall short, which is remembering to do holiday baking.

Hot Cross Buns (4 of 4)

Each year I try new recipes–this year, full of nostalgia for an Easter trip I took to Kiev while we lived in London, I made Anastasia’s Kulich–but I always come back to hot cross buns for some reason.  No reason you can’t bake more than one festive treat, right?

I’m not entirely sure why:  while we’d have hot cross buns from time to time on Easter growing up (sometimes bought, sometimes homemade) I can’t quite say it’s a strong family holiday tradition–that would have been watching Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade.  But there’s something charming about making a treat from a nursery rhyme.  And it’s the soft-focus pull of memory — perhaps there’s more than a bit of nostalgia for something British to remind me of the few years my husband and I lived in London.

Hot Cross Buns (2 of 4)

So this year I’m revisiting a post I made a few years back, based on a Nigella Lawson recipe, with some tweaks and hopefully some much improved photos.  And let’s just lay it all out on the table about those photos–there’s no lovely backdrop of a burnt toaster oven this year (I am sorry to disappoint).  On the other hand, my lack of decorating skill means that as much as I scoured the house, no charming Easter props to gussy up these photos were to be found.  (We have some window decals from the dollar store, which my kids think of as giant stickers, but desperate as  I was, I went with my gut on this one).

Hot Cross Buns (1 of 4)

More importantly, it’s not just new pictures.  I find nothing so festive as the warm heady aroma of a mix of spices, so I’ve added allspice and vanilla to Lawson’s original recipe.  I’ve also substituted in spelt flour to enrich the backdrop that sets off these flavors.  I didn’t add much, however.  Spelt flour is somewhat lower in gluten, and consequently doesn’t rise as easily as regular bread flour.  Given that this dough is so heavily studded, and consequently weighed down by, fruit, I proceeded with caution.   Nigella Lawson notes the importance of using bread flour (as opposed to all-purpose) for this very reason–it’s strong enough to support the dense sweetness of currants and raisins.

And these are even more delicious than they were last year.  At a minimum, next year’s tweak will be doubling the recipe.  And hopefully by then I’ll mend my ways, so that these buns won’t be the only sign of Easter in our house.

Hot Cross Buns adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast

Notes on the recipe

I’ve included a recipe with U.S. measurements below, but if you want metrics or want to proceed using a kitchen scale, head on over here.

Feel free to vary the spices as you wish.  And if you only have the ground spices on hand rather than whole cardamom pods, allspice berries, and cloves, just add them along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.

Dough

  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter
  • zest of a lemon, meyer lemon, or orange
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1 vanilla bean (optional)
  • 3 cups bread flour (substitute up to 3/4 c with spelt or whole wheat flour)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast or 1 package active dry yeast (1/4 oz)
  • 3/4 cup currants (or dried fruit)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 egg

Egg wash

  • 1 egg, well beaten

Icing for crosses

  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water

Glaze

  • 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water

Heat the milk, butter, zest, clove, cardamom, allspice, and vanilla bean (if using) in a saucepan until the butter melts, then let infuse as it cools to body temperature.

Measure the flour, yeast (if using instant) and dried fruit into a bowl, add the remaining spices, and stir. When the milk is ready, remove the spices and vanilla bean and beat in the egg.  If using active dry yeast, dissolve this into the milk-egg mixture.  Add this mixture to the flour.

Knead the dough either by hand or in a stand mixer.  (I use speed 2 and mixed for about 8 minutes).  Add extra milk if necessary.  Knead until the dough holds together and becomes elastic, though the fruit in the dough will mean you won’t achieve a perfectly smooth dough.    (The fruit may take some time to fully incorporate, don’t worry.  You could also add the fruit halfway through kneading if you like).

Form the dough into a ball and set in a buttered bowl.  Let rise overnight in the refrigerator or otherwise let it rise at room temperature (about an hour to an hour and a half, it will not quite double).

If refrigerating, remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature (about an hour and a half).

Dump the dough onto a work surface, and divide in half; divide each piece in half again, then again, and yet again–you will have 16 pieces.  Form into balls (don’t worry if you can’t get perfectly round; although that is the ideal, this dough is so studded with fruit it makes it difficult to do).  The pieces will seem very small–don’t worry as they will rise as they rest and rise even more in the oven.

Set the buns about 3/4″ apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Use a butter knife to make a cross-shaped indentation on the top of each roll.  Cover with plastic and set to rise for 45 minutes to an hour; preheat the oven to 450 while you wait.

When the rolls have risen and are almost touching, brush with the egg wash.  Then mix the icing for the crosses:  stir the flour, sugar, and water into a smooth thick paste.  If it’s too thick to work with you can sprinkle a bit more water in, but go slowly–a little goes a long way in this case.  Drizzle the frosting along the crosses you marked in each bun.

Bake for 15-20 minutes.   Remove the buns from the oven, and make the glaze by mixing the sugar and boiling water together.  Brush each hot bun with the glaze, and allow to cool.

Darina Allen’s Irish Soda Bread

I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in my body (which the mess I made of my fingers peeling potatoes yesterday convincingly attests to, result being that I’m typing this with just nine usable fingers right now).   But I’m here in Boston so the coming St. Patrick’s day holiday (yes, it’s an actual holiday here, though the pretext is some revolutionary war battle) looms large.   Not only that, my older son is in preschool so shamrocks and leprechaun themed items have been showing up after school.  Speaking of which, he and his brother are a quarter Irish via their father, so I suppose it’s their heritage calling.

Irish Soda Bread (14 of 14)

Well, you know me, I’m always happy to find an excuse to bake.  And all the moreso from Darina Allen‘s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, the magnum opus of the “Julia Child of Ireland” (and a birthday present from my mother in law, who would be the source of my son’s Irish-American ancestry).

Irish Soda Bread (10 of 14)

I should as a matter of courtesy state the obvious and warn you that you don’t get very far searching for a  recipe for “Irish soda bread” in an Irish cookbook.   You know, it’s just soda bread there.  And in fact what you will find instead are a whole set of variations on this theme complete with history.  A one-time extravagant all-white flour and egg version with an unfancy name–Spotted Dog or Railway Cake.   A beginner’s bread, a treacle bread, or soda bread scones.  Even an “American” soda bread (with raisins and caraway seed–a tradition preserved by Irish-Americans even as it fell out of use in Ireland).

Irish Soda Bread (12 of 14)

I don’t make soda bread all that often, as given my weekly (and sometimes bi-weekly) sourdough loaves, we usually have plenty.  And it’s always surprising how differently a soda bread emerges compared to a yeast-risen bread.  I must be so accustomed to the extra flavors that fermentation creates in “regular” bread that I find that soda bread is unabashedly basic, almost raw-tasting in its simplicity, hardscrabble and craggy.

Irish Soda Bread (5 of 14)

Irish Soda Bread (7 of 14)

Irish Soda Bread (8 of 14)

Irish Soda Bread (9 of 14)

Its “basic-ness” perhaps is why its proves such a ready backdrops for additions–from breakfasty lemon-lime blueberry bread through a mid-day bacon soda bread to a dessert-like version with chocolate and candied orange peel.

Allen’s distilled version has none of these bells and whistles–it’s a simple, essential loaf.  As basic as it is, the real charm of Allen’s recipe is in her retelling:  She recalls how her mother made this load every day well into her 80s, and explains how the deep cross is cut through the disk of dough not only to aid in baking but to “let the fairies out.”   For me, the humble use of whole wheat flour fits in well with more modern attempts to incorporate more whole grains into baking.  But perhaps the temptation of all those soda bread variations was too much and I added a healthy handful of golden raisins to Allen’s most basic loaf–not to make it a sweet pastry in disguise (there’s no added sugar), but merely to give this modest bread just enough personality to be equally welcome at dinner or with tea.

Brown Soda Bread, adapted from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking

  • 2 c whole wheat flour
  • 2 c all-purpose flour
  • 1t salt
  • 1t baking soda
  • 3/4c golden or regular raisins (optional)
  • 2c buttermilk (you may need more or less)

Preheat the oven to 450F.  Stir the dry ingredients together (Allen suggests fluffing with your fingers to give the bread better texture).  Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk.  Stir with a dough whisk or a spoon; it should come together quickly.  (Allen suggests using one hand, claw-like, to mix).  When the dough is mostly incorporated, turn onto a floured surface (you can work in any dry bits while shaping, and you don’t want to overmix in the bowl).  Pat and shape into a disk about 1 1/2 inches tall.  Slide onto a baking sheet.

Cut a deep cross into  the dough, then use a fork to prick each of the four sections.

Bake for 15 minutes at 450F, then reduce to 400F for another 15 minutes.  Turn the loaf over and bake another 5-10 minutes (really!).  The bread will be done when it is hollow when you thump it.  Allow to cool and enjoy.

Irish Soda Bread (11 of 14)

Pan de Muerto

About a week ago I happened to spy My Sweet Mexico on the new book shelf at the library.  While there are many titles I await with anticipation, this was one I knew nothing about:  but, since I  love Mexican food (eating it, anyway–don’t know much about cooking it as you may have noticed) I quickly picked it up.  It also appeals to the side of me that, after all, was a Spanish major (though most of my exposure to Spanish these days comes via um, telenovelas).

I am not sure what I was expecting (I sort of nabbed the book in a “drive by” on the way to the circulation desk), but whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded.  The book is beautifully put together and lovingly written; it’s my favorite type of cookbook in that it is part travel guide, part social-historical essay, and finally, of course, filled with unique, delicious-looking food. 

Then only a few days later I saw an interview with the author, Fany Gerson, over at The Mija Chronicles.  It’s an interesting interview–and made me realize how unique this book was; as the author is putting down in writing many recipes that only survive in oral tradition or may even be disappearing. 

So what to make first?  You may know that this time of year in Mexico is the Dia de los Muertos celebration.  So, of course I made pan de muerto!   

I made a few alterations to the recipe–rather than measuring out the flour by cups, I used a weighed measure of  4.5 ounces per cup of flour which may not have been enough–my dough turned out quite wet and never completely cleared the sides of the bowl, though it did hold together.  However, because the dough is cool while shapes, I figured that that it would be manageable enough to work with (and I didn’t want to over-add flour).  I also used 1.75 teaspoons of instant yeast (rather than 2.25 of active rise), especially as I have that special “osmotolerant” yeast that is formulated specially for sweeter, fattier doughs.  (Lesley has the full recipe from the book here, no doubt that many versions abound).

Yeah, fattier–this takes a lot of butter, along with a fair helping of whole milk and eggs.  Much like a brioche, so we know already it’s going to be good stuff.  My favorite part?  I loved adding orange blossom water–it lent such a lovely perfume to the entire kitchen, that permeated the air from the moment it was added to the dough Sunday night (heightening the anticipation) through the baking process the next day.

My shaping may leave something to be desired–in part because I’m not so adept at forming bones out of dough, but also because, as I mentioned, my dough was a bit wet.  I ended up patching a few pieces of dough together for the bones rather than successfully forming adequately long cylinders of dough.  This may have been the reason things got a little funky during the baking process–you can see for yourself that the bones “broke” apart where I had patched things together, and I think they would have held had I shaped them better. Regardless, it puffed up beautifully in the oven (I was a bit shocked at how much, in fact, it did grow) and didn’t affect the taste:  slightly sweet, floral, rich yet incredibly light.  How can something with so much butter taste so light?  It’s one of the great mysteries of baking!

One a penny, two a penny…

Note:  This post has been re-photographed and re-written, and recipe tweaked: please check here.

Hot cross buns!

Given that Easter is on its way, it would only be right to do a little Easter-themed baking.  I was looking on my cookbook shelf and happened to notice Nigella Lawson’s Feast, which I haven’t used in a while–but given that it’s themed around holidays and other celebrations, and that it’s English, I thought I might have a good chance of finding something.  Once again, I was thankful to have my digital scale that can do metrics, as this recipe required weighing out the flour, etc., in grams.  (I bought this book in England; I’m sure if you bought the US edition you wouldn’t have to worry about this!)

The first step was to infuse the milk with spices.  Once again I remembered I had been meaning to buy whole cloves–no matter in the end, I just added a pinch of powder.  It was an enjoyable start as the cardamom and clove aromatics filled the kitchen–only to be heightened by cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.  While kneading, I had to add a little extra milk–I bet it’s because North American flour has higher gluten content than English flour (simply by virtue of having a more severe winter–the wheat is that much “harder”) so it absorbed more liquid than the recipe counted on.   I just dribbled it in, so I’m not sure how much I eventually had to add.  Surprisingly the recipe called for adding the candied fruit at the beginning with the other dry ingredients (I just used currants), which made it a little harder to pull together.

Mixed and kneaded dough

Mixed and kneaded dough

The yeast I was using (instant, which is what I assumed was meant by the “easy mix” yeast called for in the recipe), is a bit old–not at all close to expiration, but open for a while.  I’m not sure if that’s why it had a bit of trouble rising, or it was just the weight of all those currants (it was pretty densely packed).  Ultimately I resorted to my favorite trick of heating an oven to 200F, shutting it off and popping the dough in to give those yeasts a little push to get going!

Hot cross buns--ready for oven

I figured I’d do it right and went to all the “trouble” of the egg wash, the white icing (well, that’s sort of required–interestingly made just of flour, water, and sugar!) before putting the buns into bake, followed by a coating in a simple sugar syrup once they were taken out again and cooling.  Using parchment paper meant no burnt icings, glazes, or other unpleasantness to scrub off, plus I slid the used sheet under the cooling rack to catch any spills while brushing on the final sugar glaze.  They are nice and shiny and, while not perfect little buns, are quite delicious!  I don’t know what “standard” hot cross buns taste like, but the heavily spiced mixture stuffed with currants seems right to me:  perhaps thanks to the nursery rhyme, this has a bit of a “medieval” association for me, so the heavily scented buns seems only appropriate!

Hot cross buns--baked I     Hot cross buns--baked II     Hot cross buns closeup

And for anyone who wants to make these for next Sunday (or whenever!), here’s the American version of the hot cross bun recipe, via NPR (and in Nigella herself’s words):

HOT CROSS BUNS
(Makes 16)

For the Dough:
· 2/3 cup milk
· 1/2 stick butter
· zest of 1 orange
· 1 clove
· 2 cardamom pods
· 3 cups bread flour
· 1 package active dry yeast (1/4 oz)
· 3/4 cup mixed dried fruit
· 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
· 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
· 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
· 1 egg

For the Egg Wash:
· 1 egg, beaten with a little milk

For the Crosses on the Buns:
· 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
· 1/2 tablespoon superfine sugar
· 2 tablespoons water

For the Sugar Glaze:
· 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
· 1 tablespoon boiling water

Heat the milk, butter, orange zest, clove and cardamom pods in a saucepan until the butter melts, then leave to infuse. I have gone rather cardamom-mad recently, but this short, aromatic infusion gives a heavenly scent to the little fruited buns later.

Measure the flour, yeast and dried fruit into a bowl and add the spices. When the infused milk has reached blood temperature take out the clove and cardamom pods, and beat in the egg. Pour this liquid into the bowl of dry ingredients.

Knead the dough either by hand or with a machine with a dough hook; if it is too dry add a little more warm milk or water. Keep kneading until you have silky elastic dough, but bear in mind that the dried fruit will stop this from being exactly satin-smooth. Form into a ball and place in a buttered bowl covered with plastic wrap, and leave to rise overnight in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Take the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature.

Punch the dough down, and knead it again until it is smooth elastic. Divide into 16 balls and shape into smooth round buns. I wouldn’t start worrying unduly about their size: just halve the dough, and keep halving until it’s in eight pieces, and use that piece of dough to make two buns. Or just keep the dough as it is, and pinch off pieces slightly larger than a ping-pong ball and hope you end up with 16 or thereabouts. Not that it matters.

Sit the buns on a parchment paper of Silpat-lined baking sheet. Make sure they are quite snug together but not touching. Using the back of an ordinary eating knife, score the tops of the buns with the imprint of a cross. Cover with a kitchen towel, and leave to prove again for about 45 minutes – they should have risen and almost joined up.

Brush the buns with the egg wash, and then mix the flour, sugar and water into a smooth, thick, paste. Using a teaspoon, dribble two lines over the bins in the indent of the cross, and then bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
When the hot cross buns come out of the oven, mix the sugar and boiling water together for the glaze, and brush each hot bun to make them sweet and shiny.

Author’s Note
You could ignore my instructions to leave the dough in the fridge to rise slowly overnight and instead leave the dough to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours in a warmish place in the kitchen, but I always find it easier to go the overnight route, plus I think it gives a better taste and texture.