Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Cult of baked-good personality

The phone rings last Wednesday. I'm sitting at my desk at work; the caller ID is blank.

"Hello," I answer, partially expecting it to be a work call, but mostly expecting it to be Mom. 

"I would like to order hot cross buns," states the voice on the other end of the line. 

Hi, Mother.

I reply, "OK. Get me Jane Howard's recipe."

I'm taking a little break today from my run of Passover recipes to bring you hot cross buns, because Mom said so. Also because I wanted to post the recipe in time for you to make them, if you are so inclined, for Good Friday, which is only two short days away. Think of this as a little flour interlude in an otherwise flourless week. You know how observant Jews clean out their homes of all non-Kosher-for-Passover goods before the holiday begins? Well, I appear to be doing the opposite. Unbleached flour was on sale today for $1.99 for a five-pound bag; while others are cleaning out their pantries, I have added 20 pounds of flour to mine. It's a good thing I'm not Jewish, and it's a good thing that I have access to Jane Howard's hot cross buns recipe.

Jane Howard is a friend of Mom's from her days working at the local high school. Jane taught computer science but is well-known among her coworkers for bringing in dozens of hot cross buns every year around Easter time. Jane Howard's hot cross buns developed their own little cult of baked-good personality, as teachers looked forward to the traditional Easter buns and began asking for the recipe. Jane was happy to share; the margins of Mom's copy are festooned with superlatives written in Spanish teacher Sherlea Christman's loopy, cheery writing: "Jane Howard's phenomenal hot cross buns -- typed with love by Sharon Collins." Clearly the recipe was and remains in high demand, as one school employee typed it up and another annotated it and the two of them distributed it and yet another (Mom) rustled through her unkempt pile of clipped recipes years later to provide her daughter (me) with the finest hot cross buns recipe anyone in these parts has ever seen.

Jane has since retired but still makes her annual high school hot cross buns delivery. It just so happened that Mom ran into her last week on the day she was making her HCB rounds -- and since Mom is also retired she's no longer present on hot cross bun day. It got Mom to thinking about how she wasn't going to get any Jane Howard hot cross buns this year. She got to craving. Hence the phone call. Mom wants me to be her own personal Jane Howard this Easter.

And you know me, always happy to oblige...especially when yeast dough is involved. I understand what the fuss is all about. It is a delectable dough, sweet, yeasty, fragrant and light. Mom came over tonight and had a bun, then left my house exclaiming, "You can make these! I can have them whenever I want! I used to have to wait to get one a year from Jane Howard! Now I can have them anytime!"

So it is with great deference to Jane Howard and her HCB skills -- and with great thanks to her for sharing the secrets of her signature baked good -- that I offer this recipe.

Happy Good Friday, Happy Easter and happy hot cross buns to all. And Mom, your order is ready.



Years of making these buns for hungry and demanding family members on Easter morning have forced me to devise a timing method so that I don't have to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to prepare them fresh. If you're willing, mix the dough the night before, around midnight, and get it to its first rise. Leave the rising dough at room temperature, and go to sleep. Get up at 7:00 a.m. and pick up where you left off by punching down the dough and shaping the rolls. That way you can have fresh out-of-the-oven buns around 11:30 a.m., just in time for Easter brunch, and also have a respectable night's sleep.

For the buns:

1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. butter
2/3 c. sugar
1 t. kosher salt
2 packages active dry yeast (about 4 1/2 t.)
Up to 5 c. all-purpose flour, divided
2 large eggs
1 c. raisins
Vegetable shortening, for greasing pan

For the icing:

3/4 c. confectioner's sugar
1 T. milk

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, heat the milk and butter until the butter melts. Take it off the heat and allow the mixture to cool to between 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit.  (A tip: be sure to stir the mixture as you're taking its temperature. I find that if I don't do this, the temperature reading is often inaccurate, and if you add the melted butter and milk to the mixture while it's still too hot, you will absolutely kill those little yeasties in there, and you will therefore suffer leaden dough that won't rise.)

In the bowl of an electric mixer combine the sugar, salt, yeast and 1 1/2 c. of the flour. Using the paddle attachment and with the mixer at low speed, beat the liquid into the dry ingredients until blended. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 more minutes. Beat in 1 egg and 1 c. flour to make a thick batter, then continue beating 2 more minutes, scraping down the side of the bowl as needed.  Add the raisins and enough additional flour (2 c. to 2 1/2 c.) to make a soft dough. I find I usually need the full 2 1/2 cups of flour. The dough will not form a ball; it's more like a thick, sticky batter.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Add more flour while kneading, if needed, to keep the dough from sticking and to form a uniform mass. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a medium bowl that's been lightly coated with vegetable shortening. Turn to coat. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and a tea towel and let rise in a warm place away from a draft until doubled in bulk, at least 1 hour.

Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. Divide the dough into 14 equal pieces. Cover with the bowl and let rest 15 minutes. Grease a 13" x 9" baking dish.

Shape the dough pieces into balls. To do this, hold each piece in one hand and gently pull down, pinching the dough and tucking the sides under. Place the rolls in the prepared baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg. Using a sharp serrated knife cut a cross in the top of each bun and brush with egg.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until the buns are golden. Keep an eye on the buns; if they begin to brown too quickly, cover with aluminum foil. Remove the pan and place on a wire rack. Cool the buns for 15 minutes. 

While the buns are cooling, prepare the icing. In a small bowl, whisk the confectioner's sugar and the milk until smooth. Spoon the icing into a piping bag with a plain medium tip. Fill the cross in each bun with icing. You can also drizzle on the icing with a teaspoon, but the piping bag method is neater.

The buns are best when they're still warm from the oven. Enjoy, happily, with a nice cup of coffee or a tall glass of milk. Try to refrain from eating the whole pan.

Makes 14 buns.


Laura said...

Well clearly with that kind of write-up I am copying the recipe and making it... well next year, when I have time. :) But I am about to go out of town, so it is no insult to the recipe, it looks fantastic.

Your post made me laugh out loud, btw.

Unknown said...

it makes 14 and you only sent me 1

Dianne said...

I sent you 2! Did Mom eat your second one??

There are a few left...come over later and you can have as many as you like.

Melanie said...

I am so going to make these!

Unknown said...

she only gave me one. so either she had it or rosie did

Dianne said...

Oh man, that is so not cool! I sent 4 home with her...2 for each of you. I'd have a long talk with her and with Rosie if I were you.

Melanie, I hope you enjoy them! They make a great breakfast, by the way, which I discovered this morning.

Laura, thank you! And have a nice trip....

Anonymous said...

I am so using this recipe next year. Though I still like just a little spice and some candied peel in my HCB.

Dianne said...


I have never been the greatest fan of candied peel, so perhaps that is why this recipe appeals to me so much. But I don't see why you couldn't throw some in if you like. I considered adding a bit of cinnamon, but decided in the end not to mess with the purity of Jane Howard's recipe.

Thanks for your comment!

Kerrie said...

They look absolutely wonderful!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Diane -- I like your blog. My Husband and I won, and we would love to add you to out contact list for info and samples from time-to-time. Let me know.

Dianne said...

Hi Eliza,

Thank you for your comment, and I am glad you enjoy the site! Thanks also for your offer, but I must politely decline. I don't accept samples, preferring instead to recommend food and products that I purchase on my own. I do appreciate your offer, however, as well as your enthusiasm for the site.

Good luck, and have a nice weekend!

Dianne said...

Oh, and Kerrie! Hi! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have only baked once before using yeast so I was a bit scared to try this recipe. But I have to tell you, they turned out GREAT!! My mother, who is also a big HCB fan, said they were better than any she had tried before - and I made them! Woo-hoo!
Thanks so much! Now I'm anxious to bake EVERYTHING!
Tammy S

Unknown said...


I am so happy that you tried the recipe, and that you (and your HCB-loving mom) enjoyed them! I'm glad your second foray into baking with yeast worked so well -- and definitely keep it up! It brings a smile to my face to know that this recipe has inspired you to want to bake more. Have fun!