One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns!

By Jill Lightner
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Jill Lightner

My opinions about buns are almost as strong as Sir Mix-a-Lot's. When it comes to hot cross buns, I want them properly hot — and that runs into an immediate difficulty with most American recipes. If you pipe a frosting cross on the baked buns, they have to be cool — and if you warm them up again, that frosting melts into a gloppy mess.

Chef John's Hot Cross Buns gets it right, piping on a traditional mixture of flour and water before baking. I'll walk you through the recipe and offer my tips along the way so you can make the best hot cross buns.

What are Hot Cross Buns?

Hot cross buns are an Easter tradition going back to at least the 1500s — and perhaps a few centuries before that, if the myths are true. Enriched with dairy that wasn't permitted in the Lenten diet, filled with fruit and spices, and marked with the sign of the cross, they're so pleasurable to eat that Queen Elizabeth I felt the need for a rule that the buns could only be sold on two days out of the year, with an exemption for burials. To circumvent the law (rebellious bakers unite!), everyone started baking them at home. It's still worth doing, and still a notable pleasure.

How to Make Traditional Hot Cross Buns

Get the recipe for Chef John's Hot Cross Buns 

It's a sweet, soft, chewy yeast dough bun, enriched with milk, an egg, and a fair amount of sugar. I've made the dough by hand, and also added the ingredients to my bread machine, and both methods worked well.

But, rum-soaked currants aren't my favorite add-in, and I played with the mixture of warm spices. You can flavor these buns with whatever combination of fruit and spice you like; for my version, I replaced the currants with 2/3 cup Candied Citrus Peel. As the candied peel is already soft and pliable, I skipped the rum soak the recipe calls for. I like getting every scrap of money back that I can on fruit, and I find home-candied peel to have a brighter, fresher flavor than store-bought.

Note: I don't dry the peel overnight; I prefer the stickier, softer texture it has without that extra drying time. Once it has cooled to warm room temperature, you can add it to your dough. If you've made it ahead and stashed it in your fridge or freezer, bring it to room temperature before incorporating it (you can even microwave it for 5 to 10 seconds at a time to warm it, if you're like me and forget to take it out early enough).

Jill Lightner

I save separate bags of lemon and orange rinds in my freezer, enough to make a double or triple batch, and return the candied rind to my freezer in small tubs, to use it on demand (it keeps well for at least six months).

If you like the classic English mixed peel you can combine the lemon and orange peels; I make and freeze them separately for the greatest flexibility. I also reserve and save the leftover syrup once the peels are candied, to use in cocktails or in place of the sugar glaze on these buns. It's wonderfully shiny and has intense, pure citrus flavor.

Jill Lightner

My first batch of buns was made with candied orange peel, using only orange zest in the dough, skipping the nutmeg, and bumping the cardamom to one teaspoon. For the second, I used candied lemon peel, paired with lemon zest and fresh-ground mace, which has a lighter, softer flavor than nutmeg and goes wonderfully with lemon.

Jill Lightner

I can't choose a favorite, so will only say that as long as you distribute your fruit evenly and pay attention to the timing of the final proofing stage after you've piped on the crosses, you'll enjoy the result.

Jill Lightner

When it comes to piping the decorations, do not overmix the flour and water — you don't want to develop the gluten. Aim for lumpy, thin, pancake-like batter, not bread dough. (You can also skip the decoration for a terrific year-round breakfast bun.) To be certain they're baked, use an instant-read thermometer to check them: the center should be right around 200°F.

Jill Lightner

Finally, brush the buns with glaze to give them a rich shine. Again, you can use the sugar glaze called for in the recipe, or you can use the leftover syrup from candying your own citrus peel.

As with all enriched dough, these buns are quick to go stale. If I want to bake them ahead of time, or have leftovers, I tuck them into a big bag and freeze them as soon as possible. To reheat, loosely cover in foil and pop them into a 300°F oven while frozen. They'll need 15 to 20 minutes to be hot through, and will be every bit as soft and fresh as they were at baking.

Happy Easter!

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