The season for hot cross buns, those big, mildly spiced yeast rolls packed with currants or raisins and decorated with a cross of white icing, begins the first day of Lent and lasts until Easter.
England seems to be where the buns were born, but just how and when they came to be is something that is unresolved.
Today, hot cross buns commemorate Good Friday, the icing cross symbolizing Jesus' crucifixion.
In pagan times, which many scholars believe was when the buns first made their appearance, the cross might have signified the perfect balance at the time of the spring equinox.
One source, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, says, "The round bun represents the full moon, and the cross represents the four quarters of the moon. (The buns) were made in honor of Diana by the ancient Roman priests somewhere about the vernal equinox."
Whatever the buns' origin, they're good enough to bake year-round. The dough is easy to make and handles well, and the buns are scrumptious. Feel free to substitute any dried fruits you like for the currants.
HOT CROSS BUNS
Serve the buns when very fresh, preferably warm, split and spread generously with butter.
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more if needed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 package (2 teaspoons) yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup 2 percent low-fat hot milk (120 F to 130 F)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
2 large eggs
3/4 cup dried currants
1 large egg
2 teaspoons milk
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Milk, if needed
Combine 3 cups flour, granulated sugar, yeast, salt, cinnamon and ginger in a large bowl. Add hot milk, butter and eggs; beat well with a wooden spoon for 2 to 3 minutes. Spread remaining 1/2 cup flour on work surface and scrape dough onto it. Knead in flour and continue kneading about 8 minutes or until the dough is smooth, elastic and only slightly sticky. Knead in the currants to distribute them evenly. Shape into a ball.
Coat a 3-quart bowl lightly with oil or cooking spray and place dough in the bowl. Turn dough to coat all surfaces. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until dough has doubled in bulk, about 1 hours. Test dough by pressing with a fingertip; the depression should remain when you remove your finger.
Line a large cookie sheet with cooking parchment or coat it lightly with cooking spray. Turn dough out onto work surface and pat gently to remove air bubbles. Divide dough into 12 even pieces and cover loosely with a kitchen towel; let stand for 10 minutes. Shape each piece of dough into a ball, pinching the seams securely. Place balls on prepared sheet seam side down, spacing them about 3 inches apart. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel, and let buns rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Make the egg glaze by beating the egg and milk with a fork in a small bowl.
Heat the oven to 400. When the buns have rested for 30 minutes (they will not have doubled in size), snip an "X" in the top of each with sharp scissors, making the cuts about 2 inches long and inch deep. Brush with egg glaze and let rest, uncovered, 15 minutes. Place pan in the oven on the center rack and bake about 20 minutes or until buns are a rich, brown color. Rotate pan front to back about halfway during baking. Transfer buns to cooling racks.
When buns are almost cool, prepare icing. Whisk confectioners' sugar, vanilla and lemon juice together in a small bowl to make a mixture thick enough to hold its shape and not be runny. Add milk by droplets if icing is too thick. Scrape icing into a zip-top bag and seal the bag. Snip off a corner of the bag with scissors to make a small (e-inch) opening. Pipe a cross of icing onto each bun. Serve once icing has set. Yield: 12 buns.
NUTRITIONAL INFORMATION PER SERVING: 270 calories, 7 grams fat, 6 grams protein, 46 grams carbs, 1 gram fiber, 220 milligrams sodium.