Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (2024)

Why It Works

  • All-purpose flour makes for light and tender buns.
  • Thick Greek yogurt keeps the dough soft and moist, but easy to handle.
  • Longer kneading on lower speeds develops gluten without overtaxing the dough, allowing it to stretch and expand with each rise, then again in the oven.
  • Visual and textural cues, rather than a strict timetable, ensure that the dough is well proofed so the buns bake up fluffy and light.
  • Proofing the dough at room temperature after shaping helps to jump-start an otherwise slow, overnight rise.

What I didn't know when I started, but what I've learned full well, is this: Utter the words "hot cross buns," and those around you will drop whatever they're doing and burst into song (or, inDaniel'scase, a strangely compelling slow jam). It wasn't until a buddy of mine heard the subliminal trigger and whipped out an invisible recorder (you know, those little woodwind instruments we all had to play in middle school?) that I realized what was going on—we'd all beenbrainwashed as children. It dredged up a faint recollection. Me, perched on the edge of a folding chair, with a cheap plastic recorder resting on my lips, fingers marching down the register:Hot. Cross. Buns!

I eventually became aware that hot cross buns actually existed beyond the confines of my elementary school music trailer (welcome to Kentucky), but I'd never seen one in the wild. Not until I moved to Connecticut, where I was charmed by their simplicity. Fluffy dinner rolls, lightly sweetened and spiced, studded with currants and frosted with a cross...what purists would call a heretical indulgence.

Sorting out what is and isn't traditional when it comes to hot cross buns is not just a matter of where you grew up, butwhen. So tape up your glasses, adjust that pocket protector, and nerd out with me for a bit. See, much of what's considered "traditional" is just the current way of things, the goings-on of our most recent century.

The Long History of Hot Cross Buns

"sweetly spiced bread marked with a cross had been given away on Good Friday since the 14th century."

Admittedly, a hundred years feels like a solid pedigree, but it's little more than breaking news given that the infectious jingle we all know dates to the 1700s, when hucksters roamed the streets of London selling hot cross buns both large (one a penny) and small (two a penny). Even that's a shockingly au courant commercial development, considering that sweetly spiced bread marked with a cross had been given away on Good Friday since the 14th century.

From there, some historians'll rewind all the way back to spicedbounsin Grecian temples, or honeyed Egyptian boules marked with an ankh, but I'm far more concerned with unearthing the hot cross bun's most recent ancestor, which I suspect is Irish at heart.

Forget humblesoda bread, a wee babe in the grand scheme of history, and hear the tale of Ireland's second most famous loaf:bairín breac. Oral tradition suggests that druids first prepared this "speckled bread" by staining a dough with saffron to symbolize divine light, then mixing it with poppy seeds or caraway to represent the stars. They scored the top inquadra, allowing each loaf to be torn in quarters, a reminder of the shifting seasons.

Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (1)

Fittingly, bairín breac was served on quarter days, Gaelic holidays set between the solstices and equinoxes. While the most famous was Samhain, a festival long since overshadowed by Halloween, bairín breac also featured prominently at Imbolc—a celebration of hearth and home in early spring, dedicated to the goddess Brigid.

Brig had a soft spot for all manner of speckled things—cows and snakes, in particular—so, when Imbolc celebrations converged with Candlemas feasting forSaintBrigid (a dear friend ofSaint Patrick), I have a sneaking suspicion that the custom of baking quartered and speckled bread was absorbed into Lenten tradition as well.

Regardless of their origin, by 1638, during the reign of King Charles I, baking spiced buns for any occasion aside from Good Friday was declared "repugnant to the laws of this realm and hurtful to the common wealth." This was by no means the first such law, only the most delightfully quotable. Whether English monarchs meant to stamp out any lingering pagan festivities in Ireland or simply uphold some obscure political bargain, there's nothing criminal about hot cross buns today...except for the sad fact that we don't bake them more often.

Developing a Modern Recipe

Historically, the recipe has been little more than a common bun spruced up with ingredients significant to the baker—elements open to interpretation and adaptation through the ages, from fiery saffron and starry poppy seeds to anointing oils and spices. So, while my version is grounded in tradition, I haven't been afraid to add a few modern touches.

The dough itself is an amalgamation of several 19th-century recipes, all of which called for lots of milk, a touch of butter, very little sugar, and no eggs at all. I've adjusted things by replacing (and exceeding) a portion of the milk with thick Greek yogurt, allowing for a higher level of hydration without creating a sloppy mess. As a bonus, yogurt's mild acidity improves gluten development, so there's no need to use a strong bread flour—plain all-purpose flour will do.

Charmed by the notion of tiny seeds like constellations, I also speckle my hot cross buns with vanilla. It adds a familiar aromatic note that seems to shake off the Christmasy connotations of nutmeg and allspice, making the flavor more springy and light. Adding to that brightness is coriander, a criminally underrated spice in baking that adds a fresh, citrusy vibe.

After playing around with every dried and candied fruit around, even those weird tubs of neon fruit that go on sale after Christmas, I settled on a blend of candied orange peel (easy tomakeor purchase any time of year), dried apricots, and cherries. Each is tart and chewy in its own way, which keeps things interesting from bite to bite.

Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (2)

Truth be told, so long as the total volume remains the same, you can use any blend of dried or candied fruit you prefer. Whatever the case, I've found that giving the fruit a rough dice (even if it's cherries or raisins!) makes the dough easier to shape and more flavorful. Without chopping, the dense fruit remains concentrated in two or three distinct pieces per bun.

With all that fruit and spice, proofing the dough is more about developing loft than flavor, which means you can be finished up in time for an afternoon snack; for those observing Good Friday or planning Sunday brunch, the dough can be refrigerated overnight to bake at breakfast. In either case, just before they go into the oven, I like to cross the buns with a knife. The cut opens up as the buns rise and brown, bearing a pale cross.

Purists can leave it be, but those of us who prefer a touch of frosting should do so without shame. In the 19th century, hot cross buns were almost universally cut and glazed with a paste of egg whites and sugar—what we'd call"royal icing"today. The technique had a curious effect, settling in the freshly cut grooves to highlight the cross while (presumably) evoking Christ's whitewashed tomb. While I wasn't keen on the alarmingly pallid crust, it was a huge relief to discover an authentic foundation for adding lines of frosting (surely today's most controversial hot cross bun maneuver).

So round up some fruit, pull out your favorite spices, and whip up some frosting (or don't). When it comes to a recipe so historically adaptable, all you need is to spend some time in the kitchen to make hot cross buns a springtime tradition of your own.

March 2016

Recipe Details

Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe

Prep45 mins

Cook50 mins

Active60 mins

Proofing Time3 hrs

Total4 hrs 35 mins

Serves15 buns

Ingredients

For the Dough:

  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

  • 2 1/2 ounces sugar (rounded 1/3 cup; 70g)

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) instant dry yeast, such as SAF; not RapidRise or active dry (more infohere)

  • 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt (for table salt, use the same weight or half as much by volume)

  • 12 ouncesall-purpose flour(about 2 1/3 cups, spooned; 340g)

  • 3 ounces unsalted butter(6 tablespoons; 85g)

  • 3 ouncescold milk, any percentage fat content (1/3 cup; 85g)

  • 6 ounces cold plain Greek yogurt, any percentage fat content (2/3 cup; 170g); see note

  • 1 ounce store-bought orhomemadecandied orange peel (2 tablespoons; 30g)

  • 2 ounces dried apricotsor other light fruit (1/4 cup; 55g), cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 2 ounces dried cherriesor other dark fruit (1/3 cup; 55g), cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 1/2 teaspoon (1g) ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1/8 teaspoon gratednutmeg

For the Egg Wash:

  • 1 large egg yolk

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons heavy cream(1/4 ounce; 7ml)

For the Frosting:

  • 4 ounces powdered sugar (about 1 cup; 115g), preferably organic

  • Pinch salt

  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream(1/2 ounce; 15ml)

  • 1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml)vanilla extract

Directions

  1. For the Dough: Rub vanilla seeds and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Add yeast, salt, and flour and whisk to combine. Heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, swirling, until butter starts bubbling. Remove from heat and stir in milk and Greek yogurt. Add to bowl with dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon or flexible spatula until a dry, shaggy dough has formed.

    Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (3)

  2. Turn mixer on low speed and knead until a sticky ball has formed, about 1 minute. Continue about 6 minutes more. Increase speed to medium-low and continue kneading until dough is pliable and elastic enough to stretch relatively thin before it begins to tear, about 10 minutes longer. Add candied orange peel, dried apricots, dried cherries, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, and nutmeg and mix on low speed until evenly incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove hook, shape dough into a ball, place it in bottom of mixing bowl, cover with plastic, and set aside to rise until puffy and light, about 1 1/2 hours at room temperature. (The dough should retain a fingerprint when gently pressed; if it feels heavy or dense, continue letting it rise for another 15 minutes.)

    Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (4)

    Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (5)

  3. Line a 9- by 13-inch aluminum brownie pan with parchment paper. Turn dough onto a clean, unfloured surface. Without kneading or rolling, divide into 15 roughly equal portions, about 2 ounces (55g) each. (They do not need to be exact; recutting and pinching will lead to dense bread.) Cup each portion beneath your palm and work in quick, circular motions to form a smooth ball. If the dough leaves a buttery residue behind, scrape clean with a bench knife from time to time. Arrange balls in baking pan, cover loosely with plastic, and allow to rise until each portion of dough feels puffy and light for its size, able to retain a shallow impression when gently pressed, with a distinctly "cushy" feel from the air cells trapped inside, about 1 1/2 hours total. If the dough feels dense, heavy, firm, or resilient, let it continue to rise another 15 minutes more. (See note for overnight rising instructions.)

    Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (6)

  4. For the Egg Wash: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Combine egg yolk and cream in a small bowl, stirring with a pastry brush until smooth. Gently paint the surface of each bun, taking care not to deflate dough. If you like, score with a sharp knife or razor to form a cross. (Skip this decorative step if your knife is dull.) Bake until buns are golden brown and approximately 210°F (99°C) inside, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool directly in pan until crumb is set, about 20 minutes.

  5. For the Frosting: Combine powdered sugar, salt, cream, and vanilla in a small bowl. Stir with a flexible spatula until smooth and creamy, adding up to 1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) water if too thick to pipe. Transfer half of frosting to a small parchment cone (instructions here) and snip 1/4 inch from the tip. Pipe a line of frosting across each row of buns, then repeat the other way to form a cross. Serve warm, with additional frosting on the side if desired. Hot cross buns are best fresh and warm, but leftovers can be stored at room temperature up to 24 hours in an airtight container; briefly microwave with a damp paper towel to rewarm.

Special Equipment

Stand mixer with hook attachment, 9- by 13-inch aluminum brownie pan, pastry brush

Notes

Avoid Greek yogurt thickened with gum, gelatin, or pectin. Look for brands that contain only milk and active cultures; this recipe was tested with both fa*ge and Chobani.

To make the dough ahead and bake in the morning, allow to rise for 1 hour after portioning in step 3, then cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight or up to 48 hours. Proceed with step 4 exactly as directed, baking directly from the refrigerator.

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Spiced Vanilla Hot Cross Buns Recipe (2024)

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