Bread Baker: Traditional and Experimental Hot Cross Buns

Is it wise to mess with tradition when it comes to holiday favorites?

Over Thanksgiving I tested all sorts of different pie recipes, but I ended up making traditional pumpkin and pecan pies. For Easter I wanted to make a batch of hot cross buns. I asked myself if I should go traditional or try experimenting with different methods and flavors.

In the end, I baked two batches of buns – one traditional and one experimental. I’ll give a verdict soon, but first I want to share my thought process.

It all started because I didn’t have any candied lemon or orange peel. They might not be as traditional as currants in hot cross buns, but I’ve eaten plenty of buns that had that familiar citrus taste and texture. I did have candied ginger on hand, and that would replicate the texture of the candied peel pretty well. The taste, not so much.

In reading different hot cross bun recipes, a few recommended using cardamom. I was intrigued, especially since ginger and cardamom come from the same family of plants. What if I made ginger-cardamom hot cross buns? I also wanted to try adding some white whole wheat flour, and I figured the nutiness of the whole wheat flour would pair well with the ginger and cardamom.

By this point I was really deviating from the traditional recipe, and I was curious how they would differ in taste. That gave me the perfect excuse to bake a batch of traditional hot cross buns. And since I had two batches going, I could do even more experimenting. The traditional recipe I planned to use calls for baking powder in addition to yeast. I eliminated the baking powder in the experimental buns, replacing it with another teaspoon of yeast. (I realize the comparison won’t be perfect because I didn’t use the same types of flours in both recipes.) I also increased the amount of sugar in my experimental batch.

The results? Both were delicious. I expected the experimental batch, with the white whole wheat flour, to be more dense, and it was. I cut back on the amount of ginger because I was afraid it would be too strong, but I wish I had included more. The cardamom provided a unique flavor, but I could have balanced it with more cinnamon. I was surprised by how light and airy the traditional buns were. That must be due in part to the baking powder.

In the end, however, it’s really no contest. The traditional triumphs once again.

I’ve included both recipes for your perusal. Maybe my experimenting will inspire some of your own.

The traditional recipe is largely based on one from King Arthur Flour. They recommend soaking the dried fruit in apple juice or rum. To get some of the citrus flavor, I use Grand Marnier instead. I also added lemon zest, which I was especially pleased with.

One word of caution: The dough for the traditional hot cross buns is very wet. Don’t let that worry you when shaping the buns. Grease your hands, use a well-floured work surface, and work quickly.

These recipes make 12 buns and bake in 9×13-inch pans.

Experimental bun ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups (10 3/4 ounces) bread flour
  • 2 cups (10 ounces) white whole wheat flour
  • 3 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I recommend increasing to 1 teaspoon)
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups milk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup candied ginger, minced (I recommend increasing to 1 cup)

Traditional bun ingredients:

  • 4 1/2 cups (19 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups milk, room temperature
  • Zest from one lemon
  • 1 cup currants
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier

Egg wash ingredients:

  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (preferably superfine)

Icing ingredients

  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 4 teaspoons milk

Step 1. The night before baking, combine the currants and liquor. Alternatively, right before baking, heat the currants and liquor in the microwave, and then let cool.

Step 2. Cream together the butter and brown sugar.

 

 

 

 

Step 3. Combine the dry ingredients – flour, yeast, baking powder, salt and spices – and whisk together.

The creaming and whisking of the dry ingredients might be overkill – you can just throw everything together at once and knead – but I wanted to make sure my butter and spices mixed in evenly.

Step 4. Add the mixed dry ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar, then add the milk, lemon zest and eggs. Mix with the paddle attachment until everything is integrated.

 

Step 5. Switch to the dough hook and knead, on medium-low speed, for about nine minutes. The dough will start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, but not cleanly or completely.

 

Step 6. Mix in the currants, plus any remaining liquor (it will be almost completely absorbed). Then let the dough rise for 1 hour.

 

 

Step 7. Divide the dough into 12 portions, shape them into balls, and place them in a greased 9×13-inch pan. I find it’s easiest to divide the dough in half and shape each half into a rough log. Then divide each log into six pieces and shape those pieces into balls. Cover the buns and let them rise for an hour. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Step 8. Beat together the egg white, milk and sugar. Before cooking the buns, brush them with this egg wash. Then cook the buns for 20-25 minutes, until their tops are brown.

 

Step 9. Prepare the icing. Stir together the powdered sugar, milk and vanilla until no lumps remain. The icing should be fairly thick. Then transfer it to a piping bag. To fashion a makeshift piping bag, spoon the icing into a plastic sandwich bag, squish it into one corner, tie off the bag with a rubber band, and cut a small hole at the end.

Step 10. Once the buns have cooled completely, ice them with crosses.

The buns will tear apart well, but you can also cut them in the pan and serve them directly.

 

  • Lydia

    Love the experiment. Glad to know traditional won out!

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