Tag Archives: spring

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Hot Cross Buns

Growing up, my family always celebrated Mardi Gras.  We actually always celebrated every holiday: Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s, back when they were separately noted, cherry pies and log cabin cakes.  St. Patrick’s Day too, but Mardi Gras was a crowning occasion in the year long fetes. My dad would go all out decorating the house in home-grown Carnival style.  Crepe paper and balsa wood construction would be suspended from the ceiling, streamers and noisemakers, tambourines and maracas would be distributed throughout the house and raucous costumes would be designed.  Many of our celebrations were just for the family, but Mardi Gras was an invited guest soiree, costumes expected.

Why am I going on about Mardi Gras as we approach Easter?  Because of the colors.  We would suspend a large flag decorated in the purple, yellow and green of the holiday in our hallway to greet the guests as they arrived.  And I watch each spring as nature unfurls banners in the same colors to greet me on my walks.  Yellow forsythias or daffodils, yellow-rumped warblers and jonquils.  The greenest green of a Kentucky spring morning dotted with purple violets and the magenta of redbuds. The trees, so long stripped to their winter vestments, austere and stark, grow shaggy with bud, then seemingly overnight become misted with the pale greens of newborn leaves.

The smells too, fragrant after the long chill of winter.  The warming air is redolent with the aroma of damp earth and the faint perfume of the flowering trees.  After a rain, worms litter the sidewalks like pine needles.  Robins hop and sing, trilling their pleasure at the abundance of good living that is present.  It is a time when coats are unbuttoned, then abandoned.  Thoughts turn to yard work, then picnics.  It is a time for putting the remains of last year away in compost piles and preparing our space, ourselves for the new growth.

So too it is with baking.  Our focus becomes a lightness befitting the season.  Some of the substantial loaves of winter give way to the airier breads of spring.  Reserved and sensible yields to fun and flippant.  Fruit tarts which seem cold and out of place in our winter’s showcase now glow with the vibrancy of spring.  The warm morning sun streaming in the windows illuminate the danish, making them sparkle like God’s breakfast.  And one of my favorite breads of the year emerges from the recipe cupboard where seasonal products are stored: hot cross buns.  

These light, airy jewels of a bread are a wonderful blend of spice and sweet.  The are “hot” because of the spices in them. We use cloves and nutmeg, spices usually reserved for pies, and the resulting aromatic flavor surprises and delights the palate.  They can be decorated on the top with a cross cut in them, with a cross of short crust pastry dough laid on top at baking time or with a cross of icing applied after they cool.  I prefer the last as it adds just the right amount of sweet.

As bakers, we are given the gift of embellishing the seasons, adding to the moments that brighten our lives.   Whether it be a daily morning slice of crackly crunchy toast, a cookie for a snack, a pie for Thanksgiving or the ultimate, the cake to be sliced at the joyous joining of two lives onto one path, ours is a profession which gets to share in the delights of living.  And products like hot cross buns are once yearly exclamation points.

Hot Cross Buns

This is a soft dough, easily mixed by hand or by stand mixer.  The final dough will be soft, supple and a bit tacky.  When rolling the dough into the bun shape, be stingy with the flour; you want it to stick a bit to the table.

All Purpose Flour 4 cups

Sugar½ cup

Salt 1 tsp.

Instant Dry Yeast 1 packet (2 tsp.)

Ground Nutmeg ½ tsp.

Ground Cloves ¾ tsp.

Unsalted Butter, Melted 1 stick (4 oz.)

Milk, Warmed 1 cup

Eggs, Large 2

Dried Fruits 1 ½ cups (some combination of raisins, chopped apricots, dried     cherries, dates, dried pineapple…)

Add all dry ingredients in mixing bowl, either hand bowl or mixer. 

Add all liquids and begin mixing, either with a wooden spoon or with the hook attachment of the mixer.

Mix until it is a cohesive, somewhat sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, you will want to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and supple.

Add the dried fruit and mix just to combine.

Put into greased, covered bowl and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 18-20 pieces.  

Round into tight balls.  Place on baking tray and cover, let rise till doubled, about one hour.

Place into preheated 350 degree oven and bake 16-18 minutes, until golden brown and firm.

While they are cooling, make the icing:

Two cups powdered sugar

¼ cup milk

Mix until the consistency of firm honey.  If it is too wet, add more powdered sugar, too dry, more milk.

With a pastry bag or spoon, draw a cross on top of each of the cooled buns.  Let the icing set then enjoy!

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A Baker’s Almanac: The Moods of March

A surprisingly effective snow fell the other day, wrapping the yellow buds of daffodils and honeysuckle in cotton.  After the tantalizing warmth of the week prior, this cold was not welcomed, though it was beautiful.  We eagerly anticipate the gentle air of spring, full of scent and promise, ready to be done with the chill of winter, but nature seems nonplussed, regardless of conditions.  In winter, when all nature seems tucked up and waiting, a magical growth is occurring. 

If we can pull our faces from out of the burrow of our scarves, we will see the greens of moss and lichens are every bit as lush as the verdant carpet of spring, maybe more so for the paucity of other color.  This is the time they grow, capturing more territory, reveling in just the right clime for their blossoming.  The stone walls and tree trunks seem to glow with a rich spectrum of green, from soft yellow lime to the deep dark of a pine forest.

In spring, the growth is explosive, almost visible.  The lichens’ growth is sedate, slow, befitting the harsher clime.  It is a more somber environment.  I have a mantra which, when I am in my right mind, I live by: If you want extraordinary experiences, you need to put yourself in extraordinary circumstances.  I have a habit of bundling up in inclement weather and stepping out to see what I have not before.  This day, the lichens seemed to glow even more electric green,  a luxuriant counter to the flowing white mist that fell.  The mockingbird that had been announcing the arrival of spring in joyous notes in the morning gloaming sang just as jubilant after the snow, just not as frequently, seeming to need to gather his will between songs.  The air in the neighborhood was thick and muted during the snowfall, like walking into a cathedral.

This is a truculent time, fluctuating between periods of glorious, buttery warmth and gusty, stinging cold.  The festivities of the season also reflect this.  The opulent revelries of Mardi Gras are followed by the austerities of Lent, the emotional swings as dramatic as the weather.  Like the fabled groundhog predicting winter’s fate, Mardi Gras seems to be a moment of exuberance in anticipation of the joys of spring.  But tempered by the cold realities of the slowness of the seasons, the preparation of land and soul for the coming rebirth is measured and slow.  The playful excess of a King’s Cake is succeeded by Lenten sparsity.  Though, to our pleasure, this is somewhat mitigated by a fine and simple bread with the attitude of a pastry.

A tender blending of flour and butter, leavened with soda and buttermilk, with raisins as a kicker, Irish Soda Bread seems the perfect bread for this time of life.  Heavy enough to be substantial, crumbly as a newly furrowed field, it serves equally well as breakfast or dinner fare. And like all simple baked goods, technique is where the magic lies.

As anyone who has taken on pie dough or biscuits knows, a light touch makes the difference.  The butter is cut into the flour, brief mixing leaving pea-sized pieces of butter mottled through the dough.  These jewels of flavor melt down in the oven, creating a honeycombed structure that crumbles deliciously in the mouth.  Whether sliced to accompany a rich Irish stew or cut into wedges to enjoy, scone-like, in the morning, this bread proves the maxim that simple pleasures are the best.

One of the joys of a cold winter’s walk is the return home.  As I arrived at my door, I brushed the boutonniere of snow festooning my lapel and stepped into the house.  I was greeted by a murmuring fire, the purr of my coffee pot and the delicious pleasure of some sweet cream butter melting slowly on a wedge of soda bread.  Like the gradual warming of the world outside, the heat of my house at last penetrated, allowing me to unbundle and relax, preparing me for whatever lay in store.

Irish Soda Bread

All Purpose Flour     4 cups

Baking Soda      1 ½ tsp.

Salt 1 tsp.

Granulated Sugar 3 Tbls.

Unsalted Butter 1 ½ sticks (6 oz.)

Raisins 2 cups

Buttermilk 1 ½ cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  This recipe comes together qickly.

Measure all dry ingredients into large mixing bowl. 

Cut chilled butter into ½ inch cubes.

“Massage” the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles a collection of small peas.

Stir in the raisins.

Make a well in the bowl and add the buttermilk all at once.  Stir until it just comes together.  It will resemble a shaggy mass. 

Place onto lightly floured surface and pat into one large or two smaller discs about an inch thick.

Transfer to cookie sheet.  If you have two sheets, double pan the bread to keep the bottom from over browning

Cut a cross into the top of the loaf (loaves) and place into oven.  One loaf bake for 32 minutes, 2 loaves bake them for 25 minutes.

Remove from oven when golden brown and somewhat firm.  Cool slightly then eat copiously!