Rye flour contains less gluten and less protein than wheat flour, making it a little more difficult to work with when using it in yeast bread recipes. The resulting dough can be quite heavy and sticky and takes longer to rise, according to Paul Hollywood in his book How to Bake. But I think it adds a depth of flavor than enhances many yeast breads, quick breads and even cookies.
Since we’re getting close to Easter, I thought I’d make a version of hot cross buns using a mixture of rye and white bread flour. The addition of white flour makes these buns lighter, as they rise more, while enriching the dough with eggs and milk makes it softer with a more tender crumb.
Hot cross buns are not as sweet as sweet rolls, but the added fruits and spices give them a flavor profile on par with any holiday bread. I’ve used cardamom in mine to add warmth, while the orange zest and cranberries lend their sweetness. Otherwise, the only sweetener in the recipe is a touch of honey. The orange-and-honey glaze gives them just the right finishing touch with both its tangy sweetness and glossy sheen.
The hot cross bun has a long, rich history, predating the Christian holiday it’s so closely identified with today. As is true of many Christian traditions, its roots can be traced to ancient Greece and Rome and pagan lore, but its symbols were later preempted to give them Christian meaning. Apparently, there are buns marked with a cross preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. Thought to signify the four quarters of the moon, they are said to have been baked in honor of the goddess of the hunt, Diana, and, in other parts of Europe, the Germanic fertility goddess, Eostre, whose spring festival morphed into the Christian holiday we call Easter.
In modern times, these fruit-filled, spice-scented rolls are usually eaten on Good Friday, the day in the Christian calendar associated with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The cross adorning the bun signifies the cross on which He died, and the spices represent the spices used to prepare His body for burial. As we Christians believe, two days later, on what is now called Easter Sunday, He rose from the dead, and 2,000 years later, Christians all over the world still celebrate His resurrection.
Tradition has it that a 12th (or 14th — it’s unclear) century monk at St. Albans Abbey was the first to make these buns to mark the end of Lent, distributing them to the poor on Good Friday, but the first written record of hot cross buns is in a text from the early 1700s with this rhyme: “Good Friday come this month, the old woman runs. With one or two a penny hot cross buns.” This probably led to the popular nursery rhyme, which originally was the cry of street vendors selling the freshly made rolls:
Hot cross buns, hot cross buns! One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns! If you have no daughters, give them to your sons, One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!
While they are traditionally made with raisins, currants or candied citrus peel, I’ve mixed mine up a bit by using orange zest and dried cranberries instead. Spices can range from cinnamon to cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and mace, or any combination thereof. I chose to make cardamom the star, and only, spice in my recipe, but feel free to add any others that you wish. (I also used whole cardamom seeds, fresh from the pods, which I crushed with a mortar and pestle, but if you only have ground cardamom, that works too).
I’ve adapted a recipe I found on WellingtonBakeHouse.com for rye and ginger hot cross buns. Her blog post is very good at explaining the process of mixing the dough without butter and then kneading in the butter a little at a time to prevent it from coating the flour, which would stop the gluten from forming during the kneading process. Likewise, the fruit is added at the end of the kneading process so as not to interrupt gluten formation. When the dough is smooth and silky and the fruit is evenly distributed, the dough is left in a warm place to rise for about an hour.
After the first prove, the dough is formed into rolls. I divided my dough into fourths, then fourths again to achieve 16 good-sized rolls. (Although the brief for this challenge on The Great British Baking Show was only for 12 rolls, I like to make extra, if I can, in case they don’t all turn out.) Rotating each one in my hands, I tucked under the edges as I went until I had a nice round ball. I placed them about an inch apart on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and put them in the oven on the proof setting for another hour. (If your oven doesn’t have a proof setting any dry, warm place will do.)
Right before baking, the cross is piped onto the buns using a flour and water paste. You can use a pastry bag with a small plain tip or a plastic zip-lock bag with a small hole cut out of one corner to apply the crosses. After they baked to a golden brown, I added the glaze made of orange juice and honey, which gave them a shiny finish and a touch of sweetness in every bite!
Cardamom & Rye Hot Cross Buns
- 1 c. + 6 T. whole milk, warmed to 110-115°F
- 2½ t. yeast (one packet)
- 3 c. bread flour
- 1 1/3 c. + 2 T. rye flour
- 1 T. salt
- 25 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed, pods discarded (or 2 t. ground cardamom)
- 3 T. honey
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- ½ c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- Zest of 2 oranges
- 1 c. dried cranberries
For the crosses:
- 6 T. flour
- 4 T. water
For the glaze:
- Juice of 1 orange
- 1 T. honey
- Pour milk into a medium bowl or measuring pitcher and add a pinch of sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the top and leave it to get foamy.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the flours, salt and cardamom. In another bowl, combine the dried cranberries and the orange zest. Dice the butter and set it aside to soften.
- When the yeast has formed a nice foamy layer on top of the milk, add the honey and eggs, and whisk them together with a fork. Pour the liquid into the flour mixture. Mix by hand until it forms a shaggy dough, then cover and leave it to rest for 10 minutes. This gives the flour time to absorb more of the liquid and make kneading easier.
- Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic — 6-7 minutes. The dough will still have a slight stickiness to it because of the rye flour.
- After the dough is smooth, pat it out into a disc and put about a third of the butter onto it. Knead the dough again until the butter is absorbed. It will split and look greasy for a bit, but keep going. It will come together.
- When the first portion of butter has been absorbed, repeat until all the butter is incorporated into the dough.
- The dough should now be soft and silky. Form it into a disc again and spread the cranberries and orange zest on top. Knead until the fruit is evenly distributed. Lightly grease the bowl that you mixed the dough in, pop the dough back into the bowl, cover it with a damp tea towel and leave it in a warm spot until doubled in size (about 1 hour).
- When it has doubled, tip the dough out onto the work surface. Divide it into fourths, and then divide each fourth into fourths again. Form each portion into a neat ball. Try not to let any pieces of fruit sit on the surface of the bun, as they will burn in the oven. Place the rolls about an inch apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a damp towel and leave in a warm spot until doubled in size again.
- When the buns are nearly ready, heat the oven to 350°F. In a small bowl, mix together the flour and water to form a thick paste. (If it’s too thick, add a little more water.) Spoon the paste into a small piping bag with a plain tip or a zip-lock bag with a small hole cut out of one corner. Use the paste to pipe crosses onto the buns.
- Bake for 15-18 minutes until golden brown and shiny. (They should reach an internal temperature of 190°F in the middle.) If needed, turn the baking sheet 180 degrees halfway through to ensure even browning.
- While the rolls are baking, make the glaze by stirring the juice and honey together in a small pan over low heat until the mixture thickens slightly. Set aside.
- When rolls are done, slide them onto a cooling rack with the parchment paper. Brush with glaze while they are still warm.