COVID-19 and the subsequent enforced home confinement has stimulated my desire to bake again. While the coronavirus pandemic has closed many churches to the religious rituals of Lent, staying home has opened the door to baking and feasting on my favorite treats for Easter – hot cross buns. Those lightly sweetened and glazed mini-buns with white crosses on top.
In the three weeks since I have started working from home, I have consumed three packs of quick-rise yeast, 10 pounds of flour, all the brown sugar in my cupboard and much of my other ingredients. The sales of yeast jumped 457 percent over last year for the week ending March 28. I take some credit. I have my receipts.
The approach of Easter is one of my favorite culinary times of the year. Easter reminds me it’s time for hot cross buns. The treats of buns with icing on top and chock full of the currants, dried fruits and raisins have done more than spike my blood sugar levels. The delight rests somewhere between sensory and memory, taste and fulfillment.
I am unsure if my fascination with the lenten season mini buns came from the British nursery rhymes I grew up with. A childhood in a West Indian colony means importing so much of English culture – London bridge is falling down. Guy Fawkes night.
Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
The mini buns with the cross of icing originated, according to lore, from a 12th century Anglican monk.
Much of that fascination got lost for decades until I moved to New Jersey. My newspaper office in Freehold, New Jersey, was within walking distance of Freedman’s bakery downtown. Among its treats were my old favorite Easter-season snacks.
But their baked goods, I soon discovered, were nothing like those sold by Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck, New Jersey. During my lunch hour, I’d drive 20 minutes each way to the town in horse-country that boasted 10-acre zoning and a strong dislike for street lights. I’d buy half a dozen hot cross buns, still warm and sticky to the touch.
I’d sit in my sky-blue GEO Prizm and savor my hot cross buns listening to NPR on my car radio. Those moments of culinary delight flavored my spring days and brought back fond memories of island life. My grandmother was a skilled baker of raisin buns, but she baked no hot cross buns.
My nomadic journalistic existence eventually put too many miles between me and Delicious Orchards. But over the years, I fantasized about ordering their treats by mail. The approach of each Easter made me yearn for those specific sweet confections.
While living in South Carolina, the absence of a decent neighborhood bakery and the dearth of fresh-baked sandwich bread pushed me to learn to bake. After a two-hour 4-H class, I could make loaves. As I kneaded the bread on my kitchen countertop, I could feel the spirit of my grandmother hover over me, inhabit my muscles as I pinch and press the dough as expertly as if I had done so all of my life.
For years, I baked white bread loaves but no buns. I even graduated to baking cream cheese pound cakes, but no buns. Not until I received a Southern Living magazine with an easy to follow recipe.
My home by then was Tampa, which while boasting some of the best guava pastries and Cuba loaves, just didn’t value mini-buns with icing buns as highly.
Southern Living Magazine, a sort of Dixie cultural bible, published a recipe with the sort of photos that made me want to eat the pages. It compelled me to test my bread making skills on making buns. Mixed fruits for hot cross buns are seasonal. You can’t buy them any time of the year. But I found them along with brown sugar, yeast, flour, milk, butter, lots of cinnamon and icing sugar for the crosses on top.
Sadly, for the last decade or so, I’ve relied on my local supermarket bakery for hot cross buns. A half a dozen buns usually cost less than $4. That’s value for the pleasure of my favorite treat. For years, I had no passion to bake my own hot cross buns.
Until this spring. Until COVID-19 made me housebound, until working remotely increased my hunger for snacks – beyond nuts, fruits and trail mix. I may have been susceptible to subliminal suggestions. I couldn’t ignore the hot cross buns advertisements on the British radio station I listen to while reading in bed.
After I called my neighborhood supermarket bakery and they behaved like hot cross buns were a novelty item, I felt it was time to bake my own. I bought raisins and yeast. My pantry was stocked with flour, baking powder, brown sugar, milk, and surprisingly, powdered sugar.
Easter reminds me it’s time for hot cross buns. The delight rests somewhere between sensory and memory, taste and fulfillment.
My old Southern Living Magazine disappeared during one of my many moves. But of course, there’s the Internet. And there’s YouTube.
The Southern Living recipe was different from how I remembered. It called for me to combine a quarter cup of oil, two cups of milk and half a cup of sugar and heat in a saucepan until boiling. Cool for half an hour then add four cups of flour and a pack of quick rise yeast. Add lots of cinnamon, a pinch of salt and baking powder.
Two weeks ago, I baked 20 hot cross buns. I removed them from the oven around midnight. By the time I went to bed, there were four less buns cooling on the kitchen counter.
The next day, as I worked at home, between conference calls and writing assignments, I consumed hot cross buns. With help from my non-raisin eating wife and daughter, within 24 hours, the buns were history.
That’s why, with Easter just a few days away, hot cross buns sit in my kitchen. The stash is dwindling fast. They’re not made to last, my wife consoles me. Eat up.
Baking and breaking bread reminds me of the rituals and rites of this season. COVID-19 gives and it takes away. But in this extraordinary time, the comforts of food, made by my own hand, with my own sweat, bring a certain reverence, for life, for home and for family.
Click here for the Southern Living Magazine recipe for hot cross buns.
Other recent articles by Andrew J. Skerritt: Take the test: Time to fill in the gaps on the Montserrat Family Tree and How I learned to love Vacation Bible School in middle age.