A day of reverence and celebration, Easter brings with it a number of foods that reflect the rich culinary traditions of many world cultures and cuisines.
My favorite thing to eat during the spring holiday -- if you don't count those delicious Italian chocolate eggs sold at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District -- are the many sweet, rich Easter breads that show up in local bakeries or are sold to raise money for church groups during the last days of Lent. Talk about life's simple pleasures: A toaster, a little butter, a touch of honey or jam, and I'm in breakfast heaven.
They're all delicious, in my opinion, from paska, a beautiful braided Eastern European Easter yeast bread, to the candied fruit-studded, anise-flavored sweet bread Italians know as pane di Pasqua. And don't forget about German streudel!
This year for the first time, I've also sampled a fragrant Greek bread called tsoureki, which gets its distinctive flavor from mastic, a rare and expensive resin grown on the Greek isle of Chios. As pretty as it is tasty, this bread has tucked into its braided folds a red-dyed, hard-boiled egg that symbolizes the blood of Christ. (See sidebar.)
But I'm probably the biggest sucker for the Easter bread of my youth: the humble hot cross bun, those sweet spiced individual rolls that come decorated with a cross on top made of thick white icing.
We all know these yeast buns taste great. What surprises (at least this non-baker) is that they're also surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have a KitchenAid mixer to do the kneading. Also, the ingredient list won't send you running in a million different directions. Though recipes for hot cross buns vary, they're always rich with eggs, butter and everyday spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice -- ingredients that in the old days were expensive and hard to find (and therefore reserved for special occasions) but today are kitchen staples. Most also include currants and/or raisins and chopped candied citrus peel.
The custom of eating hot cross buns is thought to have pagan origins: the ancient Greeks and Egyptians ate similar types of cakes in honor of their gods, and so did the Anglo-Saxons in honor of Eostre, their goddess of light and spring. The buns we know today originated in England in 1361, when a monk at Saint Alban's Abbey named Father Thomas Rockcliffe distributed them to the poor. They became so enormously popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, that the one-a-penny, two-a-penny buns ended up in a Mother Goose nursery rhyme.
Baked throughout the Lenten season, hot cross buns originally were made for Good Friday only, which led to near riots on more than one Good Friday morning in the early days. Considered blessed, they were thought to ward off sickness and danger, as well as protect your house from fire.
Today, the only danger seems in eating too many of them, a definite possibility if you follow the easy recipe below.
Hot Cross Buns
You can find candied citrus peel at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District.
3/4 cup warmed milk, divided
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon superfine sugar, divided
1 pack (.25 ounces) active dry yeast
3 1/4 to 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter, softened
2 large eggs, room temperature
2/3 cups raisins
2 tablespoons candied lemon peel, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons candied orange peel, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon milk
3 to 4 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
Dash vanilla extract (optional)
In a bowl, stir together 1/4 cup warmed milk and 1 teaspoon sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over milk and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes until foamy.
In a large bowl or the mixing bowl of an electric mixer, vigorously whisk together 3 cups flour (reserving additional flour for later step), salt, spices and 1/4 cup sugar. Create a well in the flour and add the foamy yeast, softened butter, 2 eggs and remaining 1/2 cup milk. Using a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of your mixer, mix the ingredients until well incorporated. The mixture should be shaggy (wet) and quite sticky. Add in raisins and candied fruit peel.
If you are using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook attachment and start to knead on low speed. (You also can use your hands.) Slowly sprinkle in additional flour, a tablespoon at a time, kneading to incorporate after each addition, until flour is still slightly tacky but is no longer completely sticking to your fingers when you work with it.
Form the dough into a ball in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit, covered, at room temperature (or in a warm spot) for 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
Punch down dough. Roll the ball of dough into a log shape and cut it into 2 halves. Place one half back in the bowl while you work with the other half. Cut half into 8 equal pieces.
Shape each piece into a ball and place about 11/2 inches apart, on a prepared baking sheet. Cover and leave to rise for about 11/4 hours or until doubled in volume. Cover with plastic, and repeat with remaining dough. Let mounds sit at room temperature (or a warm place) to rise again, until the mounds have doubled in volume, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Prepare egg wash by combining egg with 1 tablespoon milk in a bowl. Use pastry brush to lightly brush the egg mixture on top of each bun. This will give the buns a shiny appearance when cooked.
Put buns in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
In a small bowl, combine confectioners' sugar and enough milk (and vanilla extract, if using) to get a thick consistency. When the buns have cooled, place icing into a plastic sandwich bag, and snip off a small piece from the corner. Drizzle a horizontal line of icing across each row of buns followed by a vertical line to form a cross on each one.
Makes 16 buns.
-- Adapted from simplyrecipes.com
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published March 21, 2013 4:00 AM