According to author and baker Amy Scherber, in the pre-Christian era, hot cross buns were served to honor the goddess of spring. Later, the cross was cut in the top to symbolize the Christian religion. They’re traditionally sold on Good Friday and the following Saturday, too, for Easter Sunday breakfast. Although once you’ve made them, you’ll want them year round. Originally published March 30, 2010.–Renee Schettler Rossi
Place the very warm water and the yeast in a large bowl and stir with a fork to dissolve the yeast. Let stand for 3 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Using a wooden spoon or your hand, stir the beaten eggs, oil, granulated sugar, and warm milk into the yeast mixture. Gradually add the flour mixture, stirring until a shaggy mass forms and all of the flour is moistened. The dough should be very soft and moist. It’s very important to not be intimidated by the stickiness of this dough. If you add too much flour, the buns will lose some of their trademark delicate texture and taste. If the dough feels too stiff and hard when you’re mixing, add more warm water(85ºF to 90ºF [24°C to 32°C]), 1 tablespoon at a time, until you have soft pliable dough to knead.
Move the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until it is silky-smooth and elastic, 6 to 8 minutes. The dough will be wet and sticky at first, but it will become easier to work with as the gluten forms to make it springy and give it strength. Keep your hands and the table very lightly floured, using a dough scraper to lift the dough as needed. Shape the dough into a loose ball, cover it with oiled plastic wrap, and let it rest for 20 minutes to relax the gluten strands.
Flatten the dough and stretch it gently with your fingers to form a rectangle about 1/2 inch thick. Spread the dried currants evenly over the rectangle. Fold the dough into an envelope as if you were folding a business letter. Knead gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until the currants are well distributed and the dough is soft, smooth, and springy. If the dough resists, let it rest for 5 minutes and then continue kneading. Some of the currants may pop out of the dough, but they can easily be incorporated again after the first rise, when the dough has softened.
Shape the dough into a loose ball and place it in a lightly oiled bowl, along with any loose currants. Turn to coat the dough with oil, and cover the bowl tightly with oiled plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature (75º to 77ºF [23°C to 25°C]) for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in volume. A finger pressed into the dough should leave an indentation that doesn’t spring back.
Line two 17-by-12-inch baking sheets with parchment paper. Gently turn the dough onto the floured work surface, pressing any loose currants into the dough. Lightly flour your hands and divide the dough into 18 equal pieces, about 57 grams/2 ounces each.
Shape each piece of dough by placing it on an unfloured work surface and covering it with your palm. Your curved fingers should form a cage over the roll. Rotate your fingers against the table in a clockwise motion, gently pushing the dough against the work surface. The piece of dough will move under your palm in the opposite direction. Continue until the roll is firm and has a tight skin. Work quickly and try not to warm the dough too much with your hand. Place 9 buns on each of the prepared baking sheets, leaving several inches between them so they won’t grow together as they rise.
Cover the buns loosely with oiled plastic wrap and let them rise until almost doubled in volume, about 1 hour. A finger pressed lightly into the dough will leave a slight indentation.
Whisk the egg white with a pinch of salt to make an egg wash. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 400ºF (200°C). Place one oven rack in the top third of the oven and another in the bottom third. Place a cast-iron skillet and a smaller ovenproof pan, such as a mini loaf pan, on the floor of a gas oven or on the lowest possible rack in an electric oven. Fill a teakettle or small pot with water to be boiled later, and have a metal 1-cup measure available near the kettle.
Five to 10 minutes before the buns are ready to bake, turn the water on to boil, and carefully place two or three ice cubes in the small pan on the bottom of the oven. This helps to create moisture in the oven prior to baking.
When the buns are ready to go into the oven, use a lame or a pair of kitchen scissors to cut a shallow cross on the top of each bun. Lightly brush the buns with the egg wash, being careful not to deflate them. Reserve the remaining egg wash. Place the sheets of buns in the oven. Pour 1 cup of boiling water into the cast-iron skillet and immediately shut the oven door. After 2 minutes, quickly pour another 1/2 cup of boiling water into the skillet, then shut the oven door.
After 10 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375ºF (190°C) and rotate the pans if necessary to ensure even browning. Bake for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the buns have turned a nice golden brown and the surface feels slightly firm but not hard when you press it lightly. These rolls should have a thin soft covering, not a hard, crunchy crust. Be careful not to overbake the rolls or their oh-so-delicate taste and texture will be lost. Transfer the rolls to a rack and let them cool for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar with the reserved egg wash and the vanilla, and whisk to mix well.
While the rolls are still warm, use a pastry bag fitted with a small plain tip, or a teaspoon, to make an X of frosting over the cross on each bun. The frosting will harden somewhat as the buns cool. These are best eaten the same day they are baked.