"Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! One a penny, two a penny, but now 2 bucks based on inflation!" —@robicellis on Instagram
When Allison and Matt Robicelli started making hot cross buns at their eponymous Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, bakery this year, there was a healthy pinch of skepticism in the mix. "I never liked hot cross buns," Allison admits. "Had them once when I was a kid. Just tasted like a dinner roll with dry raisins and too much sugar."
But as local business owners, the couple are in the habit of getting to know and please their neighbors, and when one loyal customer (a "sweet old lady") began asking for the traditional Easter pastry, they just couldn't say no. So the Robicellis started digging into their trove of heritage cookbooks to figure out exactly what these cross-topped buns were supposed to be. As they soon found, there was clearly room for improvement and a bit of play, too.
A little backstory: While many people's primary association with hot cross buns is that "one a penny" tootle on classroom recorders, they're a pastry with a centuries-long history, and that history is murky as heck. A New York Times article (written 103 years ago yesterday) traced their history from pagan times, through ancient Greece and Egypt, the Medieval Church, Saxons, Mexico and Peru through Church of England customs in the 20th century, and found that traditions varied wildly. Some batches were made as offerings to the Goddess of the Light or the quarters of the moon, others doled out to schoolboys with 60 raisins and 60 pennies at the Church of All Hallows, and still others nailed up in homes each Good Friday to welcome good luck year-round, and in times of illness, act as "an infallible cure" when mixed with water.
With that amount of cultural leeway, the Robicellis felt free to experiment, melding the brioche recipe they use in their sticky buns with Matt's tried-and-true Scotch Irish soda bread, which includes a deck-stacking four-day soak of Drambuie and PG Tips for the raisins. "The base handicapped the buns quite generously," Allison notes. "Most people are floored. They have no idea how it's actually supposed to taste."
The buns (see the recipe) made their debut on the bakery's St. Joseph's menu earlier this month (alongside the holiday's standard sfingi, or zeppole), and with a bit of tweaking, have remained there since. "People are excited about them. People's faces light up when they see them," Allison says. "We get a lot of Irish and Russian immigrants at the shop who are happy they found someone who makes them the old-fashioned way. And a lot of adorable seniors."
Make these buns part of your own spring ritual this year with the Robicellis' recipe and set aside a little time to bake 'em right. The method calls for multiple kinds of dried fruit for a high-proof soak, plus a few hours to proof the "sponge" that transforms the often-dry and dense pastry into a pleasure you may care to enjoy more than once a year.
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