Thursday, April 21, 2011

hot cross buns and a pirate named Pontius: religious (mis)education of a young glutton

When I am nine years old, after three unhappy years at an international Japanese school, my parents abandon their hopes of making me trilingual, and enroll me at one of Sydney's all-girls’ private schools instead. When I am nine years old, I have my first experience with culture shock.

My new classmates do not covet Sailor Moon and Hello Kitty stationery, but collect and trade brightly colored stickers. (“Oilies” – stickers filled with a shimmery, iridescent liquid – are the most prized.) They enjoy plaiting each other’s hair in complicated fashions, and handball is all the rage on the playground. I find the demands of handball to be beyond me, but I do acquire a sticker book, and I learn to French braid. At this new school, socializing with my classmates is no longer an ordeal.

There are new rules to absorb at this school. Stand up when any teacher enters the room. Greet the Headmistress in the hallways. There are four school houses, and they are named for the royal houses of England. (Mine is York, and the house symbol is a lamb on a field of blue.) The foreign language we study is French, and I learn to address the teacher as Madame, and to make polite conversation: Comment allez-vous? Très bien, merci, et vous?

Art class, music class, and P.E. class are all familiar, but Religious Education is entirely new. I learn that there is an entity named God, and he – ahem, He – created the world. He also created the first human beings, and they were named Adam and Eve. The teacher seems taken aback when I put up my hand and ask about the apes and dinosaurs I learned about at my previous school. A funny expression crosses her face when I ask who created God. I realize that perhaps Religious Education class is not like Maths class, and maybe it is best to not to raise my hand whenever I have questions. I have many questions, though. I find that Religious Education often does not make much sense.

In addition to Religious Education, we have Chapel on Tuesdays, and the Reverend tells us more about God. I learn the Lord’s Prayer, and then another version of the Lord's Prayer, from then on I am always confused as to whether I should be saying trespasses or sins. We sing hymns from a navy blue hymn book. Though the words are often very strange, I like the singing well enough.

Come autumn, we learn about Easter. As it turns out, Easter is not about the Easter Bunny, which I have never seen and do not believe in, because my mother does not believe in sweets. Not is it about the Easter Bazaar organized by the class mothers, at which I scoped out all the stalls before making any purchases with my carefully-hoarded dollar and ten cents, and netted enough chocolate eggs to give my mother a conniption.

Easter is about Jesus, who is the son of Mary and Joseph, but also the Son of God. (It is probably a good thing that I don't yet know anything about the mechanics of human reproduction, because my questions during that particular Religious Education class would probably give my teacher a conniption.) Easter also involves a man named Judas, and a pirate named Pontius with thirty pieces of silver. (I thought pirates had gold, but maybe I am mistaken.) Jesus was nailed to a cross, which is a very unpleasant way to die, and so the symbol of Christianity is a cross (though it was also a fish), and that is why there are hot cross buns, like the ones from the nursery rhyme.

We are given forms to place orders for hot cross buns, and after some badgering, my mother agrees to place an order. The buns turn out to be soft and mildly sweet, a little like finger buns, and studded with sultanas and orange peel. I am puzzled by the makeup of the white crosses on the buns (not icing, but not bread, either) until a good-intentioned class mother gives my mother a Xeroxed copy of a recipe for hot cross buns. In reading it, I learn about flour paste, and yeast, and the fact that yeast dough must rise, be knocked down, and rise again before baking.

The week of Easter itself, the hymn we sing in Chapel is called "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." The Reverend makes a point of announcing it, too: "He is risen! Truly, He is risen!" For once, I don't have any questions. It all makes sense. He is risen, of course. Like hot cross buns, I think.

Hot Cross Buns 

This is not your traditional hot cross bun. The dough has more of a brioche-like character, and the fruit is decidedly nonstandard - I love dried cherries, and I had leftover candied kumquat peel. I did keep the flour-paste crosses I grew up with, though you can also mix up a plain white frosting if that’s your preference.

(Makes eight buns. May be frozen.)

In a mixing bowl, combine three hundred grams of flour, one teaspoon instant active yeast, a half-teaspoon of salt plus an extra pinch, and a tablespoon of sugar. Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of nutmeg, and a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon.

Add three tablespoons (ninety mililitres) warm milk, and stir until the mixture forms shaggy clumps. Crack in one egg, and work it into the mixture. Crack in a second egg, and work that in too. You’ll have a fairly sticky, lumpy dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop and knead for five to seven minutes, or until the dough loses its sticky, lumpy quality. Knead in two tablespoons of softened butter, a tablespoon at a time.

The dough will stick to the countertop in small pieces; knead until the mass of dough picks up those stray pieces and holds together in a smooth, silky whole.

Work in two tablespoons of chopped candied kumquat peel (or other candied citrus peel), and two ounces of dried cherries.

Place the dough back in its original mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until doubled in volume, about an hour or so.

After an hour, gently deflate the dough and transfer it to the fridge. Chill for at least two hours (can be left overnight.)

Remove the dough from the fridge and press down upon on it gently to deflate. Butter a five-by-nine inch loaf tin. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and shape them into squares to fit the tin.

Cover the tin with wax paper, and leave in a warm place to rise for fifty minutes, or until the dough is light and nearly doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Crack one egg, beat until frothy, and brush it all over the tops of the buns.

Mix together two tablespoons of flour, a tablespoon of icing sugar, and enough water to make a thick paste. Spoon the paste into a piping bag (or a Ziploc bag – cut off the tip of one corner once it’s been filled) and pipe a cross atop each bun.

Bake for twenty to twenty-five minutes, or until the buns sound hollow when lightly tapped with a finger. Cool in the pan for five to ten minutes, then turn out on a wire rack.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with or without extra butter.


Molly said...

I had no idea hot cross buns were so religious in their origins, although I must admit to wondering why there were crosses on such delectable morning desserts. I was sent to the opposite sort of religious school that you were sent to: mine was Jewish and ultra Orthodox. No hot cross buns there, but lots of hamentashen and challah baking. Happy holidays!

adele said...

Molly - Hamentashen and challah sound pretty good to me! In hindsight, my school wasn't very religious, but it certainly felt like it for a confused nine year-old. :)

Virgin In The Volcano said...

I have been living on macaroons this week. I need these goyim buns!

adele said...

Virgin - If you can talk a baker into it, I've got a recipe for kosher-for-Passover chocolate-cherry almond blondies.

Googie Baba said...

Just this morning, Jen was reading to me a recipe out of her mother's recipe book. It is a cookbook the church ladies at Four Square Presbyterian Church put together.

The recipe was for Resurrection Cookies. It comes complete with bible verses that you are supposed to read to your children as you make the cookies. You put the cookies in the "tomb" of the oven overnight. They come complete with instructions to feel sad that you are leaving the cookies. And in the morning - they RISE! And are hollow on the inside. And presumably delicious.

BTW - Adele, honestly, you should check this book out. It is my go to book whenever I am trying to find the "real recipe." Everyone is so health conscious that recipes are modified to be healthier and the dish never taste rights. I go running to the church lady book to see if I can find how it is really done.

Cakelaw said...

I love your dried cherry and cumquat buns! And LOL at your reminiscences about RE - brought the memories flooding back.

adele said...

Googie - Resurrection Cookies? Wow. Is that like the cake recipe where the ingredient list and instructions consist of nothing but Bible verses?

Cakelaw - The first year or so of RE was very confusing. In hindsight, I feel a little sorry for my teacher - all those questions, and no easy answers!

Anonymous said...

Those look fantastic, and this entire post left me smiling, especially the "risen" part. <3

adele said...

Anonymous - Thank you!

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Adele!
Love this post. As a matter of fact, I truly appreciate the way your posts have evolved into sharing a sensuous depth to your being.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your buns!!! They look and sound delicious and I've seen many Hot Cross Buns this season...

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Your post certainly had me chuckling! LOVE that you posted this recipe for hot cross buns (despite that I'm a bit behind). The ones I often encounter are bone-dry and tasteless and yours sounds anything but! (And having french braiding skills is never a bad thing either.) ;)

adele said...

Louise - Glad you enjoyed the story!

Plum - The braiding skills have turned out to be very handy when I've baked challah. :)