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Peak of the Season
March 28, 2013
SPRING: Holy Hot Cross Buns!

What would Easter be without the hot cross bun?

Studded with dried currants and leavened with yeast, the bakery item is as much a herald of spring as chocolate bunnies and coloured eggs -- but with more religious significance. Traditionally the bun is eaten for breakfast on the Good Friday before Lent, the characteristic cross on its top a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ.*

Piousness aside, the challenge is to find a really good tasting example. Even though the original recipe was a rich one (containing saffron and costly spices), today's ubiquitous supermarket version tends to be an anemic, bready, tutti fruitti specimen. And there's no excuse for it. As the craze for doughnuts has proven, you can take almost any comfort food staple, tweak the formula, upgrade the ingredients, add a creative twist and people will stand in line. Why should the hot cross bun be any different? 

British chef Heston Blumenthal certainly doesn't believe in putting the original formula on an altar. His designer number for the English grocery chain Waitrose includes Earl Grey tea-soaked sultanas and two other types of English heritage grape raisins. Another Brit grocer, M&S, has come up with a wholemeal version that includes a filling of apple and cinnamon inside a cranberry and orange-flavoured brioche. New York bakers don't hold back either ... in Chef April Bloomfield’s kitchen at the Breslin, the hot cross buns are toasted with butter and sea salt and filled with spiced sultanas, tea-soaked currants, and candied orange peel.  Chef Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery’s version spruces things up with vanilla paste, dried cherries and a zing of cardamom in the frosting.

Here in Vancouver, a blessing on Terra Breads. Head Baker Mary MacKay swears by her grandmother's basic recipe, but she adds her own touch with organic raisins, organic apricots, currants, sweetened dried cranberries, sweetened orange peel, a touch of organic whole grain flour and spices.  The buns, which are available at all Terra Breads locations until Easter Monday, are also topped with a cross of lemon-maple icing.

Bel’s Cafe's hot cross buns are also back to brighten your Easter weekend and are available in packs of four to take home ($11.20), or devour individually at the Café ($2.80). Chef Wayne Kozinko likes them best toasted, dripping with fresh butter and served with Bel Café’s own homemade jam.

Sweet Obsession Cakes and Pastries improvise on the dough and offer their seasonal version of "hot crossed brioche". You can find them in the display case all Easter weekend, or by advance order by calling 604-739-0555, extension 2.

Yet another, if more traditional, hot cross bun favoured by our readers is available at Calabria Bakery (5036 Victoria Drive, between 34th and 35th).

*At one time all bread loaves were marked with a cross to ward off any evil influences that could prevent the dough from rising, although this practice was banned by the Puritans on the grounds that it was Papist. They did however allow bread baked on Good Friday to retain the cross in order to commemorate the Crucifixion. One bun from the Easter feast would often be saved by a household for a year of good luck. According to legend, it would go as hard as a rock, but never went moldy.

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