For me Lent is a journey every year. Easter is less commercial and I get to enjoy and reflect and think in silence without the glitz and mad shopping days of Christmas.
Lent and Easter traditions are handed down from generation to generation. A few years ago I researched recipes for Lent and Easter and found that almost every country has it’s own Easter bread. Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, America, England, Scotland and Belgium to name a few.
In our family we love our St. Joseph’s Day Bread and Hot Cross Buns. St. Joseph’s Day is March 19th and is a traditional Sicilian bread to honor St. Joseph, Sicily’s patron Saint.
Hot Cross Buns are traditionally eaten in England on Good Friday. The cross atop the bun was said to symbolize the Crucifixion. Although there is no real confirmation on who actually created the Hot Cross Bun it is said they do have ancient origins dating back to the 12th century.
I have been baking St. Joseph’s bread since I was in my 20’s. It can be a difficult bread to master. Humidity, quality of yeast and enough proofing time are all factors in successfully making this bread.
If you have never tasted this bread you have missed out on its soft, anisey, rich flavor. Some have told me the smell of the bread has instantly brought them back in time. I have had people in their 90’s who haven’t had it in years eat it and feel instantly transported back to their grandmother’s table. It is a magical bread I say.
This recipe makes 9 or 10, 1-lb. round loaves (or you can braid them). You may also halve this recipe because not many people have the mixer capacity although this bread was mostly kneaded by hand.
St. Joseph’s Bread Recipe
5 cups warm water
3 Tbsp yeast
1-3/4 cup sugar
1-1/4 cup shortening
2 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp baking powder
2 Tbsp anise seeds
5 lbs. flour
Mix the water and yeast and let sit for a minute or two to dissolve the yeast. Don’t get that yucky yeast from the grocery store. I buy mine in bulk at Sam’s or BJ’s or Costco. I store the yeast in the fridge or you can freeze it.
Next add the eggs, sugar, shortening and salt. Then mix in half the flour. Then add the baking powder and the anise seeds. Mix until the flour in incorporated and then slowly add the rest of the flour. When you have a soft ball of dough and it clears the sides of the mixing bowl or your hands don’t get sticky if you are hand mixing, knead for about 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Add more flour if it gets sticky. Believe me if you hand mix this recipe you will get a full body workout. But it will be worth it!
Place the kneaded dough in a large greased bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Here is the crucial part. Let rise in a warm place for at LEAST 2 hours. This bread takes a LONG time to rise properly. Also the quality of the yeast makes a big difference too. I have thrown more batches of this bread out because the yeast from the grocery stores sucks. If you want to be a serious bread maker don’t waste your time with the store brand yeast.
After the dough has risen to double it’s original size roll it out of the bowl onto a floured surface. Punch it down and divide the dough into 10 pieces. If you have a scale, weigh each one to get even sizes.
Either braid or shape the dough into round loaves and place on parchment lines baking trays or in greased disposable pie pans.
Let double again in a warm spot, covered with a clean dish towel. (At least another hour or so.)
After the dough has proofed again brush the tops of them with an egg wash and sprinkle either sesame or poppy seeds on them.
Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes. They will be a golden brown and smell Heavenly!
Hot Cross Buns Recipe
In my opinion Hot Cross Buns should be made with either raisins or currants but many commercial recipes add candied fruit which is way too close to a fruit cake for me.
1-1/2 cups warm milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup melted butter
4 cups flour
3/4 cup of raisins or currants
1/2 tsp mace
The original recipe I tried had 5 cups of flour and it really dried the buns out. I prefer the 4 cups myself but you can always add more if the dough it too sticky for you. I prefer the soft sticky dough because it makes a softer, less dense bun.
Mix the yeast and the warm milk together. Add the melted butter, sugar. salt, eggs, currants or raisins and the mace in. Add the flour in a cup at a time until a soft ball forms. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes adding enough flour here and there to keep it from sticking too much. Dough will be soft and probably a little sticky. That is ok. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
When doubled in size turn the dough out onto a floured surface and punch down. Divide the dough evenly depending on how big you want the buns to be. I made 12 out of this recipe but they were really big so I would make them smaller next time.
Form each piece of dough into a ball and place in a greased 9 x 13 cake pan or a parchment lined cookie sheet. Make sure the buns slightly touch each other.
Let rise again in a warm place covered with a clean dish towel.
After doubling in size again brush the tops with egg wash and bake at 375 for 25 minutes or until golden brown.Let cool.
For the Cross: mix together a cup of confectioner’s sugar, 2 Tbsp milk and 1/2 tsp of vanilla. Drizzle the frosting in a cross like pattern over each bun. Don’t worry if it is not perfect. Mine never are! Eat with butter and enjoy! (Sorry I forgot to take a pic of them with the cross on them).
Does your family have Easter baking traditions? I would love to hear from you! -MM