Some 60 years ago there were no Easter eggs in Palma because the egg was not part of Majorcan Holy Week celebrations. But today they are everywhere: pastry shops, supermarkets and corner shops sell them, and they come as tiny as canary eggs to dinosauric ones getting on for two feet high.
The arrival of the Easter egg in Palma was mainly due to British-owned shops and supermarkets importing them for British residents. The eggs caught on with a few pastry shops in central Palma which were always on the lookout for something new to add to their repertoire of seasonal treats.
Soon after that the eggs were making an appearance in some of the bigger supermarkets and they were such a huge success that a company called Kinder did them all year long. Kinder never called them Easter eggs and they were an incredible success. They still are: every supermarket stocks them.
The British shops and supermarkets also imported frozen hot cross buns and a couple of British-owned bakeries in Palmanova and the Pollensa area sometimes baked them fresh.
But the buns didn’t have the allure of the chocolate Easter eggs and I knew of only one Palma bakery that ever did the buns. That was a Majorcan place off the Calle Industria walking towards Plaza Serralta which made them for a couple of years. But the buns didn’t click with the regular customers and the baker stopped doing them. You can get frozen hot cross buns at Nice Price and I’m sure other outlets east and west of Palma also stock them.
So it looks as if the only way you can have freshly-baked hot cross buns for breakfast on Friday of next week is to do your own. But these buns are an easy-peasy bake and doing them at home is no big deal.
Hot cross buns are such a simple bake that even complete pastry novices can get satisfactory results. Unlike most pastry-making, there is little exact chemistry involved which is why just about anyone can get these buns right.
It’s a free-wheeling kind of bake in which millimetric quantities are not called for although you must experiment to get the mix of spices and dried fruits to your liking.
One of the advantages of making your own is that you can use the spices you prefer and lots of raisins and candied orange peel — there is never enough of either in commercial buns.
When I first started doing the buns many years ago, I made the cross by cutting into the top with the point of a sharp knife. But that wasn’t satisfactory and I was soon doing them with a flour and water dough.
The best method is to place two thin strips of dough across the whole of the bun, which is how most English professional bakers do them.
Soon after I started making my own hot cross buns I tried them with wholewheat flour instead of white. It added a distinct flavour and gave a better mealy texture. Wholewheat buns give out a lovely aromas when they are baking and the taste when they are still slightly warm is scrummy. Next day the buns can be reheated in a steamy oven and they toast beautifully even after three or four days.
The best hot cross buns have intense spicy aromas and flavours and they should also be spiked with generous amounts of raisins and candied orange peel. But they must never be heavy or doughy.
There are dozens of recipes to choose from and here is one that works well, even for those who have never made hot cross buns and who don’t have much baking know-how.
You will need: 500grs wholewheat flour (harina integral), 30grs yeast, 300mls milk-water mixture, 2 heaped tsps cinnamon and nutmeg (or to taste), 1 tsps salt, 60grs sugar, 100grs currants (pasas de Corinta), 100grs chopped candied orange peel, 100grs butter, 1 large egg.
Put the yeast into a bowl and blend with a little of the milk-water mixture. Sieve half of the flour into another bowl and make a well in the centre. When the yeast is frothy, stir in the rest of the milk and water and pour it into the well of the sifted flour. Mix thoroughly. If the mixture is dry, add a little extra milk. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for 45 minutes.
Sieve the rest of the flour, add the spices and salt, then stir in the sugar, currants and candied orange peel. Add this to the first mixture after it has risen for 45 minutes. Pour in the melted butter and the well-beaten egg. Mix thoroughly with your hands and knead until the dough is smooth. The absorption rate of wholewheat flours varies tremendously, so if the mixture seems dry add tiny amounts of warmed milk until the dough has the right smooth consistency. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave in a warm place, this time for 90 minutes.
After the second proving, knead the dough for a few minutes and turn it on to a floured surface. Roll it into a cylindrical shape and cut it into 16 even-sized pieces. Shape these into rounds and put them on a greased and floured baking sheet. They will expand before and during baking, so they must be well separated.
Make a small amount of flour and water dough, cut it into narrow strips and criss-cross the top of the buns. Leave the buns on the baking sheet in a warm place for 30 minutes until well risen and bake them in the centre of a hot oven for 20-25 minutes. As soon as they are taken from the oven, brush them with a sugar-and-water glaze: two tablespoons of sugar dissolved in two of water.
Hot cross buns, like all buns, bake better when the oven is steamy as well as hot. You can create the right humid conditions by placing a wide narrow dish of boiling water on the floor of the oven.
I make use of a tip from Xisco Moranta of Sa Pobla, one of the island’s best pastry cooks who retired several years ago.
This simple trick is worth knowing and can be used with any dough that contains yeast.
When the dough has risen and you knead it a second time, add a good tablespoon of thick cream and continue to knead until it is well absorbed. This produces a dough with a smoother and richer texture.
The cross on these Good Friday buns was first used by the Anglo-Saxons on spicy pastry leaves baked for the vernal equinox. The leaves represented the four seasons.
Some bakers later used the cross on bread to ward off evil spirits that might stop the yeast dough from rising. But this was dropped at the start of the 17th century because it was considered to be too ‘popish’.
However, the cross was kept for Good Friday as a symbol of the Crucifixion, and during the Restoration the hot cross bun replaced the Anglo-Saxons’ spiced leaves.