From the Hearth: Hot Cross Buns


Hot Cross Buns grace the Colonel’s table at the 1820 Stephenson House in Edwardsville, IL

  One of my favorite songs from childhood that is also the quintessential early tunes a beginning piano or band student learns to play is Hot Cross Buns. Containing only 3 stepwise notes, it is easy to learn as well as catchy enough to get stuck in one’s head for the rest of the day.

But what exactly are these strange treats that could be bought for a mere penny or two, as the song states: “One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns”? The silly children’s rhyme appears to hearken back to a street vendor song, much like our TV commercial jingles are used today, and likely English in origin. But is there more to the rhyme than a baker hawking his wares and vying for customers? I determined to find out and when I learned the significance behind the crossed buns, I decided March would be a fitting time to try these early American hearth cooking style at the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House kitchen.

Ingredients list

All set to bake1 cup milk (scalded)                                   1/4 cup currents
2 1/2 cups white flour (sifted)                  1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar                                               Frosting:
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon                1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg                     1 – 2 tablespoons milk

There are many variations on recipes for Hot Cross Buns; some use more spices, some have citron along with currents. I did not have citron available on my pantry shelf and actually substituted golden raisins for currents, which are very close cousins of each other. In other similar bread recipes, I’ve successfully interchanged these dried fruits with little difference in taste or texture. I am more familiar with buns using frosting crosses on them, which is what I chose for my baking today. However, more traditional recipes call for alternate colored dough baked across the tops of the buns. It always baffled me how to serve these “hot” without melting off the frosting crosses. The baked in cross makes so much more sense and someday I will try these as well. But this has been a busy month, so I defaulted to what I knew best and went for the more modern frosted versions.

IMG_8576It was a busy Saturday at the Stephenson House with four other young volunteers in the midst of starting their own baking project when I arrived. A nice fire was already on its way to making a bed of coals and I set the cup of milk boiling, which took much longer than it would have on my modern range top.

But scalding the milk and then letting it cool just to “blood warm” temperature (101 – 105 ° F) While this step may seem a little strange, the point is not to kill bacteria from  a long ago time before pasteurization (as I was once told) and therefore unnecessary to modern bread baking.

Scalding milk in a copper saucepan balanced on the Dutch oven.

Actually, by scalding the milk it creates a chemical reaction that makes the bread lighter and fluffier by eliminating the protein in milk, allowing the gluten to work and also helps in dissolving the sugars and yeast resulting in a more refined texture.


Sifting the Flour

This also may seem like a putzy and tedious thing to do, but actually, it is not to be

Sifting flour the old-fashioned way

skipped. I admit to having done this when in a hurry to throw together a batch of rolls or bread for dinner. But it is well worth taking the time to do so. I had Molly help, after she showed a curiosity for the vintage sifter, a family heirloom from my husband’s grandmother. It is very much like one I remember my own mom using. Sifting flour was one of my favorite things to do as a child.

“But what exactly does sifting do?” Molly wanted to know.

Good question! Flour long ago was not as well milled before our modern high powered machinery. Also, it was sold in large cloth sacks of at least ten or twenty-five pounds. People did a lot more home baking in those days and stocked up! Regular flour might be fine for denser breads or biscuits, but for something like sweet breads or cakes, a finer milling makes all the difference between a heavy lumpy roll and a light airy cake. Even today, it helps to take that extra step to sift all purpose flour and is really the only difference between that and more expensive cake flour.

Once the milk was processed and cooled enough, I added the yeast and sugar mixed with spices and then mixed in the egg.  I’m getting pretty handy at nipping sugar from the cone with those antique nippers. After sifting the flour, I added the currents (golden raisins) and mixed them in until they were evenly distributed and lightly coated. Next step was to mix wet and dry ingredients together and knead them into a soft dough. I added the yeast mixture in small doses to the center of the flour, making a “well” and folding in the edged toward the center. This is my favorite part when it all starts coming together and I can actually get my hands in the dough. Yes, that pun was intentional. LOL!

Dough rolls risen and ready to bake!

The dough rises twice, once as a solid mass and then then is reworked again to be formed into small round balls, which rise again until doubled and then baked. The fire must have been extra hot today. The buns baked in record time, just under an hour, which is about the length of time it takes in my home oven at about 350 degrees F.

When they were slightly cooled I mixed the powdered sugar with the milk, adding just a few drops at a time until the consistency was soft and drip-able (is that a word?) but not too runny. It needs to set up and actually look like a cross, or it won’t be a hot cross bun. Right? OK. Maybe they weren’t actually “hot” when served, but I’m still calling them hot cross buns. Don’t they look pretty sitting on Ben’s table all set for dinner? I doubt if he would have served them in Edwardsville, but who knows? Maybe the Stephenson kids ran around the house singing the song and asked for these baked treats. Perhaps if they were not aware of the origin, they might have enjoyed this old English sweet bun, brought to the New World. However, staunch Presbyterians, like the Stephenson family, would likely not have abided such “Romanish” practices. More’s the pity for them, missing this charming and delicious spring treat. IMG_8592

Historical Context

No one really know how far back these sweet bread treats go, but its origins appear rooted in England sometime in the Middle Ages and may be descended from an even earlier tradition dating back to Roman paganism. In honor of Eostre, the goddess of spring and the dawn, spiced bread dough, studded with fruit, was baked for her feast day.

Later, with the spread of Christianity, the crosses were added as a reminder of penance and faith. It was also an assurance the buns had been “blessed” and therefore could ward off evil spirits or at least was guaranteed not to mold. By the late 1600s, these early fruited breads became known as “Good Friday Buns” to be served for breakfast on the fifth day of Holy Week, the day Christians commemorate Christ’s crucifixion. Today, hot cross buns are often stocked on grocery store and bakery shelves all during the Lenten season. Some Christians eat them on Ash Wednesday as a tradition to kick off the Lenten season and others partake of them anytime during the forty day season. According to one of my fellow kitchen volunteers, his grandmother serves these as dinner rolls at their Easter feast, a hearkening back to the ancient origins.

Whatever the reason or the season, these buns are one tasty delicacy that are not all that hard to master, for any dedicated bread baker. Whether baked in a modern gas or electric oven or over an early 19th century hearth, the experience of baking, serving and eating a treat that has a history well over a thousand years old and immortalized in a children’s song, make these not only a treat for the stomach, but food for the soul, a just plain old time fun!Hot Cross Buns

Blog Tour: Death Comes Before Coffee

I’m pleased to be participating in a blog tour to help support the growing indie author market and share new and upcoming authors from a variety of genre. When I’m not reading or writing historical fiction, I do indulge in the occasional crime novel. Desmond P. Ryan’s series is one I’m happy to have brought to my attention. More on my review later. Here’s a bit about Death Before Coffee.


About the Story

thumbnail_DeathBeforeCoffeeCoverBy 2:27 on a Thursday afternoon, the one-legged man from Room 8 at 147 Loxitor Avenue has been beaten to death with a lead pipe. Twenty-eight minutes later, Detective Mike O’Shea is testifying in a stuffy courtroom, unaware that, within an hour, he will be standing in an alleyway littered with beer cans and condoms while his new partner—the man who saved his life thirteen years ago—flicks bugs off of a battered corpse with a ballpoint pen. When a rogue undercover copper prematurely hauls in the prime suspect, Mike blows a fuse, resulting in an unlikely rapport developing between him and the lead homicide detective sergeant, a woman known for her stilettos and razor sharp investigative skills. At the end of his seventy-two-hour shift, three men are dead and Mike O’Shea is floating in and out of consciousness in an emergency room hallway, two women by his side. Death Before Coffee, the second book in the Mike O’Shea Crime Fiction Series, weaves a homicide investigation through the life of an inner-city police detective intent on balancing his responsibilities as a son, brother, and newly single father with his sworn oath of duty. When faced with death, Mike is forced to make decisions that stir up old memories, compelling him to confront his demons while fighting the good fight.

Author Bio

thumbnail_IMG_1467(1)For almost thirty years, Desmond P. Ryan began every day of his working life with either a victim waiting in a hospital emergency room, or a call to a street corner or a blood-soaked room where someone had been left for dead. Murder, assaults on a level that defied humanity, sexual violations intended to demean, shame, and haunt the individuals who were no more than objects to the offenders: all in a day’s work. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and often heartbreaking.

As a Detective with the Toronto Police Service, Desmond P. Ryan wrote thousands of reports detailing the people, places, and events that led up to the moment he came along. He investigated the crimes and wrote synopses for guilty pleas detailing the circumstances that brought the accused individuals before the Courts. He also wrote a number of files to have individuals deemed either Not Criminally Responsible due to mental incapacity, or Dangerous Offenders to be held in custody indefinitely.

Now, as a retired investigator with three decades of research opportunities under his belt, Desmond P. Ryan writes crime fiction.

Real Detective. Real Crime. Fiction.


My Review    4.5-Stars

First off, the title and cover completely drew me in. Put the words “death” and “coffee” on a mocha colored cover stained with coffee rings and blood stains, and I’m all set for an intriguing afternoon’s read with my favorite cup of joe. And this book certainly did not disappoint. Although this was book 2 of a series, I felt completely pulled in and right at home with the story and character. Mike O’Shea awakens from a nightmare, reliving a harrowing event from his past. While this is usually the type of novel opening frowned on these days, I found it a compelling way to bring me into the scene and deliver a powerful punch of characterization, setting and even a bit of backstory without tedious overwriting. That is never a problem for this author, who uses an economy of words with a gritty, hard bitten voice, bringing us fully into the character’s head. I was soon racing across every page from Mike’s harried morning to a violent crime scene of a badly beaten and murdered one-legged man.

As Mike continues his investigation, he is paired with Detective Sergeant Amanda Black and soon he has his work cut out for him as the case escalates to more murders and a tangle of clues to unlock along with fighting for his life amidst his own personal demons.

Aside from some formatting issues with my e-book version, this story is a clean, smooth read and would make for a great addition to weekend travel plans or an entertaining beach book or even a cozy curl by the fire or at a favorite cafe with, of course, a cup of coffee. For those who enjoy crime novels on par with Michael Connally or Robert B. Parker, this is one author to add to their list.


February Book Discussion: The Library Book

The Library BookIt seemed at first such an ordinary title for a book about an obscure event so many years ago. A massive fire in Los Angeles took no human lives, nor did it level the building to the ground. Yet the damage recounted in this non-fiction book reads like a true crime, detective novel, leaving a casualty count, not in human lives, but in the devastating loss of books. Beloved books that contained stories, ideas, knowledge and archived information that was not easily replaceable. Rare, irreplaceable books and historical archived documents that could never be replaced. Not quite the same as human loss, but for those who are book lovers, the pain is almost as keenly felt.

Susan Orlean does more than merely give a bare-bones recounting of an event, overshadowed by the more sensational and globally impacted Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986. The chapter describing the day of the fire puts the reader center stage of the happenings from the opening of the library to the first hint of smoke to every lick of flame hitting the spiral of stacks deep within the library’s storage system and worming its way through the upper floors. She doesn’t stop with the incident, rather, Orlean also gives us the full history of the library, almost as a sort of requiem to this loss and a tribute to all those who helped build the library through all it’s various eras to today, where the library is compelled to be more than just a place to house books and shush noisy patrons into silence. Today’s LA Central Library has become a haven for the homeless and a community meeting place, full of all sorts of activities beyond reading and loaning books.

But that’s the LA library, thousands of miles away from where our local book club met in the heartland of the US on a cold February Wednesday evening. As it turned out, none of us at the meeting remembered hearing of this terrible event, and some barely recalled much in the news about Chernobyl, me included. In April 1986, I was still living in Michigan, finishing up my second year of teaching and contemplating a move back to Illinois. If there was any mention of this event in the news, I didn’t pay attention. But I do remember checking out the local library in the small town I later moved to. It was one of the focal points I remember seeing when I first moved to town and I made every opportunity to visit it after I settled in to my new home.

At our Wednesday meeting, Karen opened the discussion with the question about our earliest memories of visiting the library. After reading The Library Book, my mind was filled with so many memories over the course of a lifetime. I hardly remember a time the library wasn’t an important part of my life. In my family, it was a biweekly event to venture across town on an evening and wander through the stacks of the St. Louis County Library Branch and select a book or two to read. My Dad always chose a sci-fi or suspense novel. My sister picked a nurse romance or classic novel and Mom would dutifully guide me through the picture book selections.

As I grew older, so did my taste in books, with fewer pictures, more words and thicker spines. There were multiple branches in the St. Louis County area and we changed it up from time to time, visiting other libraries, so I became well acquainted with them all. Then there were the book mobiles that brought books to our school and to our neighborhood throughout the summer. But those were the advantages of living in a larger urban area.

For some of the other book club members, they only recalled ever visiting one main library in town, which in many ways, sounded far more personal and special than living in a city full of library branches with a different librarian at every visit. Still, somehow, I came to know the library as a place of wonder, full of books that would take me anywhere I wished to go.

As I read Orlean’s book, I gleaned a few quotes that stood out. that summarized, not only the essence of her work, but also my own feelings about the library and reading in general.

“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library we can live forever.”

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”

In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he describes the same kind of immortality for writers in that they can continue to live on and bring to life characters, places and events in our minds in full detail, as much as if it really happened, and all this through their words printed on a page. He calls this “telepathy”, the ability to send these signals from one mind to another, even beyond the grave.

It is truly a powerful thing to contemplate as is the Senegal quote that Orlean mentions and our discussion leader, Karen also brought to our attention as her favorite from the book. “When a person dies, it is said their library has burnt down.” Their stories, their memories, wisdom and ideas about life and the world around them are no more. They say there is a book inside everyone. What a tragedy it is when that story, housed in one individual soul is lost forever. Perhaps it is indeed worse than losing thousands of books from one library fire that could eventually be replaced. As much as we love and value books, people are still the irreplaceable library.

Discussion Questions:
1. Had anyone heard of the Central Library fire before reading this book? And did you realilze that this event took place the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident?

2. What are your earliest memories of the library? When do you think you got your first library card?

3. Libraries today are more than just a building to house books. Can you give me an example of how libraries have evolved from just book lending?

4. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people inhabiting the library. Is this an issue in your town or local library? How do you feel about how Los Angeles’s Central Library handles the problem?

5. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent to Andrew Carnegie? Can you name any Carnegie libraries in our area?

6. My favorite phrase in the book was the one from Senegal, when it referred to dying as having “Your library burnt down.” How did this quote resonate with you? What other favorite quotes stood out to you?

7. What did you think about Harry Peak? Guilty or innocent? What about all his alibis? And what about the civil suit he filed against the city for 15 million and the city’s counter suit for 23.6 million? And about trying to get him found guilty in a civil case, but not in a court case?