Hot Cross Buns

Until a few years ago, I had never eaten a hot cross bun. They weren’t an Easter tradition where I come from and to be honest, I generally loathe dried fruit in baked goods. If you ask me, sultanas are the ruin of a quality scone. Which is why I was surprised the first time I tried a hot cross bun and immediately wanted another.

The exact history of the hot cross bun is not known. Some people say a monk in the 12th century baked the buns and incised them with a cross in honor of Good Friday. Others say it was a monk in the 14th century in St. Albans. During the the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a law was passed that restricted the sale of sweet buns to funerals, Christmas, and Good Friday. Thank heavens that isn’t the law now.

For my recipe, I chop the dried fruit before putting it into the dough. I feel that this helps people like me who have a fear of fruited baked goods. I also add a tart apple to balance the sweetness and stem ginger for a bit of warmth.

Per my friend Rachel’s request, here is my recipe. The quantity of dried fruit I’ve given suits my tastes but you should absolutely tailor it to suit yours. I hope you enjoy them like I do. For breakfast, for elevenses, for tea. . .

 

Ingredients:

For the buns

300 ml + 2 tbsp full fat milk

50 g unsalted butter

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp allspice

a few dustings of nutmeg

500 g strong white bread flour (plus up to 250 g extra for kneading)

1 tsp salt

75 g caster sugar

7 g fast-action yeast

1 egg, beaten

the zest of 1 orange

25 g mixed peel, chopped

30 g dried cherries, chopped

15 g dried cranberries, chopped

10 g raisins, chopped

1 large piece of stem ginger in syrup, minced

1 small tart apple, peeled, cored, and finely chopped (I use a Cox or a Granny Smith)

 

For the crosses

80 g plain white flour

95 ml water

 

For the glaze

1 tbsp apricot jam

1 tsp golden syrup

1/2 tsp water

 

Method:

Put the milk in a small saucepan and heat it on a low flame until bubbles form. Once this happens, turn off the heat and stir in the butter until it’s melted. Allow the mixture to cool a bit. If you can touch it and it doesn’t feel too hot, that’s perfect. Mix in the cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast.

Make a well in  flour mixture. Pour the spiced milk mixture and crack the egg into it. Stir this with a wooden spoon just until the ingredients come together forming a shaggy sticky dough.

Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a lightly floured surface. Add extra flour if it’s too sticky to handle, but keep in mind that too much flour will make dense dough. Knead the dough until is smooth. This takes me about 8 minutes. It might take more or less time for you.  Once the dough is properly elastic, put it in a large lightly greased bowl and cover it with cling film. Allow it to rise someplace warm and draught free until it doubles in bulk. This can take 1-2 hours.

When the dough has doubled, add the zest, peel, cherries, cranberries, raisins, apple, and ginger to the bowl. Knead them into the dough until they are well incorporated. Then once again cover it with cling film and allow the dough to rise a second time. Roughly another hour.

After it has raised a second time, tip the dough out of the bowl and divide it dough into 12 pieces. You can be precise and weigh it all like you’re in the Bake Off or you can eyeball it. I do the latter. Roll the pieces into smooth balls on a lightly floured surface.

Line a rectangular glass or earthenware dish with baking paper. Place the buns in it. They should be touching, but make sure there is also enough room for them to expand. Cover them with plastic wrap and allow them to rise one last time.

Preheat the oven to Gas 7/220°C/425°F.

While the oven heats, mix the flour and water to form a thick paste for the crosses. If it’s too thick, add a teaspoon of water. If it’s too runny, add a teaspoon of flour. Once the desired consistency has been achieved, spoon the mixture into a piping bag. Be careful that the paste doesn’t run everywhere. Gently pipe a straight line across a row of buns. I like to start going from left to right. Then do the next row and so on. To finish the crosses, rotate your dish and pipe lines in the other direction so they are perpendicular.

Bake the buns on the middle shelf of your oven for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. While they bake, make the glaze by putting the jam, syrup, and water in a small pot and bringing them to a boil. Allow it to thicken a moment before turning off the heat.

After you have removed the buns from the oven, immediately brush them with the glaze then transfer them to a cooling rack.

 

 

 

Peppermint Bark

“Gargamel to Jokey.  Come in, Jokey.”

“Jokey Smurf here.  Go ahead, Gargamel.”

“There is Charlie all over the place.  I repeat: There is Charlie all over the place.”

“What do you want me to do?  Head north on Rossmore?”

“Yes so we can pick you up before Muirfield.  Can you copy?”

“Ten-four.”

“Hurry!  Over and out.”

This is how my parents picked me up from school one year the last Friday before winter break.  It was 1997.  Ally McBeal was all the rage.  Everyone smelled of CK One or Thierry Mugler’s Angel and car phones were the size of small laptops.  When I rang my parents from school it was via the pay phone in the hall for which we had a Sprint pin so I never required quarters.  The conversation above was thanks to the Motorola walkie talkies we had.

My family always went away someplace snowy for Christmas.  We would leave the moment school let out.  This is why my parents were anxious to pick me up as soon as possible.  15 hours in the car is a long time.  Add a moody teenager and a Maltese who gets carsick and that’s a really long time, like the Magi’s trip down the Silk Road to Bethlehem long.

How did we pass the hours?  Eddie Floyd, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Dead President’s soundtrack, slurpees, Red Vines, Cool Ranch Doritos, Algerian pop music, I spy with my little eye, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album, beef jerky from Chevron, turkey jerky from Chalet Gourmet, The Rolling Stones, Vegas!, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, Dire Straits, Dwight Yoakam, The Judds Christmas album, Blur, Elvis, The Home Alone Soundtrack, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on CD, sandwiches from Greenblatt’s, Evian, Gatorade, Fish Lake, pit stop, pee stop, stretch your legs, walk the dog, In-N-Out, Grand Junction, Aspen.

Aspen is beautiful no matter the time of year, but I love it most covered with snow.  It was a weird place though in that we would drive 900+ miles to escape Los Angeles only to be surrounded by all the same people we’d usually see back in Los Angeles.  All that had changed was the scenery.  Not that I’m complaining.

I loved going to Aspen.  I loved how on the first night, my dad would give my mother and I new flannel pajamas.  I loved that their ice skating rink had a women’s hockey team called the Mother Puckers and that not only did I start landing my first axel jumps there, but I also mastered a mean sit-spin with the help of a coach called Lisa.  I loved dog sledding and lunch at Krabloonik.  I loved that the Christmas tree we got in Aspen was different from the one we got in Los Angeles.  There we’d always get a sad little Charlie Brown tree, one that was small and lopsided and missing lots of pine needles.  The tree no other family would have chosen, that’s the one we chose.  We’d take it home and decorate it with strings of cranberries, popcorn balls, cookies, and millefiori beads my mother helped me make with a craft kit from Klutz.  And for the next two weeks, we’d tell it it was the most beautiful tree in the world.

There was a producer my father worked with who invited us to his house near Snowmass. He had reindeer and kept it decorated like Christmas year round.  The thing I remember most about this house was the endless supply of Williams Sonoma peppermint bark.

Williams Sonoma was the gold standard for kitchen shops in America when I was a child and their peppermint bark was the ultimate Christmas candy.  It still is.  Essentially, it’s a thin layer of minty chocolate topped with a thin layer of white chocolate and on top of that are crushed peppermints.  There are lots of copycat recipes.  Here is mine.

One taste and I feel like I’m young and back in Aspen at Christmastime again.  Waiting with my dog in the backseat of the car to pick up my dad from the base of Ajax.  Mama belting out “Beautiful star of Bethlehem” with Wynnona and Naomi in the driver’s seat.  Her pointer finger raised telling me to shush a minute until she’s finished singing.  Little do I know that years later Mama’s version of this song is all I’ll want hear once December rolls around.

Ingredients:

400 grams of good chocolate (I mix 250g Lindt milk with 150g Valrhona dark)

peppermint extract

5-10 Oreos, pulverized (I remove the white creamy filling first)

200 g white chocolate

5 mini candy canes, smashed

Method:

Line a jelly roll pan with foil then non-stick baking paper.

Sprinkle cookie crumbs all over the paper.

Oreo crumbs.

Oreo crumbs.

Heat the milk and dark chocolate in a double boiler until melted.

Stir 1/2 tsp of peppermint extract into the chocolate.  Taste it.  If you want the mint stronger, add a drop more.  Be careful not to add too much.

Pour the chocolate over the Oreo crumbs.  Smooth the surface with a spatula.

Allow the chocolate to cool for 30 minutes.

Now heat the white chocolate in the double boiler until it is smooth.

Pour the white chocolate on top of the dark chocolate.  Smooth the surface before sprinkling smashed candy canes over the top.

I know. It l

I know. It looks like Christmas elves are about to go on a bender.

Cool completely.  I allow mine to rest overnight.

Slice into pieces and store in a tin to serve at a later date or enjoy straight away.

Peppermint bark cross section.

Peppermint bark cross section.

I store mine in a tin then keep it in the refrigerator.

I store mine in a tin then keep it in the refrigerator.

Mincemeat

My daughter’s birthday is in early December.  This year, we are hosting an elf workshop party to celebrate her turning five.  The kids will decorate cookies, makes ornaments, play pin the nose on Rudolph, and inevitably have a strop or two whilst playing pass the parcel because let’s face it–there is always a child who is slightly unhappy about the sweetie or small toy they got.  There will also be limbo and musical statues and a playlist that is not exclusively from Disney movies.  Because I just couldn’t cope with that.  Thank God, she loves T. Rex and Tim Tim and Grieg.

Most importantly, there will be mince pies.

Mince pies were not part of my life until I moved to London.  For one thing, they don’t go with fish tacos and margaritas which is how my poolside Southern California Christmases were spent.  For another, I hate cooked raisins.  Or so I thought.   Then one holiday party a few years back, my eyes were opened wide and I was forced to admit “I like green eggs and ham!  I do!  I like them, Sam-I-Am!”

From Elizabeth David to Delia Smith to Mary Berry, there is one commonality where mince pies are concerned–the best require homemade mincemeat.  Some recipes call for suet. Others, use butter.  Some are simmered stove top.  Others are not.   For the sake of experimentation, I have done both.

I’ll let you know in a few weeks which I prefer, but I have a feeling my answer will be ALL OF THEM.  Until then I’ll be working on a gingerbread biscuit recipe whilst Helena continues to swan around in this amazing party dress my mother gave her.

elf-party-dress

 

 

Ingredients for mincemeat with suet and rum:

125 g raisins

100 g currants

75 g dried cherries

1 tart cooking apple (I use a Bramley), peeled, cored, and grated

40 g mixed peel

3 pieces of stem ginger, minced + 1 tsp of the ginger syrup

1/4 tsp freshly grated ginger

125 g dark brown sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground cloves

150 g shredded suet

the zest and juice of 1 lemon

the zest of 1 orange

75 ml rum (I used Pusser’s)

 

Method:  Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl then pack into sterilized jars.

20161118_101551

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ingredients for mincemeat with butter and Armagnac:

200 g raisins

150 g currants

100 g pitted dates, finely chopped

100 g dried cranberries

100 g slivered almonds

2 tart cooking apples, peeled, cored, and grated

the zest and juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange

75 g pecans or chestnuts, finely chopped

50 g slivered almonds

2 pieces of stem ginger, minced

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground ginger

125 g unsalted butter

220 g light brown sugar

140 ml Armagnac or brandy of your choice

 

Method:  Combine all ingredients, except for the Armanac, in a large saucepan.  Simmer and stir for about 10 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature before stirring in the Armaganc.  Seal in sterilized jars.

20161122_165608 20161122_171554

 

 

 

Mercy Pie

Christmas is one of those holidays that can be equal parts magic and mayhem.  I love it but it is also a stressful time for a great many people.   Travel delays, stroppy children, dwindling bank accounts, family feuds, maxed out credit cards, roasts gone awry, or a mother-in-law who still corresponds and exchanges holiday cards with your husband’s ex-girlfriend though you’ve been married for 5 years and have a child.  What I’m saying is there are many things to get on your nerves and make you feel grouchy when you want to feel merry.

In 1966 alto saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley, performed a song his pianist wrote.  He gives an introduction to the piece that he delivers like a church sermon:

You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity.  When it happens sometimes, we’re caught short.  We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over.  And I have advice for all of us.  I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem.  It’s called Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.

If you listen you’ll hear that this song has a 20 bar structure with 4 distinct sections just as this pie has 4 distinct sections–pastry, oatmeal, pecans, and pears.  It’s a dessert  that serves the comfort of a crumble in a buttery crust with a pear and oatmeal center that’s soft and treacly while still providing a bit of crunch thanks to the chopped pecans. Basically it tastes of clemency and feels like a hug.  Which is exactly what I want and sometimes need during the holidays especially when I’m crying mercy, mercy, mercy.  So whether it’s a slice for yourself or somebody else, try spreading a little around this festive season.  It might be just what your heart needs to get you feeling the love and magic again.

 

Merry Christmas, readers, and happy new year!

 

Ingredients:

1/2 recipe of only the best brisée ever

1 cup light brown sugar

2 tbsp flour

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp salt

4 eggs beaten

3/4 c golden syrup

1/4 c melted butter, slightly cooled

2 tsp vanilla

1 c uncooked oatmeal

1 c chopped pecans

1 c peeled chopped pear

 

Method:

Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C/Gas 4
Roll your crust and place it in your pie dish.  Crimp the edges then set it to chill in the fridge while you make the filling.
shell
In a large bowl combine the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt.  In another bowl combine the eggs, golden syrup, butter, and vanilla.  Slowly pour the dry ingredients into the wet.  Stir well.
Next incorporate the oats, pecans, and pears.
oatmeal
pears and pecans
Pour the filling into your shell.
pre-bake
Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.  When it’s finished, allow the pie to cool.  This will give the filling a chance to firm up a bit as the insides are so caramelly and soft.
post-bake crust treacle pool sorry for the flourescent light Marisa with pie

The Origins of Chagrinnamon Toast

I’ve never handled birthdays well.  Except my sixteenth.  And that’s only because my parents got The Beat to play at my party.  No one can be sad during a live performance of “Tears of a Clown.”  Not even an adolescent Chubby Princess in the bell jar.  

Most of the birthday parties I’ve had as an adult have resulted in me crying in my closet explaining my existential crisis to my shoes.  My 25th was no exception.  
 
After leaving Arkansas, I made a beeline to Brooklyn for the fall.  There, I sublet an apartment from a couple of musicians called the Golden Animals.  They were chic.  The accommodations were shabby.  And this is coming from me who once spent a summer as a volunteer at an orphanage in post-Ceauşescu Romania.  The apartment was so squalid.  I didn’t know what to do.  I called my dad.  “It looks nothing like the pictures on Craigslist!” I wailed.  To which he replied, “You have two options.  Be sad in the squalor or go to the local corner shop, buy some products, and clean it.”  I went out.  I came back.  I cleaned.  Five hours later the place still looked dirty.  But at least it felt clean–er anyway.  
 
I rewarded myself with a Red Stripe and decided to call Pony.  I knew he lived in Brooklyn like most of my friends.  I just didn’t know where.  Coincidentally, the squat I was renting was just off the street where he and his time-share beagle lived.  He had a beagle that he and his ex-girlfriend got when they were together.  Now that they weren’t, the dog took turns staying with them.  He got a week.  She got a week.  They were just like a divorced family.  And just like the child who hates whomever her divorced parent is dating, so did this little dog loathe me.  To be honest, I didn’t like her much either.  And she wasn’t even that pretty of a beagle which is something he liked to boast.
 
I hadn’t seen him in a couple weeks and I had no clue about his life in New York.  I didn’t know if he was good at any of the sports he liked to play.  I didn’t know his middle name.  I didn’t know how strict a vegetarian he was.  And I certainly didn’t know if he was seeing anyone.  Which he was.  Which is why he was cagey and why I didn’t understand him leaving town the weekend of my birthday.  
 
To celebrate my quarter of a century, my childhood friend, The Queen of Kentucky, organized a dinner for me as well as a party at the top of The Gansevoort.  True to form, I ate too little and drank too much.  I got sick.  I made a French exit and found myself at 60 Thompson.  There, I sought refuge with a photographer friend who was in town for a few days to do a magazine spread with Naomi Watts.  I took over his bed.  I crawled under the covers and moped.  I rang several friends and asked if they wanted to come to my pity party.  Like the best friends in the world, they did.  They even brought me flowers, Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, a quart of milk and a plastic tiara.  Never had I felt so sad and loved.  
 
When the sun rose, so did I.  I quietly gathered my birthday treasures and tiptoed over my sleeping friend.  I hopped in a cab and went back to Brooklyn where the driver dropped me at the corner of Cappuccino and Cannoli.  Fortunato Brothers is not only the best Italian bakery in all of Brooklyn but it’s spitting distance from where I lived.  Which also meant spitting distance from Pony.  Which means I should have known better.  
As I stepped outside, the old men who always loiter there with their snacks, smoking cigarillos and shooting dice, whistled and called to me in Italian.  Sure I was still in last night’s silk, halter, Michele-Pfeiffer-in-Scarface-style, party dress but I emanated death, even with a tiara on top.  I waved and smiled politely.  I felt bad for them if their standards were so low as to harass the likes of me.  Just then a small dog started barking at me from across the street.  I squinted through my glasses.  It was the hateful beagle.
 
My head throbbed.  The roar of the butterflies was getting to me.  Now I had to deal with this yapping beast?  I knew Pony had spent the weekend with another girl even if he didn’t say so.  The last thing I wanted was to now make small talk with him in the street as his dog glared at me.  I felt like a fucked up, less glamorous version of Holly Golightly at the beginning of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  
I don’t remember what we said.  I don’t remember my walk home.  I just remember checking my email when I got there and seeing everything I felt summed up in a photo for the first time.  It was a photo of me.  In bed.  Last night.  Wearing my tiara.  Eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.  Crying.  My friend, the Rabbi’s Son, who is wise as an owl, commented.  Chagrinnamon Toast.  That was exactly it.  Sweet and sad just like João Gilberto’s bossa nova.  Or even The Beat’s “Tears of a Clown.”
Until that moment, I had never been able to sum up the kind of person I am or the life experiences I’ve had.  I’ve also never understood why in times of crisis, I always crave cinnamon toast–the real thing or the kids’ cereal.  On the first day of kindergarten which I found extremely stressful, my mother made cinnamon toast for me after school.  Cinnamon is and has always been my palliative.  Kind of like French toast for Conrad in Ordinary People.  When I eat it, I know I’m loved and everything is going to be okay.