I can’t be the only person who responds to stress by cooking. But I may be the only person I know who responds to illness through the overwhelming urge to cook. Specifically, it has to be baked things: preferably spiced, scented, fruity things that evoke memories of my Mumini’s ginormous rock cakes cooking, or the epic baking days where she would make thousands of fruit cakes, sago plum puddings and chocolate raisin cakes, to be distributed in the Christmas hampers and frozen for us to graze on over/after Christmas. The funny thing is, I want none of those cooked things: if I mentioned such a wish, my Mumini would be on the doorstep in a heartbeat, a still-steaming tray in her hands. I just want the cooking smells. Rockcakes, massive, filling, firm things somewhere between biscuit and scone, were heralds of my Mumini’s parents coming to visit: my Nana and Pop. Pop was a man of vast proportions and appetite — and, if we’re being honest, a huge glutton — and a ready supply of rockcakes stopped him eating all the bread, butter, jam and anything else he could find in the cupboard. It was a way of directing his gluttony along a predictable avenue. I adored having my Nan and Pop coming to visit, so the smell of rockcakes cooking, heavy on the mixed fruit and allspice, is the smell of excitement. Similarly, all the spicy fruity smells that I associate with cooking at Christmas time fill me with happy anticipation — another childhood imprint that I’m thankful for.
I’ve crashed with a “non-specific virus”, which has left me extremely cranky, vague and depressed. As you can imagine, I’m about as much fun to be around as a ball of wet hair. I spent yesterday being quiet and gentle to myself, sitting calmly and knitting, trying not to attract attention. I sat in the sun. I read poetry. I wrote poetry. I worked on a story I’m fiddling with. I watched some Leunig animations. I went for an extremely gentle walk around the block, just to get some fresh air. I did everything right, I think. Only I can’t have: today I’m worse. I’m too tired and ill for yoga or the gentlest of walks around the block, and I’m pretty damned surly about the whole state of affairs.
In order to cheer myself up, I turned to baking. It’s a tricky thing: while sick, I find it tiring to be up and down and in the kitchen, but on the other hand, I feel better about things in general if I’m doing something soothing and nice-smelling. So I decided it was worth pushing myself a little bit. Enter the Wild Yeast Blog, my go-to guide for baking and bread porn needs. Enter, specifically, her sexy Hot Cross Buns. The best part about the recipe was the many opportunities to sit down and rest. Mix the sponge, have a rest; mix the flours and spices, have a rest; knead the dough, have a rest. A long rest. Proof them for an hour, with a fold halfway through, then shape and let them rest another hour.
And bugger me if they didn’t look the part! I don’t know why I was so surprised, but as I was shaping, the thought crossed my mind: “huh, these smell like hot cross buns!” The crosses are made with a thick paste of vegetable oil and flour, diluted carefully with water until it’s thin enough to pipe with. However, I am a lazy bethini, so I used just enough water to make it pliable and doughy, then rolled out tiny thin snakes on the bench with it, and draped them over the buns, pressing them into the surface slightly.
But when they baked, I couldn’t tell the difference. As soon as they’re out, you brush them with some thickened sugar syrup, which promptly evaporates and leaves a glossy, sticky glaze which appealed to me far more than I thought it would, since I tend to like the savoury over the sweet.
Oh, the heavenly smells. The allspice, the nutmeg, the cinnamon; the mixed fruit, the candied peel. They’re incredibly good, fluffy and soft and butter-melty. Behold my buns!
These suckers are delicious and the recipe is as easy as pie, especially if you’re using a bread machine or stand mixer for your kneading/rising. I kneaded mine by hand, and that only took me ten minutes, so they’re not time-consuming, even if you do it the hard way. The sponge-proofing and both risings combined give a waiting-around time of around 2-3 hours, but you can do other stuff. Like the cryptic crossword or groom your dog or wax your nipples Hell, I don’t care. My point is that these are worth it. They’re a million years away from the dumb clouds pretending to be buns you buy from the supermarket, and you can’t beat fresh-from-the-oven for this stuff, especially when it fills your house with spice-and-fruit smells, making you calm and nostalgic. Do it! Make ’em! I’m gonna go lay down.