Like so many seasonal or holiday baked goods hot crossed buns can be prepared any time of the year. It’s not like the bakery gremlins are going to jump out from behind the wheat barrel and confiscate “unseasonal” baking. But, all the same, there is something to be said about allowing traditions and the flow of the seasons to prompt us to mix up our culinary repertoire.
Let Easter (or now) serve as the reason to mix up your baking by preparing a batch of hot crossed buns. If you can make buns you can make hot crossed buns – the only difference is the addition of a few spices to our standard whole wheat yeast bread recipe along with a cup of raisins added just before the dough is kneaded for the second time. When the buns have cooled they get a tiny bit of icing. That’s it. Simple, easy, fast and a delicious difference. Make a batch and the bakery gremlins who make these disappear will end up being your family members.
If there is a quintessential flavor to the fall, for me anyway, it is cider. That sweet flavor marks the conclusion of the summer and if not quite the close of the harvest season – its impending approach.
Like so many things in life there is the converse to the equation. For me maple syrup, and particularly tire d’erable aka maple taffy is the taste that while not always in line with the calendar date for the start of spring, marks the reality in a much more meaningful fashion. In order for the sap to flow the days need to be above zero but the nights still below, conditions which see the snow disappearing under the strengthening sun but not yet quite to the point that the hardiest garden occupants can be seeded out under protective coverings. If the final cider pressing coincided with the conclusion of the harvests of the previous season – save perhaps for some game and fowl – maple syrup season marks the sweet start to the promise of another season of bounty.
If you have a few maples you can easily secure some if not all of your own syrup. Spiles, buckets and their corresponding lids are still available – even if commercial ventures have shifted to less labour intensive pipeline systems.
Tapping maple trees – the first drops of spring
The tire d’erable – maple taffy itself is easy, even for first time candymakers (for that is what you will be after you have made it – a candymaker, and likely hooked on the process of turning simple ingredients and sugar into so much more).
If you don’t have your own trees you can use purchased syrup. You’ll also need a pan of clean snow or clean finely crushed ice to solidify the liquid candy, and some sticks. Popsicle sticks would be best but any clean stick or bamboo skewer will do.
As sugar solutions heat up they go through a couple of stages – the first is called soft ball stage, here the sugar solution when cooled forms a plastic pliable mass. As its temperature increases it transitions into hard ball stage where when cooled you get a hard candy. Move much beyond the hard ball stage and you get carbon – a disappointment compared to the other stages.
You can use a candy thermometer to establish these stages – or you can use the spoon you are stirring the syrup with to judge as small samples. How viscous (thick) is the hot syrup as it cools. If it starts to thicken significantly as it cools you are probably at softball. If as it cools while pouring the sample back into the mother liquor you find some clinging to the spoon and perhaps forming candy floss ribbons from wayward drips you’ve reached hardball stage.
For maple taffy (tire d’erable) you want to get to soft ball stage, and you can even get a bit beyond soft ball to play it safe.
Once you’ve reached this point pour out lines of the hot candied syrup on the snow, wait about half a minute and then insert a stick at one end of the candy line, roll it up and usher in spring and the promise of a season of harvest.