Finding beauty

T.S. Eliot may have thought of April as the cruelest month, but he also wrote that it breeds “lilacs out of the dead land” and, in my books, nothing that leads to lilacs can be all that cruel.

I have spent the past week in my retreat just outside Wakefield, Quebec, and have enjoyed a perfect combination of solitude and socializing, while also watching the natural world around me come out of hibernation. Three days of sun and warmth had even the snow lingering in the shade of the forests making a fast retreat.

On one of those days, friends and I made a drive up into the hills so I could buy my year’s supply of maple syrup from Ferme et Foret’s roadside, honour-system farm stand. Of course, once there I couldn’t resist the maple butter and maple granola, so my bag was heavy by the time I climbed back into the car.  

After eating maple syrup pie until our teeth hurt (and enough bacon to sate even the most dedicated bacon fan) at one of the area’s cabanes a sucre, we drove to the National Gallery to see an exhibit of Impressionist paintings by Canadian artists.

From my perspective, there could have been no better exhibit to break the two-year absence of art gallery visits. The paintings – gentle, soft, light in colour and subject matter – were the perfect antidote to the grimness and isolation of life in a global pandemic. (And, I am happy to report, despite no mask mandate, most of the other gallery goers, like us, were masked.)

In the company of corn

For the next few days, my only company was the modest-looking corn plant in the corner of the living room in the house I rent.  Officially called Dracaena fragrans, I had never paid much attention to it on my previous visits. However, as the day turned to evening, I noticed an intoxicating scent filling the room, and tracked it to this plant, which was in full bloom.

Its perfume is almost impossible to describe. One website I looked at said it smelled like a combination of jasmine, lilac, honey and freshly cut grass. My host, the grower of this magnificent plant, who told me it had never before bloomed, described the scent as “like having sex with the jungle in your nose.” I will admit that I have never had sex with the jungle in my nose, so I don’t really know what that would smell like, but her description is exotic sounding enough for me. The smell lasts for several hours and, along with that day’s blooms, is gone by morning, to return, as do fresh blooms, the next evening. This process continues for about a month, and I have been fortunate enough to enjoy it for one whole week of that time. I only wish I could have dreamed up a way to capture that smell in a jar for later.

Hot cross buns

Earlier this week, I started to see packages of hot cross buns appear in supermarkets. While they can do in an emergency – and, for those of us who love HCB, there can be emergencies where nothing will do but to have one right away — they bear little resemblance to the real thing. They’re not especially hard to make, and I plan to whip up a batch when I get home.

Here’s how I make mine, but be creative and vary the spices, dried/candied fruits and what you use for your glaze. You could even add some chopped nuts. Not being a Christian, I skip the crosses that traditionally top each bun.

Heat 1 cup milk with 6 Tbsp. butter until butter is melted and milk is hot to the touch. (If the milk gets too hot by the time the butter melts, just set it aside for a few minutes to cool slightly.)

Stir in 1 Tbsp. sugar, honey or maple syrup, then sprinkle I package (2 tsp.) dry yeast over the top. Set aside until the yeast begins to fizz, which will take about 10 minutes.

While you are waiting for the yeast to activate, combine 4 cups flour, ¼ cup sugar, 1 tsp. salt and a total of about 2 tsp. spices (I like to use a combination of cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, but you might like to use cloves or allspice) in a large mixing bowl.

Gently pour in the yeast mixture and stir in along with 1 large egg. When well mixed, add ½ cup currants, raisins or chopped dried cranberries and ¼ cup candied mixed peel (or use ¾ cup dried fruit and skip the candied peel), and stir or mix by hand until the fruit is well incorporated into the dough.

Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead well for 10 to 15 minutes or until the dough springs back when you touch it with your finger. Shape the dough into a ball, place in a large, greased bowl, cover with a dish towel and set in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size.

Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto the floured work surface and punch it down. Divide into equal sized balls of whatever size you want (this recipe makes about 12 medium sized buns). Place the balls on parchment-lined cookie sheets, cover with a dish towel and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size. This rising will be shorter than the first.

Brush the buns with an egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 Tbsp. milk) and bake at 375 degrees F for 15 – 20 minutes, until they are golden brown on the outside and baked through. (If they sound hollow when you tap them on the bottom, they should be ready to take out of the oven.)

As the buns cool, you can make a glaze of sugar syrup (equal parts sugar and water cooked together until the sugar is melted) or marmalade or apricot jam heated with a bit of water until smooth to brush over the cooling buns.

Carsie Blanton says a song is a magic spell, which is true enough, but so is a warm-from-the-oven hot cross bun slathered in butter. Enjoy one soon!

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