It is said that hot cross buns were once a purely Easter treat; they were toasted to a perfectly crisp outside, and a fluffy on the inside and then buttered and enjoyed as Easter breakfast by the entire family, but not anymore.
But an article published in the BBC Magazine by Finlo Rohrer tells us the wonderful history and significance of this twice-a-year delight in much more detail: “The Church of England likes to set the distinctive baked goods, perhaps not unsurprisingly, in a Christian context. They are historically eaten on Good Friday, and the symbolism is evident. And yet the precise role of hot cross buns in Christianity and even their provenance seems to be a little hazy.
“Google the term and you’ll find a plethora of theories — that they go back to Roman times, that they are a Saxon thing, and even that they are a pagan rather than Christian item.
“You will very often see a suggestion that a 12th-century monk first incised a cross on a bun. Yet another recent theory tied the tradition of the buns to a monk in the 14th century, St Albans. Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference to hot cross buns is only from 1733. It’s in the form of the ditty: Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, with one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.”
There’s more to hot cross buns than meets the eye. These sweet spiced buns are traditionally served not only on Easter but Christmas too
Going to a Catholic school we grew up singing this song, and it was a delight to read its history now. Food historian, Ivey Day writes that the words of the famous song appearing in this reference does rather suggest that the term may have been around a while before that, but any history of the bun wanders into conjecture. He further adds, “The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no one tended to write about them in the very early period.”
The street cries of ‘hot cross buns’ seem to be quite old. The buns were made in London during the 18th century. But when you start looking for records or recipes earlier than that, you hit nothing. History talks about hot cross buns being eaten for breakfast in London. Unlike contemporary buns, where the cross is made of piped lines of pastry, the original cross was cut into the bun.
It is not even clear when the buns are supposed to be eaten. The Church of England associates them with Good Friday, that day when the symbolism of the cross is all important. But you can find some references to them being eaten during Lent and Christmas.
Hot Cross Buns
- ¾ cup luke warm water
- 4 teaspoons instant dry yeast
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- 1/3 cup dried raisins
- ¼ orange peel
Ingredients for glaze
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 teaspoons water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Ingredients for icing
- ¾ cup icing sugar, sifted
- 1 teaspoon milk, plus extra if needed
For the dough, measure all of the ingredients except the raisins and set into the bowl, knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about five minutes (the dough should be soft and must stick to the bottom of the bowl). If mixing by hand, stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together, then turn out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth. Towards the end of kneading, add the raisins and mixed peel and knead again. Scrape the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 75 to 90 minutes, until doubled in size.
Turn the risen dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and divide into 12 even pieces. Shape each piece into a ball by rolling between your hands while it remains on the work surface. Place the rolled buns in a greased 9-x-13-inch pan, leaving space between them. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the buns rise for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Uncover the buns and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a rich brown on top. While still hot from the oven, prepare the glaze.
For the glaze, bring the sugar, water and vanilla up to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is fully dissolved. Brush this syrup over the still-hot buns, until it has all been used. Let the buns cool completely in the tin.
For the icing, stir the icing sugar and milk together until a thick consistency suitable for piping (add a few more drops of milk, if needed). Pour this into a small piping bag and pipe crosses on top of each bun, letting the icing set for an hour before serving.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, December 15th, 2019