Hot cross buns remind me of being a kid. And not just because I can still play the following on a recorder, 23 years after learning it from my music teacher, Mrs. Ibbott:
(Has a more irritating ditty ever been written?)
Hot cross buns remind me of childhood because growing up we ate them every single year on Good Friday (and all Easter weekend-long because my mum always bought a lot). Naturally I didn’t eat the whole bun – a great deal of picking and dissecting was required to extract the horrible bits, especially the candied peel. But once all the objectionable matter was gone, I loved those spicy, fragrant little breads with their neat crossed tops.
Apart from the crucifixion symbolism, I realized the other day that I don’t know very much about hot cross buns. And it turns out they’ve got quite a spicy history. The idea of the bun may go back to pagan times; historians have tied early versions of it to everyone from the Saxons to the Aztecs. In more recent history, we know that the buns, along with Chelsea buns, currant buns and Bath buns – all forms of fruit bun – were enormously popular in Tudor times, when they were simply called cross buns. The 'hot' was eventually tacked on from the bakers' street cry 'Hot cross buns!' as in 'Get your cross buns hot!'
Elizabeth I, viewing them as a dangerous Catholic holdover, was concerned by this enormous popularity. (A bun with the power to convert whole populations? That is quite a baked good!) In 1592 she decreed that no baker could 'make, utter, or sell by retail' any form of spiced cakes, buns or biscuits, except on Good Friday, Christmas and for funerals. The law didn’t last long, and while various other attempts to ban or regulate them were apparently made over the years, the monarchs eventually gave up – their subjects wanted their buns!
And who can blame them if they were as good as these? I know it seems slightly over the top to make your own hot cross buns given how they’re piled high in the shops at this time of year, but I was blown away by the difference in quality. This recipe makes a dense, slightly moister bun than most store-bought ones, and I thought it was more than worth the effort.
NB: If you’re making the recipe below, note that I substituted dried yeast for fresh, which is almost impossible to find in the stores. You need about half the amount of dried yeast when substituting for fresh. My dough didn’t rise very much at all during both risings, which was rather alarming. However, once out of the oven they were perfectly fine.
Hot Cross Buns
Adapted from The New Family Bread Book by Ursula Ferrigno
450g (1lb) bread flour
85g (3oz) unsalted butter, diced
85g (3oz) light brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice (or substitute a combination of ginger, cloves, allspice, mace and cardamom)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
20g (3/4oz) fresh yeast (difficult to find, so you can substitute 10g dried yeast. See note above.)
250ml (9 fl oz) milk
1 large egg, beaten
200g (7oz) mixed raisins, sultanas and currants
55g (20z) candied lemon peel (optional)
100ml (3.5 fl oz) water
100g (3.5fl oz) flour
2 Tbsp golden syrup or honey
Sift the flour into a large bowl or into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the butter and rub together or mix until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the salt, sugar and spices. Blend the yeast with 2 tsbp of the milk and add to the flour mixture, along with the egg and enough of the remaining milk to form a smooth dough.
Knead the dough for five minutes on a lightly floured surface, or knead with the paddle attachment in the mixer for two minutes, before finishing off for three minutes by hand. The dough should be smooth and elastic. Now gradually incorporate the fruit. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel, and leave to rise for at least one hour, until doubled in size. You can also leave it overnight at this point.
Knock back the dough, then on a lightly floured surface, knead for two to three minutes. Cut it into 12 pieces and shape into balls. Place on a greased baking sheet, spaced apart. Cover again and leave to proof for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 220C / 400F. When the buns are ready to go in the oven, mix the water, flour and egg in a jug or measuring cup to make the paste for the crosses. Pour it into a small plastic bag and seal. Snip the corner and pipe a cross onto each bun.
Bake for 15 minutes in the centre of the oven until golden and brown. While the buns are still warm, brush them with the syrup or honey.
These buns are best eaten the day they are made as they go firm quite quickly. After they are more than a couple of hours old, they are best toasted and served with butter and jam.