Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Hot Cross Buns Are Older Than You Think
Forget everything you thought you knew about hot cross buns. Yes, they are hot, they are buns, and there is a cross on top, but they were not the brainchild of an Anglican monk. To find the true origins of these bread-y bites, you need to hop into the way-back machine and travel to Britain where some sixteen hundred years ago Anglo-Saxon descendants of Germanic tribes paid tribute to a goddess of springtime. Small loaves of bread were offered to her in sacrifice; the bread bore a cross that divided each bun into four equal quadrants symbolizing the four seasons. The name of the goddess—Eostre.
For the next part of our story, we need to focus our attention on Rome. It was there, in about 540 A.D. (the exact date is unknown), that Gregorius was born to Gordianus and Silvia Anicius, a wealthy Roman family. He was well educated, exceptional in literature, the sciences, law, rhetoric, and Latin, and at the age of 33 became Prefect of Rome. One year later, upon the death of his father, Gregorius renounced secular life and converted the family villa into a monastery. He held a deep respect for the monastic life and would have happily maintained that position until his death. However, in 579, Pope Pelagius II appointed Gregorius to the position of deacon. In 590, Pelagius II died from the plague, and Gregorius ascended to the papacy.
The Origins of the Bread
Why is this important? It was Gregorius (now Pope Gregory I) who commissioned a group of 40 monks to travel to England. Their mission was the conversion of the pagans of that land to Christianity. The task was much easier said than done. Britons believed that every bit of nature, every season and whim of the weather, every tree, rock, animal, and body of water possessed a soul and they were all guarded by deities. That's a lot of beliefs to thwart.
The monks, led by Augustine, arrived in Canterbury in 597 A.D. Rather than dismiss the rituals and customs of the Britons, Augustine and the monks chose to “Christianize” the celebrations. Heathen practices became events celebrating Christ and the saints. The December Yule festival became a recognition of the birth of Christ.
Worship of the goddess Eostre was based on the vernal equinox, the time at which the hours of sunlight increase, signaling regrowth, fertility, and new birth. This was also the time of Jewish Passover which, of course, was being celebrated at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The name Eostre became Easter, and the mark which divided her bread offerings into four equal parts became the sign of the cross.
Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!
One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,
One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!
— 18th-century English nursery rhyme
They Became the Only Food to Eat on Good Friday
The "Christianization" of pagan celebrations was successful, so much so that beliefs and attitudes veered to the opposite extreme. Food historians tell us that in 1361, an Anglican monk named Father Thomas Rodcliffe made small spice buns on “The Day of the Cross.” In homage to that holy day, he imprinted the buns with the sign of the cross and distributed them to the poor who visited his St. Albans monastery. This became an annual tradition and so it was that bread buns, which had once been sacrificed to Eostre, were now regarded as the only food that the devout could consume on Good Friday.
Since Father Rodcliffe’s recipe employed the same dough that was formed into communion wafers, the hot cross buns were also considered to be sacred. They were dried and ground to a powder which was then used as a curative.
During the 16th century, Elizabeth I banned the practice of Catholicism. Bakers who continued to fashion buns with the sign of the cross were accused of “Popery.” In response, they argued that the crosscut was nothing more than a mechanism to facilitate the proper rising of the dough. The queen recognized that she could not win the argument, but passed a law forbidding the hot cross buns on any day except Easter and Christmas. To this day, many English bakeries still limit their baking of the buns to these two holidays.
Basic Hot Cross Bun Recipe
Adapted from Lavender and Lovage
Ingredients for Buns
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not instant)
- 1/4 cup super-fine sugar (see note below)
- 3 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon mace
- 1/8 teaspoon cloves
- 1/8 teaspoon coriander
- 1/4 cup butter, softened
- 1 large egg
- 2/3 cup raisins
Ingredients for Piping Paste
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg
Ingredients for Glaze
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 2 tablespoons superfine sugar (If you cannot find superfine sugar, pulverize white granulated sugar in a blender until fine but not powdery.)
- Heat milk to lukewarm in a microwave. Stir in dry yeast and sugar and set aside for 10 minutes.
- Sift the flour, salt, and spices into a large mixing bowl. Use a pastry blender to cut the softened butter. Stir in the raisins.
- Make a well in the center of the flour/butter/raisin mixture.
- Stir the egg into the milk/yeast mixture. Mix with a fork until blended. Pour this into the well and mix together with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough.
- Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
- Shape dough into a ball and place in a greased bowl. Cover top of the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean towel and set it in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
- Gently punch down the risen dough, shape into a ball and return to the bowl to rise again for 30 minutes.
- Again, gently punch down the dough, and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 12 equal pieces. Roll each into a ball. Place on a greased baking sheet. Cover and set aside for about 45 minutes.
- Make the piping mixture and spoon into a piping bag. Make a cross on the top of each bun.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Bake buns until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Brush with glaze and place on wire rack to cool.
Combine ingredients to form a stiff (but pipeable) paste).
Stir ingredients together.
Chocolate Hot Cross Buns
Like the original recipe, these buns have a hint of spice but are sweetened with vanilla, an extra dose of sugar, and chocolate chips. Marie's hot cross buns have a soft crumb, fluffy texture, and brownie-like flavor that will win over the chocolate lovers in your family.
Hot Cross Bun Loaf
Williams-Sonoma simplifies the recipe by fashioning one bread-pan-sized loaf, very similar in construction to cinnamon bread. The filling is a combination of brown sugar and cinnamon. Thick slices toasted and slathered with good-quality butter are just about perfection.
Hot Cross Molasses Raisin Tea Buns
Barry is a best-selling author of three cookbooks, a freelance food writer, a full-time blogger, and the one I go to when I want an imaginative, innovative spin on a traditional recipe. These molasses tea buns don't rely on yeast. Baking powder and baking soda give them their "lift" and make these quick to fix—less than one hour from start to finish.
© 2019 Linda Lum