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Exploring Hot Cross Buns: Folklore, Facts, and Fun Recipes

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

hot cross buns

hot cross buns

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.

St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Kent, England

St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Kent, England

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 was 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 super-fine sugar (If you cannot find superfine sugar, pulverize white granulated sugar in a blender until fine but not powdery.).

Instructions

  1. Heat milk to lukewarm in a microwave. Stir in dry yeast and sugar and set aside for 10 minutes.
  2. Sift the flour, salt, and spices into a large mixing bowl. Use a pastry blender to cut the softened butter. Stir in the raisins.
  3. Make a well in the center of the flour/butter/raisin mixture.
  4. 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.
  5. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
  6. 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 in a warm draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
  7. Gently punch down the risen dough, shape into a ball and return to the bowl to rise again for 30 minutes.
  8. 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.
  9. Make the piping mixture and spoon into a piping bag. Make a cross on the top of each bun.
  10. 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.

Piping mixture: Combine ingredients to form a stiff (but pipeable) paste).

Glaze mixture: Stir ingredients together.

Chocolate Hot Cross Buns

Chocolate Hot Cross Buns

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

Hot Cross Bun Loaf

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.

Sources

© 2019 Linda Lum

Comments

Ann Carr from SW England on April 22, 2019:

Sounds lovely! The sunshine here has been amazing; often very warm here when Easter is late. Back to normal temperatures at the end of the week, they say! In other words, April showers!

Ann

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Ann yes there are several versions of the rhyme (and it makes no sense to me either). Easter was wonderful. After church, we ate a light lunch and then worked out in the garden (it was warm and sunny). We had a vegetarian dinner (no ham on our table). My husband said the best part was the lemon bars, his favorite.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 22, 2019:

A few things I didn't know here; thanks for the education!

They rhyme I was brought up with was slightly different was 'One a penny, two a penny...' Neither makes sense to me, but that doesn't matter!

We had a few hot cross buns yesterday and today. Still some left for tomorrow!

Hope you had a happy Easter, Linda!

Ann

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 15, 2019:

Wow Eric, your kitchen sounds like have love-fest and half science experiment.

I'm working on an article completely about the medicinal properties of herbs and spices. Stay tuned.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 15, 2019:

Thank you Linda. I will experiment.

I did a cloves, turmeric, cinnamon, Cumin and palm sugar deal on lightly toasted multi grain bread with decadent butter and raw unfiltered local honey. Too sweet and wow we loved it. I used an ACV to mix and give a bit of zing zang. I did the black pepper but laid off the Cayenne. I did not let him know about the pure peanuts as he thinks he does peanut butter (kids)

Today I will do a fresh berry antioxidant spread

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 15, 2019:

Shauna, the history lesson was the "funnest" part for me. In all honesty, I'm not a huge fan of hot cross buns, but I thought it might interest a few people this week.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 15, 2019:

Linda, I have never had hot cross buns. Hard to believe, huh? And I'm Catholic!

I really enjoyed the history lesson. You did a great job of relaying the origin of these Easter goodies.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 13, 2019:

Hi Dianna, I'm glad that you enjoyed it. Now that you have the recipe, do you think you might be baking these in the future?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 13, 2019:

Mary, this was a fun one to write although I am probably a bit late if I want Googlers (is that a word?) to see it before Easter. Thanks for stopping by.

Dianna Mendez on April 13, 2019:

I had hot cross buns once and they are a nice addition to a meal. Thanks for sharing the true history of this treat.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on April 13, 2019:

I have these quite often. I use a recipe similar to yours. I didn't know the history so found this quite interesting.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 13, 2019:

Bill, these aren't your average bun. They are full of wonderful, warm spices. Some bakers take the easy way out and make the cross with icing. The recipe I've shared is the traditional method with a flour and egg paste that is baked on the bread.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 13, 2019:

Eric, you are spot-on with regard to the medicinal properties of the spices. I am working on an article that will talk specifically about herbal medicine.

As for pre-made dough, I can offer an "almost." Since you live in the United States you should have access to Pillsbury hot roll mix. It will be in the baking section of your grocery store. It's a dry mix (which includes the yeast) and you add water. You should easily be able to add whatever spices you want.

Yes, there is frozen bread dough for making loaves and dinner rolls, but I don't know how you could evenly distribute the spices through the dough. You could modify the hot cross bun loaf recipe and put all of the spices in the filling.

I hope those suggestions help.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 13, 2019:

I've probably had them and didn't realize what they were called. I'm a big bun man, so I'm sure I liked them. :)

Enjoy the rain this weekend. We don't have much of a choice.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 13, 2019:

Pamela, I tossed in that version for my chocolate-loving friends but, like you, I would prefer the original.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 13, 2019:

Chitrangada, I'm happy that you stopped by today. Baking is such a wonderful activity. It makes the entire house smell just wonderful, doesn't it?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 13, 2019:

Fantastic as always Linda. I have been needing to explain "Christianize" to Gabe. What a great way to do it right here.

Mom made stuff very German style. But this struck me as Panecillos de Pascua, which I had to look up as no way I remembered that name. Seems to me it was "Christianized" also.

So Linda can you address an issue some day. Do not expect that I even understand my question. "Pre-Made Dough"? Can I cheat on recipes a little bit or a big bit with buying the dough almost done? Like can I just add the spices into a dough.

Oh and by the way my research tells me that the spices used in recipes for these are really good for you.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 13, 2019:

We use to get hot cross buns near Easter sometimes when I was a child, but I had no idea of the long history of these rolls. I had no idea the rolls came in chocolate, and I think I would rather have the original flavor.

This is a very interesting article, with the history and thanks for the recipes.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 13, 2019:

These sound so yummy. These buns are one of my favourites.

Thanks for sharing the detailed instructions and the pictures. I have some sweet memories related to these, Hot cross buns, of my children.

Thanks for sharing this excellent and well presented article!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 12, 2019:

Flourish, this is not an article that I had planned to write, but I started to see the buns pop up in the grocery stores, and thought it was time to help all of us explore the tradition. There's almost always an interesting tale to go along with a food that has been with us for so long. Thanks for stopping by.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 12, 2019:

John, I am so happy to hear from you. There is a supposed history behind the rhyme, and I didn't delve into it here. I would love if you could pursue it.

Thank you for your kind words.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 12, 2019:

What a fascinating and timely article on the history of a favorite. That loaf sounds and looks incredible! I can taste it now, well almost!

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 12, 2019:

This was great, Linda. I love hot cross buns and they are a must in our household each Easter. Thanks so much for the recipe for the basic buns and links to the others. The supermarkets here are starting to sell them more than a month before Easter, the reason being that they are one of the most popular items so they see the $$$ signs early.

Maybe I need to look into the history of the hot cross bun nursery rhyme to include in my series lol but I think your history of the actual buns was remarkable enough. Good job.