Hot Cross Buns

by Meeta Wolff

This chapter is a free excerpt from What's For Lunch, Honey?.

One of the most comforting aromas for me is the one of freshly-baked bread emanating from the oven and filling the house with its sweet, yeasty perfumes. Living in Germany, I have the most wonderful variety of fresh bread available from an abundance of several bakeries to choose from; in the short distances I drive each day from home to work, which is about 4 kilometers (approx. 2.5 miles), there are six bakeries—two of which offer organic breads and baked treats. Yes, I am definitely spoilt for choice. As a result, it is not very often that I feel the need to make homemade bread. But there are certain types of breads that even Germany does not offer, and I’ve dedicated some time to making high-quality breads of my own: these Hot Cross buns.

In Christian history, the buns were traditionally eaten on Good Friday, and are specifically sold in bakeries and supermarkets throughout the Easter season. Each bun has cross piped, either with icing, pastry or glaze, on top to signify the crucifixion. But though they have been a Lenten and Good Friday tradition for centuries, Hot Cross Buns were not always associated with Christianity. The origins of the crumb lie in pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. During early missionary efforts, the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the cross. In 1361, a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe began a tradition of giving Hot Cross Buns to the poor of St. Albans on Good Friday.

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One of the most comforting aromas for me is the one of freshly-baked bread emanating from the oven and filling the house with its sweet, yeasty perfumes. Living in Germany, I have the most wonderful variety of fresh bread available from an abundance of several bakeries to choose from; in the short distances I drive each day from home to work, which is about 4 kilometers (approx. 2.5 miles), there are six bakeries—two of which offer organic breads and baked treats. Yes, I am definitely spoilt for choice. As a result, it is not very often that I feel the need to make homemade bread. But there are certain types of breads that even Germany does not offer, and I’ve dedicated some time to making high-quality breads of my own: these Hot Cross buns.

In Christian history, the buns were traditionally eaten on Good Friday, and are specifically sold in bakeries and supermarkets throughout the Easter season. Each bun has cross piped, either with icing, pastry or glaze, on top to signify the crucifixion. But though they have been a Lenten and Good Friday tradition for centuries, Hot Cross Buns were not always associated with Christianity. The origins of the crumb lie in pagan traditions of ancient cultures, with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. During early missionary efforts, the Christian church adopted the buns and re-interpreted the cross. In 1361, a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe began a tradition of giving Hot Cross Buns to the poor of St. Albans on Good Friday.

In years that followed, many customs, traditions, superstitions, and claims of healing and protection from evil and were associated with the buns. In the 16th century, Roman Catholicism was banned in England, but the popularity of Hot Cross buns continued. Queen Elizabeth I passed a law banning the consumption of Hot Cross Buns except during festivals such as Easter, Christmas, and funerals. (Source: Wikipedia)

In England, Hot Cross Buns were once sold by street vendors who advertised their buns with cries of "Hot Cross Buns! Hot Cross Buns!" These street cries became the famous nursery rhyme:

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

As I went to a British School, I certainly remember singing the rhyme. I would not say the Hot Cross Buns I have had in my life were of the gourmet kind, but they were certainly delicious. I loved the smell of the spices and the sweet aroma of the raisins when the buns were cut open and toasted. In any case, the recipe I used must have been as old as Queen Elizabeth I herself, because it was taped in my recipe notebook and looked rather faded and tattered. The handwriting was not mine and I cannot remember for the life of me who I got it from.

What attracted me to the recipe was the use of all-spice, which was absent in other recipe listings I found during my comparison research. It's a spice I really like, but that I do not use very often in my kitchen outside of the Christmas baking. I also liked that the buns were piped with a mixture of flour and water and not icing. As I remember, this is the British way: the crosses are either cut into the buns or piped with flour and water. The reason behind this is because the buns are made a few days ahead, and should be enjoyed toasted with only butter spread thickly on the warm bread. Using icing sugar will only cause it to burn when toasted.

Method:

  1. Prepare a baking sheet by lightly greasing it.
  1. In a small bowl incorporate the yeast, 2 teaspoons flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 125ml lukewarm water well. Cover with a with a damp cloth and place in warm place for about 10 minutes to activate the yeast. After 10 minutes, your yeast mixture should be frothy and bubbly. If this is not the case, this means that your yeast is too old and you will have to proof it again with fresh yeast.
  1. In a larger bowl, sift the flour and the spices, then mix in the sugar. Add the butter and knead with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Throw in the raisins. Make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in the yeast mixture and 185ml water. Using your hands, gently mix in the flour into the yeast mixture. Knead into a smooth dough.
  1. Dust the counter-top lightly with some flour, then tip out the dough and knead for 5 minutes until the dough is soft and smooth. Dust a large bowl with flour. Shape a ball out of the dough and place into the bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Place in a warm place for 30-40 minutes, until the dough has doubled in volume.
  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC (about 390ºF).
  1. Tip the dough onto the counter and give it another good kneading. Divide into 12 equal parts, then roll each portion into a ball and place on the greased baking tray. Place each ball of dough so that they are touching each other. Cover the tray with a damp cloth and allow to rest in a warm place for another 20 minutes. The balls of dough will double in volume again.
Pastry for the crosses
  1. Mix the flour, sugar and 2½ tablespoons water into a thick, smooth paste-like mixture.
  1. Fill into a piping bag or a small sandwich bag with a slight cut at one of the corners. Now pipe crosses onto the buns.
  1. Slide the baking tray into the oven and bake for 20 minutes until golden brown.
For the glaze
  1. In the meantime, prepare the glaze by mixing the sugar, 1 tablespoon water and the gelatin powder in a small saucepan. Mix until dissolved.
  1. On low heat, heat the mixture until the mixture is smooth.
  1. When the buns come out of the oven brush the buns while still hot with the glaze.
  1. Allow to cool. The best way to enjoy the buns are cut, toasted, and with lots of good butter. You can serve these for a Easter breakfast, or just plain brunch.
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