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!
~ Old English Nursery Rhyme
Every year, my maternal grandmother used to bake hot cross buns to break the all-day fast on Good Friday. Her yeast buns were studded with raisins, sometimes bits of candied fruit left over from Christmas cakes, and marked on top with a cross cut into the dough before baking.
Late on Good Friday afternoon, Mama would set her tea table with white linen cutwork and a small vase filled with early purple violets from her garden, a pot of hot tea, and a green Depression-era glass platter of the still warm buns. They’re as much a part of my Southern childhood as dyed eggs hidden in the garden on Easter morning. Only recently, however, did I learn the history behind the traditional hot cross bun.
Like most Southern food traditions, the crossed bun as we know it originated in 14th century England. A certain Benedictine monk at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire developed a recipe for what came to be called Alban Buns, baked with a cross cut into the top, and distributed hot to the neighboring poor on Good Friday. He told them that the bread dough symbolized the bread of Holy Communion, the cross mark symbolized Jesus’s crucifixion on Calvary, and the cinnamon and nutmeg in the dough represented Jesus’s embalming oils and spices for burial.
Courtesy Zabouca Breads
Baking bread marked with a cross actually stems from pagan practice. Ancient Greeks and Romans baked festive wheat cakes with some sort of cross mark on the top to represent the rebirth of the world after winter. A cross cut into the top simply divided the bun into four quarters, representing the four phases of the moon in its monthly cycle, as well as the four seasons of the year. Besides, I suspect, the loaves were much easier to break into serving sections when already partially cut.
Roman conquerors of Britain obviously brought with them this custom of crossed cakes for their spring festivals, and the Saxons adopted it as part of their own pagan practices. Christians later adapted the crossed bun as a symbol of the Cross of Christ. Not until the reign of Elizabeth I of England in the late 16th century, however, was the cross bun linked specifically to Christian cultural celebrations with religious connotations on Good Friday and at burials.
By the 18th century, what we know as the traditional Good Friday Hot Cross Bun was available throughout England—but only on Good Friday—and all day long by street sellers crying, “One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns!” In the Life Of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (published 1791), in fact, Boswell writes:
“On the 9th of April , being Good Friday, I breakfast’d with him on tea and cross-buns … On April 18 , (being Good-Friday) I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross bun to prevent faintness.”
Were they hot or cold, these buns? Boswell doesn’t say.
Presumably, English colonists brought along this Good Friday custom to the Virginia and New England settlements. Yet, I found no references in my research beyond the fact that American colonists had no wheat from which to make the breads they were accustomed to in Britain. Before the 18th century, at least, they had to content themselves with corn meal breads and muffins, still popular today.
Modern American grocery stores and commercial bakeries turn out a mass-produced version of hot cross buns with artificial flavoring, shaped with a rounded top crust shiny with brushed egg white, decorated with a cross of white icing—not at all appropriate to the solemnity of Good Friday, in my mind. And they taste rather dry after sitting on the shelves from February through Easter. I much prefer to bake my own, following my grandmother’s example
Traditional Hot Cross Buns
Makes 30 buns
2 cups scalded milk
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 cakes or envelopes of yeast dissolved in 1/3 cup warm water
2 large eggs
8 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups currents or golden raisins
1/2 cup candied fruits, chopped and dusted lighted with flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter cookie sheets.
Pour the scalded milk over the butter and sugar. Stir to dissolve the butter and sugar. Let cool.
Add the dissolved yeast and the eggs. Blend well.
Add the flour and salt gradually and blend.
Add the floured fruits and the spice(s) to the dough and knead in thoroughly.
Place in a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in a warm place.
Shape dough into 30 balls and place on buttered cookie sheets.
Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.
Carefully press a knife into each ball to shape a cross.
Let rest for a bit.
Bake in a preheated 375F oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F and continue baking about 10-15 minutes longer, until buns are lightly browned and done. (Balls will flatten into buns with baking.) Let cool on wire racks.
Irish Soda Buns
Makes 10 buns
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted softened butter cut into small pieces
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 F.
In a large bowl, whisk flours, sugar, baking soda, salt.
Cut in butter pieces until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Stir in raisins and caraway seeds.
Pour buttermilk over the top and stir with a fork until mixture holds together, adding more buttermilk as necessary.
Transfer dough to floured surface and knead about 20 times until smooth.
Shape into 10 balls and place into baking pan.
Cut a cross into top of each ball.
Bake 25 minutes until golden brown. Let cool on wire rack.