We bet you’ve heard the nursery rhyme about hot cross buns, but have you ever tasted them? They’re a traditional treat eaten most frequently at the conclusion of Lent. If you’re curious to give them a try, there’s no time like the present. For bakers who already know their way around sweet yeasted breads, hot cross buns will be a breeze. Even if you’re a novice baker, it’s not too tricky to whip up a batch of these classic buns.
History and Meaning of Hot Cross Buns
The varied stories surrounding hot cross buns rival those concerning the shape and meaning of hamantaschen. They may have first been baked by Anglican monk Brother Thomas Rocliffe at St. Alban’s Abbey in England, where it’s said he offered the buns to the poor on Good Friday in the 14th century. In 16th century Elizabethan England, it was believed that the buns offered protection from evil spirits or other forms of bad luck. Hot cross buns were also said to be a symbol of enduring friendship. Queen Elizabeth I attempted to prevent the English from abusing these supposed magical powers by making it illegal to sell or eat the buns on days other than Christmas or Good Friday, or at funerals.
While you can now bake and eat hot cross buns any time of year, they’re still most popular on Good Friday, particularly in the UK and countries of British origin, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, they’re readily available in bakeries in those countries. However, here in the United States you may have to search for them. Better yet, bake your own!
What’s In a Hot Cross Bun?
Hot cross buns are sweet yeasted rolls filled with spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, plus dried fruit. The cross on top can be piped frosting, strips of pastry dough or marzipan, or simply slashed with a sharp knife before baking. The cross traditionally symbolizes crucifixion, but it may also mark the four seasons, as it divides the bun into four sections. The spices represent those used in the preservation of Jesus’ body.
You can serve hot cross buns plain or toasted with butter. But we love these ideas from BBC Food for jazzing up your hot cross buns. Try goat cheese with fresh figs and rosemary, or spread them with salted caramel or dulce de leche. For adults, combine sweet and savory flavors by topping your buns with bacon and jam. For kids, dollop them with marshmallow fluff or Nutella. We thought hot cross buns were a treat already, but these additions make them even more delicious.
Make Your Own Hot Cross Buns
Recipes for hot cross buns abound, and they’re actually quite simple to make, especially if you have baked a batch or two of yeasted bread or bagels or pretzels. Because these buns are so popular in the UK and other countries that use the metric system, check the ingredient quantities and be prepared to measure in grams and milliliters. You can also use this recipe from King Arthur Flour that’s made for our imperial measuring cups and spoons.
Jamie Oliver offers some key tips for making hot cross buns, and we think they’re worth sharing. First, soak those bits of dried fruit in hot water to help them plump and stay moist while baking. King Arthur Flour takes it a step further and encourages soaking in apple juice or rum. Either way, this tip will help elevate any type of dried fruit.
In fact, Jamie Oliver suggests dividing the dough in half and adding different dried fruit to each half. Choose from raisins, currants, dried cranberries or apricots (chop these into smaller bits), or even dried blueberries or cherries. Look in the bulk foods section at the grocery store to see what’s available locally. Likewise, feel free to change up the spices. Jamie recommends trying cardamom or saffron, or any other interesting options in your spice cabinet.
Whether you make traditional hot cross buns and eat them on Good Friday, or get crazy with the mix-ins and spices and eat them on a random Monday, we think it’s time this holiday treat gained popularity here in the US. Let us know how yours turn out!