Traditional Hot Cross Buns: A Religious Experience


Jennifer Ward Barber

To try a classic recipe for hot cross buns, ideal for Good Friday or Easter brunch, click here.

Two Easters ago, I discovered that high fructose corn syrup is good at something other than making enemies: it can drive haphazard bakers like myself into new territory. That spring, I'd learned of the modern supersweetener's various evils and had vowed to eradicate it from my diet.

It had been easy at the beginning. Give up soda? I hardly drank the stuff anyway. I baked most of my own bread or bought it from local bakers. Homemade granola had replaced the boxed cereal in my cupboards, and I was well on my way to banishing HFCS to long bike rides (when I care less about where the energy comes from) and road trips (which test anyone's nutritional virtues).

Then along came Easter. No, I hadn't given up HFCS for Lent—I wasn't going to lapse into a candy coma come Sunday. It was just those buns, taunting me at the grocery store. My shopping partner had gathered up a plastic container of them, flashing me a guilty grin. I glanced at the ingredients, and decided that he could have his marshmallow-soft buns that would last four weeks before molding. I was going to find a hot cross buns recipe to call my own.

First, I turned to the handwritten cookbook my mother gave me at one of my wedding showers. (It was one of only two gifts to make me tear up—the other was a collection of 1980s magazines my grandmother had marked up recipes in during the week I'd been born.) No buns. After further inquiry, I discovered that hot cross buns were one of those rare items my mother—shhhh, don't tell—bought from the store. Since I didn't like them as a child, I'd never been the wiser. (I must mention her homemade Easter paska and Christmas stollen though, lest this anecdote threaten her reputation as a domestic mastermind.)

It turns out I didn't have to look much farther than my own food blog. I'd had some conversations in the comments section with Susan of the Wild Yeast baking site, where I go to solve most of my grain-induced grievances. Sure enough, the buns I found on her pages looked soft, whole-wheat-hued, and just complicated enough to make me feel smug. I was ready to baptize this recipe into my small congregation of "things I can bake successfully."

Besides providing a trusted recipe, Susan prompted my exploration of the buns' illustrious history. She writes that prior to the arrival of Christianity in England, the pagan Saxons would allegedly make buns to honor Eostre, the goddess of spring (and, according to some, the etymological root of our current "Easter"). They crossed them to represent the four quarters of the moon, symbolizing the balance of light and darkness during the equinox, and the symmetry of nature's seasons.

I wanted to know what became of the buns after their stint in pagan cosmology, and found out that they weren't always the beloved brunch food they are today. According to the British food writer Elizabeth David, at one point Protestant monarchs deemed hot cross buns a dangerous holdover of Catholic belief. Why? Because they were baked from the dough used to make communion wafers. Thankfully, popular opinion eventually won, and despite attempts to have the buns banned Elizabeth I passed a law permitting bakeries to sell the popular treat at Easter and Christmas only. Phew! God saved the queen and the queen saved the buns—and my family's affair with them centuries later.

After gathering two obscure ingredients—currants from a friend and candied peel from a grocery store's clearance rack—I was ready to bake. I looked at the lengthy recipe, with its many steps and ingredient weights (finally a use for that digital scale I got for Christmas). I felt intimidated right from the get-go: I had to make a sponge?

As it turned out, sponge-making was the easiest part of my hot cross bun project. You simply mix flour, yeast, sugar, and water, then walk away and let them do their thing. This fermented potion provides the dough's base. The recipe also gave instructions for the more traditional pastry crosses, as opposed to the sugary icing you often see. Another extra step, but not a difficult one. The recipe was involved, but I was capable of following directions and had plenty of time. I was committed to the promise of the best buns imaginable.

The three hours of mixing, rising, waiting, crossing, baking, and glazing were utterly worth it. I had friends over in the evening to sample my creations, and as we ate the glazed, steaming buns, each spread with butter and blending tender chewiness with subtle spice, I knew there would be no more sticky-sweet, HFCS-laced Easter treats for me.