The tradition of baking bread with a cross placed on top or pressed into the dough is linked to both paganism and Christianity. At the beginning of spring, the pagan Saxons baked bread in honour of the goddess Eostre – which is the origin of the name Easter, according to Bede the Venerable, an 8th-century English Benedictine monk.
The cross on the bread represented the rebirth of the world after the winter and the four phases of the moon, as well as the four seasons and the wheel of life, which are very strong images in pagan tradition. The Christians saw the Christian cross in the buns and, as with many other pre-Christian traditions, replaced their pagan meaning with a Christian one – the resurrection of Christ at Easter. According to
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‘Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.’
Under the rule of Cromwell, an Act of Parliament in 1647 prohibited the preparation of special food for festivities and made it a punishable offence for nearly two decades. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, people could return to their festivities and the baking of buns, cakes and gingerbreads that came with it.
A century later, the custom surrounding the Hot cross buns began to gain a superstitious rather than religious significance – buns baked on Good Friday supposedly would not spoil for the rest of the year; sometimes the buns were even taken on ships because people were convinced that they could prevent shipwrecks.
In the East End of London you’ll find a pub called The Widow’s Son, named after a widow who lived in a house on the site in the 1820s. The legend goes that the widow baked Hot cross buns for her sailor son, who was supposed to come home from sea that Good Friday. The son must have died at sea as he didn’t return home, but the widow refused to give up hope of his return and continued to bake a hot Hot cross bun for him every year, which she then saved along with the buns she had baked in previous years. After her death, a net full of hot cross buns was discovered hanging from the ceiling of her cottage. The pub has been on the site of the widow’s house since 1848 and every Good Friday, the ceremony of the Widow’s bun is celebrated and members of the Royal Navy attend the celebrations, with one of them placing a new Hot cross bun in a net that is suspended above the bar. Remember, buns baked on Good Friday will never spoil!
Frederick T. Vine shows in his 1898 book, Saleable Shop Goods, that the addition of a separate cross to the Hot cross bun is a phenomenon from the 20th century. The book contains an illustration of a pastry docker in the shape of a cross and shows that around 1900 the cross on the Hot cross bun was still impressed, rather than added in a separate layer of dough like we do today. The buns in Frederick T. Vine’s recipe ask for spices, but do not yet contain the dried fruit that we have come to associate with it for the last hundred years.
Today the shops sell all kinds of Hot cross buns, often the whole year round, from chocolate flavoured with chocolate bits added, to cranberries and banana. There are even Hot cross doughnuts on offer! It’s hard to say that I prefer the original, because Hot cross buns have evolved over time so it’s not clear what is original, but I will say that I enjoy the traditional version, a spiced bun dough studded with currants and candied peel, a cross added in plain pastry and a shiny egg-washed, golden-brown top – just as I remember them from my childhood travels around Britain.
Add the yeast to the lukewarm milk and stir briefly and gently to activate it. The yeast will start to foam up in clusters, which means it is ready for use. Combine the flour, sugar and spices in a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook and put the butter on top. Pour half of the yeast mixture over the butter and start kneading. When the milk and butter are completely absorbed, add the rest of the yeast mixture, along with the egg. Knead for 5 minutes, then let the dough stand for a few minutes (at this point it will be very wet). Add the salt and then the currants and candied peel and knead for 10 minutes, scraping the dough off the dough hook and side of the bowl if needed, until the dough has come together in a smooth and elastic dough that is not too dry but also not terribly wet.
Cover the dough and set aside for 1 hour until it has doubled in quantity. Meanwhile, line the baking tin with baking paper. Mix the water and flour into a thick batter for the crosses and scoop it into a piping bag with a small nozzle and cover until needed.
Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces. Take a piece of dough and lightly flatten it on your work surface, then pull the outer parts in like a purse and gently squeeze together like a dumpling so that the dough can no longer split open while rising. Turn the dough over so the squeezed ends are on the bottom. It should be nice and smooth on top – if not, flatten it and start again. Place in the baking tin and continue shaping the other buns, adding them to the tin to form neat rows.
Cover the tray of buns with a light cotton cloth and wrap it in a large plastic bag (I keep one especially for this purpose). Rest the dough for 1 hour or until the buns have doubled in size. Towards the end of the resting time,
Carefully pipe a cross onto each bun, then carefully brush the buns generously with the egg wash and
The buns are best eaten on the day they’re made. The next day they can be revived in a hot oven for a few minutes. You can also freeze the baked buns, thaw and then pop them in a hot oven for a few minutes.
These buns are excellent halved, then toasted and spread with copious amounts of farmhouse butter. Left-over buns can be used in the Bun and butter pudding recipe from my book, Pride and Pudding.
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