Baking for Easter
The History of Hot Cross Buns
~ Traditional Hot Cross Buns Recipe ~
Hot Cross buns have quite a history behind them; the idea of marking crosses on baked goods such as bread, cakes and buns goes right back to pre-Medieval times and was a visible sign that the bread was “blessed” and had the power to ward off evil spirits, as well as help with the longevity of the bread by stopping it going mouldy or becoming stale so quickly. A cross marked on the dough was also believed to help the bread to rise. The first buns with crosses that were attributed to the festival of Easter came along a little later however, as Kate Colquhoun states in her excellent book “Taste: The Story Of Britain Through Its Cooking“……….“In honour of Eastre, goddess of spring and the dawn, [Anglo-Saxon] bread dough could be studded with dried fruits and baked into small loaves that, as Christianity spread, began to be marked with a cross by monks: the earliest form of hot-cross bun”. It can be said that these were the earliest examples of what we know to be Hot Cross Buns today, and from the late 1600’s onwards the custom grew that special spices buns known as “Good Friday Buns” were to be marked with a cross and were to be eaten for breakfast on Good Friday.
Although the name for Hot Cross Buns was commonly known as Good Friday Buns for nearly a hundred years, during the 1730’s the buns were starting to be sold on the streets, and therein the name as well as the popular rhyme emerged, as the sellers would shout out ” One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns “………..a penny for a larger bun or for two smaller ones. This tradition was still in practice as little as eighty years ago, as my dad can remember the Hot Cross Bun sellers coming around the streets to sell them on Good Friday. Nowadays, you can buy Hot Cross Buns all year around, which I think is a great shame, as it cheapens and weakens the history and traditions behind this wonderful spiced bun.
It is to be noted that prior to our Hot Cross Buns being an edible symbol of Christianity, there were similar small cakes made for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, and as part of the pagan celebration of spring. And, it is well documented that the Greeks and Romans also had festive spring cakes which bore some similarity to our own Hot Cross Buns. The original reasons for the marking of crosses on baked goods, as well as the superstitions that grounds the practice, is recorded in the popular rhyme below:
“Good Friday comes this month—the old woman runs
With one or two a-penny hot cross buns,
Whose virtue is, if you believe what’s said,
They’ll not grow mouldy like the common bread.”
One of the most well-known traditions surrounding Hot Cross Buns is still in practice today and takes place in a London Pub! At the Pub, The Widow’s Son at Bromley by Bow, a Hot Cross Bun Ceremony takes place each Good Friday. In the early 19th century, a widow who lived on the site was expecting her sailor son back home for Easter, and placed a hot cross bun ready for him on Good Friday. The son never returned, but undaunted the widow left the bun waiting for him and added a new bun each year. Successive landlords have kept the tradition going after the pub was opened. You can still have a pint in the pub if you wish today, whilst admiring the collection of Hot Cross Buns in various stages of decay! As you can see from the photo below, there is a net of Hot Cross Buns that hangs above the bar at The Widow’s Son, and each year a sailor comes to add another bun to the collection, the buns being baked specially for the occasion with the current year piped on them between the cross.
But back to my recipe for Hot Cross Buns; this recipe is adapted from a Tudor recipe for spiced baked buns, and has been my favourite Hot Cross Bun recipe for some years now, mainly for the blend of spices and fruity filling, as well as a light but filling nice texture too. I add an egg to my flour paste for the crosses, hence them being so yellow – NO artificial colouring there, but just good free-range eggy goodness! However, if you prefer a cross in a lighter hue of yellow, just rub some butter into some flour and add some milk or eater until you have a stiff paste that can be piped onto the buns. I made two dozen of these yesterday in readiness for Easter as they freeze so well; just remember to take them out to defrost, although they will defrost quite nicely in a cool to warm oven and of course, some modern toasters have a “defrost” setting on them too. I hope you have enjoyed recipe number two in my Easter collection, I will be back tomorrow as usual with a rather nice egg recipe! Have a great day, Karen.