I only have two experiences with hot cross buns and oddly enough they both occur at a Whole Foods. The first was at the Austin store I worked at when an English woman began to talk to me disappointingly that ” you Americans do not know anything about hot cross buns!” When I asked her to share her knowledge on what makes a proper bun, she had no answer and walked away. The second comes from a trip to the Whole Foods in Glasgow where my tall, lentil eating friend picked up a package of four organic buns turns to me and says, “You know about food. Tell me about this.” Unfortunately, I really don’t know. So here we go!
A hot cross bun is sweet bread flavored with spices and dried fruit, like sultanas. This is an enriched dough, meaning it contains a high content of sugar along with milk and egg, and when baked at a lower temperature allows the sugar enough time to caramelize and create a lovely golden brown crust instead of burning quickly. Hot cross buns are typically an English custom to eat on Good Friday. There are many other cultures that have a similar sweet bread to eat during the Easter holiday, but we shall save that for later. The buns, or rolls as we call them in the States, are proofed and baked together so you can simply pull them apart when you want one. Each roll is individually marked with a cross and this action alone encapsulates the long history of this springtime treat.
Some sources claim the symbolism of the cross as the “mark is of ancient origin, connected with religious offerings of bread, which replaced earlier, less civilized offerings of blood.” The ancient Egyptians presented their moon goddess (name not mentioned in texts I reviewed) a small round cake depicted with the horns of an ox. The Greeks and Romans offered their cross marked gifts to a goddess of light, notably Artemis or Hecate. This form of the cross was meant to represent the four phases of the moon. During the excavation of Herculaneum that was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., two loaves were found with the markings of a cross. Can this be an early hot cross bun? Not likely. The Saxons did continue the custom of eating these types of buns in homage for their own goddess of light, Eostre, where we derive our modern Easter from. Whoa. Now remember all of these offerings and festivals occurred during the Spring Equinox. Double whoa. So let’s start cleaning up this idea of the beginnings of hot cross buns.
As we know, the Saxons eventually migrated and settled their way into the area we now know as Britain. As their customs progressed over time, the cross on their buns became tied to Catholic symbolism and thus the Easter holiday. A fun, quick side story is that St. Claire of Assisi had once blessed a piece of bread and behold, a cross had formed! The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first mention of a hot cross bun from a variation of the 1733 poem that we all have probably played on the recorder at some early age. During the reign of Elizabeth I, she issued many rules on baking and selling bread, more specifically sweet rolls such as our beloved bun.
Item, That no Bakers, or other Person or Persons, shall at any time, or times hereafter, make, utter or sell by Retail, within or without their Houses, unto any the Queen’s Subjects, any Spice Cakes, Buns, Bisket, or other Spice Bread, (being Bread out of Size, and not by Law allowed) except it be at Burials, or upon the Friday before Easter, or at Christmas; upon pain of Forfeiture of all such Spice Bread to the Poor.
Thanks to Elizabeth, this is how the English began to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday. The symbolism of the cross coincides with the Easter holiday. We can get into the whole history of Elizabeth I’s Catholic/Protestant issue, but let’s stick with the tasty bits. The Old Chelsea Bun house in London claim to be the first suppliers of the hot cross bun. Their buns were in such high demand that on the Good Friday of 1792, a mob rioted around the bakery, thus forcing them to stop making their famous buns on the Good Fridays after that. I’ve always had dreams of mobbing a Parisian boulangerie at 3 a.m. and stealing loaves of baguettes. So I don’t really blame those rioters.
To some, the hot cross bun holds many secrets and superstitions. It is said if you bake them on a Good Friday that it will never stale or mold and if you save one for the whole year, it will bring good luck and all bread you make will rise beautifully. Also, take a piece of this saved bread and it can cure all that ails you. To share one means you have an unbroken friendship, “Half for you, half for me, between us both shall good be.” Some also say to take a hot cross bun on a sea voyage prevents ship wreck. Ahoy! Let’s take a paddle boat and split a bun!
Tomorrow I will share my experiments with the hot cross bun in my kitchen, although I highly doubt I will be able to save one for an entire year. Wish me luck…
PS: My apologies for the title of this post. I want to keep with the literary title theme and I got nothing for hot cross buns. Ethan has been reading his beloved McEwan and Atonement is the novel of the moment. Poor Robbie.
 Oxford Compendium to Food
 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
World’s Oldest Hot Cross Bun http://www.worldamazingrecords.com/2010/04/year-1821-world-oldest-hot-cross-bun.html
Mason and Brown. The Taste of Britain.
Whitley, Andrew. Bread Matters.
The Great British Book of Baking
Delicious Magazine. April 2012.