Among the little pleasures in life, my favourite is relishing this sweet little bun; beautifully plump – an outcome of passionate baking, loaded with a mix of candied fruits, spiked with aromatic spices and laced with the famous cross on its glistening top. Cut a slice, smear a generous dollop of butter or sweet berry preserve and take a bite. That is pure bliss.
Come Easter and the hot cross buns regain their favourite spot in every baker’s shop around the globe. Back in the day, you could enjoy this petite bread for one a penny or even two a penny, as was popularly uttered by the sellers across the streets during Easter. Snap back to the current time, these buns are not only priced steeply but are available in many variations too – with chocolate or salted caramel filling, topped with cheese or nutella, flavoured with apple, cinnamon, and so on. Also, in the past, hot cross buns were restricted by law to being baked only on Easter, Christmas or funerals. As silly as it may sound, on the flipside, it led to its exclusivity and garnered a sense of anticipation among the people to look forward to Easter or Christmas to indulge to their heart’s content. Most bakeries today still follow this custom.
A Glimpse into the History
Hot cross buns have come a long way since its humble beginning. Many cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used to make sweet and spiced breads during the onset of spring to celebrate the end of winter and the start of a new season. However, it is said that the Anglo-Saxons were the ones to create cross buns as an offering to their goddess Eostre (the term ‘Easter’ is believed to be originated from ‘Eostre’) so that the year would be bestowed with fertility. The cross was made to indicate the four phases of the moon and also the four seasons in the year. The Egyptians and Greeks also marked the buns with the symbol of ox horns, which over the course of time transformed into a cross. Many regions across Europe too started making cross buns. In Sue Ellen Thompson's book called Holiday Symbols and Customs, it is mentioned, "When archaeologists excavated the ancient city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ash and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins."
According to some, the festival of spring and fertility was also celebrated by the ancient Jews and it was called Pascha, the Hebrew word for Passover. Much later it came to be known as Easter, from the pagans. With the rise of Christianity, many pagan customs and practices were reinterpreted to give them a new meaning, such as the cross on the buns began to symbolise the crucifixion of Christ, and the old association of fertility and rebirth became a part of the Christian’s Easter celebrations as the rebirth of Christ.
According to another theory, the origin of hot cross buns dates back to the 12th century, when an Anglican monk named Father Thomas Rocliffe made small spiced cakes stamped with the cross to honour the ‘day of the cross.’
The Bread-making Process
Bread-making is an art, and it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Besides the right measures of the ingredients and the precise technique, it is also about insight – knowing instantly, as you work through the dough, that it’ll turn out perfect – light and airy. And that can only be achieved with practice.
Hot cross buns call for fast-action yeast along with the usual suspects such as flour, eggs, sugar, butter, milk, currants, raisins and nuts. The spice mix usually contains cinnamon, mace, allspice, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. While making the bread, I feel the toughest part is kneading the sticky dough well to make it come together. Once you clear this stage, the rest is upto the yeast to work its magic.
Chef Kainaz Messman Harchandrai of Theobroma, the most-popular and immensely loved chain of bakery in Mumbai says, “To make the buns, we use our brioche recipe, and add in home-made secret spice mix and candied fruits to develop the flavour.”
“There are many things an amateur baker can keep in mind whilst making hot cross buns. Most importantly, have lots of patience. Bread-making should not be rushed and the dough temperature should not cross beyond 24 degrees Celsius right upto the baking point. So keep your ingredients cold and work in an air conditioned environment. Also, plan your recipe a little in advance so that you have enough time to soak or candy the fruits and make your spice mix,” she advices.
Traditionally, the glaze on the top is made by using honey or golden syrup. But renowned chef, Nigella Lawson’s recipe instructs the use of sugar and boiling water to make the shiny top layer and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver uses the same method but adds orange juice to it for a fruity flavour.
For the cross, some bakers prefer no frills and simply use a knife to mark it on top whereas the others use dough or icing to make the cross. “At Theobroma, we tend to use dough as it helps in the overall presentation of the buns as icing tends to get runny and sticky in hot weather,” says Kainaz.
Hot Cross Bun is one of the few recipes in food history that has been excessively surrounded by myths and speculations. To begin with, as the old rhyme goes, “half for you and half for me, between us two good luck shall be.” It is believed to strengthen friendship when shared between two. In the olden times, many people would hang the buns from the kitchen ceiling or window to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that the buns made during Easter would not get spoiled and were also used as a medicine to treat common cold.
In England, specifically, people believed that bread baked on Easter could be hardened in the oven and kept all year to protect the house from fire. Sailors too would carry the buns with them during their voyages to prevent shipwreck.
Then there is the story of London's East End pub called The Widow's Son. It is said that a widow who lived there in the 1820s would bake hot cross buns every Good Friday for her sailor son, awaiting his return from the sea. He never came home but she continued to bake one every year and would hang it in her kitchen along with the others from the previous years. Till today, the custom has been kept alive by the landlords of the pub.