Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was, as I reckon the supermarkets and bakeries bring them out just after Christmas; and why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.
The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).
The Pagan goddess, Eostra
So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:
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!
What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…
I have been on a bread-bake-a-thon recently, so I thought I’d make some and provide you with a recipe. Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’
The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper would be good, but I have never tried it.
This is based on Elizabeth David’s 1977 recipe, but all recipes seem essentially the same. There is no piped pastry cross on these buns as that would ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’. Quite so.
1 lb – 1 lb 2 oz strong bread flour, include a small proportion of wholemeal if you like
around 8 fluid ounces of warm milk
1 oz fresh yeast, or 1 tsp dried
1 tsp salt
2 ounces of sugar – any you like; white, light brown, dark brown or a blend
2 tsp mixed spice
2 oz of softened butter
4 oz currants, or failing that, raisins
2 oz candied peel
For the glaze:
2 tbs sugar
2 tbs milk
Warm a pound of the flour in a cool oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile cream the yeast with a little of the milk, adding a pinch of sugar if you are using dried yeast. When the flour is warmed and the yeast is foaming, mix into the flour the salt and spices, then a make a well in the centre and add the yeast and the rest of the milk. Mix together with a spoon, then use the rest of the flour to dust your hands and the dough so you can work it together for a few minutes, otherwise you become a big sticky mess. You want a rather soft dough, but one not so soft that it would become shapeless as it rises. Incorporate the currants and peel, then cover and leave around 2 hours to double in size.
Knock back the dough and knead for a few minutes and form into 24 approximately even-sized buns, folding any creases underneath to make a nice, round shape. Place on non-stick pans, cover with plastic or a damp tea towel and leave to double in size again.
When ready to go in the oven, make cross cuts on their tops and bake at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes.
When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and milk to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.
Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C (300⁰F).