Easter is a time for baking (there’s something allegorical about the dough rising), and this year I thought: Why not give hot cross buns a try?
Although they are very much an Easter food, hot cross buns can be purchased throughout the year these days – although a local pub only does its “hot cross burger” at this time of year (yes, that is what you think it is and no, I haven’t tried it).
Hot cross buns are an old English delicacy traditionally associated with Good Friday, and there’s a religious symbolism in the ingredients – the dough refers to bread served at communion, the spices allude to the spices that were wrapped with Jesus’s body and the cross is, well, self-evident. Their provenance, though, is a bit hazy – some say they go back to Roman times (the Romans are known to have made buns with crosses on them, but this may have been so they could easily be broken into four parts), while others reckon they’re a Saxon thing (associating them with the worship of the pagan goddess Eostre). There are various superstitions and traditions about hot cross buns being used medicinally and being hung in the kitchen to protect against fire (in this tradition, the hanging bun – said not to go mouldy if baked on Good Friday – is replaced annually). However, there are no written records about them until Elizabethan times, when their consumption was restricted to festive periods, and the earliest recipes for them date from the eighteenth century.
After trawling through our recipe-books, I decided to go for the hot cross bun recipe in my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (“a new edition for the 1990s”). Like many a festive recipe, hot cross buns have a much wider ingredients list than more everyday bread-based products, and as is the case with the traditional Ukrainian paska that I made last year, a case could be made for associating the extra ingredients – the butter, the eggs – with the end of Lent. The hot cross bun recipe called for a trip to the shops for a couple of items (while I still had some currants left over from the raisin loaf, the likes of ground mixed spice and cut mixed peel were not things that I already had).
So where to begin? Yeast first – Delia said to use the dried stuff, mixed with caster sugar and “hand-hot” water and left “until a good frothy ‘beer’ head forms”. Meanwhile, the dried goods – plain flour, salt, mixed spice, sugar, currants and mixed peel, were mixed together in a bowl, to which was added all of the wet goods – the yeast mix, milk (“again hand-hot”), melted butter and a beaten egg. I must admit to being a bit worried that that last one would scramble, what with the butter having just come off the stove, but in the event it didn’t. This was kneaded together and, though sticky at first, it did end up being “smooth and elastic”, just as Delia had promised it would be (although I bake a fair bit, I must confess to being a bit sceptical at times about sticky dough acquiring a smoothness without the addition of more flour, especially when using a recipe I haven’t tried before; that said, the kneading is always my favourite part).
One rising and knocking-down later, I divided the mix into twelve portions (is this supposed to be symbolic of the Disciples?) and arranged them on a baking tray. I then made a deep cross on each of them with a knife – this is how the crosses on hot cross buns were originally done – before considering the note that the bottom that mentioned that, for “more distinct crosses, use a flour-and-water paste”. Unfortunately I had by now ran out of plain flour, so I used wholemeal instead (it was that or self-raising). The paste was rolled out into thin strips which were placed atop the buns which I then left to rise.
After just fifteen minutes in the oven, the buns were ready! One last thing to do, though – brush them with a sugar-and-water solution as soon as they emerged, in order to make them sticky.
Sticky they most certainly are. While I am not entirely happy with the crosses (should’ve gone to get some more plain flour, plus they’re a bit on the thick side), I’m pleased with the way the buns have turned out. I won’t be serving them with burgers, though.