Good news, bakers: hot cross bun season is upon us. The Christmas spices and dried fruits we were just starting to miss are back, and in my favourite form: soft, yielding buns, just begging to be toasted and slathered in good salted butter. But it can be hard to find the time for baking at Easter: the festivities are shorter and the days a little brighter than in December. And, with hot cross buns piled high in every supermarket, it’s tempting to just grab a packet. But I urge you not to.
To make your own hot cross buns is to bake your way into British history. In her bread book, Elizabeth David recounts that in Elizabethan England the sale of spiced buns was banned outside of burials, Christmas and Good Friday. If you had a hankering for a bun outside those narrow windows — and who doesn’t from time to time? — you had to bake it yourself.
Hot cross buns predate Easter. They are thought to have been pagan in origin: the crosses on their back originally honoured the goddess Eostre, representing the rebirth of the world after winter, along with the four seasons, four quarters of the moon and the wheel of life. Quite a lot of symbolism for one little bun.
When Christianity came to England, the cross of Eostre became the cross of crucifixion, another symbol of rebirth. This repurposing of religious symbols is common, especially in Christianity; it’s an easy way of convincing the masses to adopt your new faith.
Those early Christians also used food to spread their message. We all imbue food with meaning. That’s why your mum’s minestrone, or my dad’s tinned chicken curry toasted sandwiches, acquire meaning out of proportion to their culinary worth. They might mean home, comfort, heartbreak, loss or joy. Food can be the way we woo, the way we parent, the way we heal.
For me, hot cross buns have already meant a great deal. They were the first bread I baked that worked; I mean really, truly worked: those buns were like something from a glossy magazine, and I proudly shoved them into the hands of everyone who crossed my threshold. They made me feel invincible: competent and skilled. I think they made me fall in love with baking.
This is my favourite hot cross bun recipe: packed full of fruit, they plump up proud and round, and bake so that you must tear them from one another before toasting and eating. The spiced glaze should be painted on while the buns are warm — as it dries it will lose all but the slightest stickiness. Legend has it that buns baked on Good Friday will not spoil but, to be safe, I’d eat them within 3–4 days. They toast well and freeze beautifully.
Hot cross buns (makes 16)
1. Bring the milk to steaming. Add the cubed butter and set aside to cool.
2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add your butter and milk mixture, then the egg, and mix.
3. Knead the dough for at least five minutes until it’s no longer sticky (it will still be very soft and wet). Place in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with oiled clingfilm. Leave in a warm place for an hour.
4. Knock the air out of the dough, then add the dried fruit, peel, zest, apple and cinnamon; knead until these are evenly distributed. Replace the clingfilm, and return to the warm place for another hour.
5. Now, flour your surface lightly and turn your dough on to it. Divide into 16 pieces. Cage your hand as if holding a cricket ball, place it over the ball of dough so your fingertips are on the work surface and the palm of your hand touches the dough. Move your hand in circles quite fast —this will move the dough balls in tiny little circles, which tightens them
6. Place the buns on a tray lined with baking paper, just touching one another. Cover loosely with clingfilm and leave for a final hour.
7. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Mix the flour and water together to the consistency of ketchup and spoon it into a piping bag. Snip the end of the piping bag, to about 5mm wide. Pipe crosses on to the buns.
8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, turning once if your oven heats unevenly.
9. Heat water and sugar until it boils, then add the cinnamon. Paint on to the buns while they are still warm.
For the buns:
75g caster sugar
7g fast-action yeast
1 egg, lightly beaten
50g mixed peel
1 orange, zested
1 apple, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
For the cross:
75g plain flour
For the glaze:
½ tsp cinnamon