Friday 22 March 2013

Hot Cross Buns v.4

If you flip to the 'Bun: Hot Cross Bun' entry in the Oxford Companion to Food, you'll find the idea that the Saxons ate buns marked with a cross in honour of Eostre, a goddess of light, and that her name was transplanted to the Christian festival of Easter.

It sounds fascinating. Yet the only vaguely contemporary mention of Eostre is in Bede's eighth century 'De temporum ratione' (a.k.a. The Reckoning of Time). Chapter 15 describes the Anglo-Saxon names for the months of the year - April is called Eosturmonath, after Eostre "in whose honour feasts were celebrated". Bede notes that her name has transferred to Easter, "calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance". (ed. Wallis, 1999). In this - the only mention of Eostre - there's no description of the contents of the feasts or of crossed buns.

As this is part of the time period I studied (though I really focused slightly later), this whole idea started nagging at me, especially when I saw how often it's repeated. Where did it come from?

According to the OED's etymology section for 'Easter', some scholars believe Bede made the goddess and the name connection up. I don't think I agree - it seems odd for Bede, a devout monk, a famous biblical scholar and a historian, to invent a claim that Easter had any association with paganism. We have a small number of surviving manuscripts from the period so it's perfectly feasible that other references were lost or never recorded. The OED's alternative claim for the history of the word sounds convincing - but that doesn't mean Bede made Eostre up.

During the conversion of the English, the Christians tried to adapt the existing structure of worship to the new religion. The idea of the transference or merging of a festival - and, within that, food - therefore seems possible. This concept of adaption and exchange is recorded in Pope Gregory's letter to Abbot Mellitus in 601, which was preserved by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. Pope Gregory writes that they should not destroy the existing temples but clear them, destroy the idols and turn them into churches, so the people can worship at the place they are accustomed to. Instead of sacrificing oxen to their pagan gods, the people should kill the oxen for a Christian feast.

After all, "there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps." (ed. McClure, 2008).

Next, I had a look through my books on medieval food to see if I could find any relevant information. I couldn't find anything, so I sent an email to my beloved-tutor-now-friend asking if she had any ideas about where I could look. She pointed me towards the rest of chapter 15, where Bede mentions that Solmonath (February) "can be called 'month of cakes', which they offered to their gods in that month" (ed. Wallis, 1999). As the cakes were given as offerings to 'their gods' in general, Eostre was probably included. The division between bread and cake would not become clear for centuries, so it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the cakes were what we would call loaves or buns. But where does the cross come from? Did the buns become associated with Good Friday because of their existing cross or were they made to fit the occasion?

I haven't found the answer to the cross questions, but I think I've found the possible origin of the Oxford Companion's claims - an article in the New York Times from 1912, Who were the first to cry 'Hot Cross Buns?'. Along with the Saxon claims, it includes the Greek and Roman versions that the book mentions (that I haven't seen elsewhere), including the amazing note that two small loaves were found plainly marked with a cross in Herculaneum (destroyed and preserved with Pompeii in AD 79). It's worth noting that many people slash their loaves twice before baking them without thinking of the significance of the symbol - the bakers of Herculaneum or the Anglo-Saxons could have done the same.

I want to keep digging to find the answers (though, of course, it could easily be a figment of a long lost imagination), so - as with the recipe - I'll come back with any updates next year. I hope you don't mind me getting geeky about this (though I feel like I'm on slightly shaky ground - I know enough for it to be shameful if I get it wrong, but not enough to be sure of it). I love revisiting the buns every year, moving forward step by step, as Gregory advocates. Here are the other versions: three, two, one.

This year I have:
- Doubled the fruit and added some extra cinnamon.
- Decided to use dried yeast as it's easier to find (though you can adapt it back if you can get fresh yeast).
- Switched the water for milk and added a touch of extra liquid.
- Altered the cross mixture so it's a bit thicker, so they look a little bolder.
- Lowered the oven temperature a bit.

I also tried soaking the fruit in hot water (before I changed to milk) but I discovered that as it kneaded, the softened fruit was smashed into the dough until it basically disappeared. I've found that it can do this even without soaking, so for the buns in the pictures I tried kneading it on the machine until ready, then hand kneading the fruit in. I can't decide if half the charm of the buns is the way some of the fruit becomes part of the dough or not. I think I might try half at the beginning and half at the end next year.

Hot Cross Buns v.4
(heavily adapted from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course)

For the dough:
225ml milk
50g unsalted butter
450g strong white bread flour
50g caster sugar
7g instant yeast
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
5 whole cloves, ground (optional)
1 egg, beaten
100g sultanas
100g currants

For the candied peel:
1 orange
1/2 lemon
100ml water
100g granulated sugar

For the crosses:
1 tbsp plain flour
2 tsp water

Pour the milk and butter into a small pan and place over medium heat until the butter melts. Turn the heat up until the milk starts steaming (this scalds the milk, which makes the dough softer). Pour into a bowl to cool (I often put it into the fridge to speed it up if I've already made the candied peel).

Use a vegetable peeler to take big strips of peel off the orange and lemon - try to have as little white on the inside of the strip as possible. Chop into 2-3mm little squares, stacking a few strips together for speed. Place them in a medium pan and add 3-4 cm of cold water. Bring up to a strong boil and let bubble for a minute or so until the water is bright yellow. Strain into a bowl, then add more cold water and the peels to the pan and repeat. Repeat for a third and final time, leaving the peel in the strainer. Throw out the bitter yellow water.

Combine the 100ml of water and sugar in the pan and heat on medium until the sugar has dissolved, swirling every now and again. Turn up the heat a little and add the blanched peel. Occasionally brush a little cold water around the sides to stop the sugar crystallizing. Let it bubble away until the peel is translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool for five minutes then drain the peel off from the syrup, reserving both.

Sift the flour, sugar, yeast, cinnamon, ginger, salt, nutmeg and cloves into the bowl of your stand mixer (or a mixing bowl if making by hand). Stir the peel into the milk (this stops the peel clumping). Add the sultanas, currants, peely-milk (it should be around room temperature or less or it'll kill the yeast) and beaten egg into the bowl. Stir with a spoon until the mixture comes together. Attach the dough hook and knead for 6 minutes (if making by hand turn out onto floured surface and hand knead) until smooth and bouncy - it should pass the windowpane test. Place the dough into a big, lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled (usually about 1hr 15 mins in my rather warm kitchen - can be quite a bit longer if it's cold but time develops the flavour so don't worry - you can also leave it to rise in the fridge overnight).

Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough with a sharp knife into 16 pieces and place them under a sheet of cling film. Roll into balls one by one, keeping them under the cling film when you're not shaping (see v.5 for a video of the technique). Line a tin with baking parchment then arrange the buns on the sheet. Cover again with cling film and leave to rise for 45 minutes until puffy. Preheat the oven to 200C/390F.

Combine the flour with the water to create a smooth, thick paste (you may need to add a few extra drops of water) then scoop it into a piping bag. Unwrap the buns and pipe the paste over each bun in the cross pattern. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and hollow when tapped. Brush the reserved peel syrup over the buns then remove to a cooling rack.

Serve split, toasted and topped with lots of salted butter. They freeze very well - I usually split them with a serrated knife then toast from frozen but you can defrost them first too.

(Makes 16)

Edit 27/03/16: This year, I took out the cloves, which was good - less effort for no obvious loss. I've put them as optional above.

Three more recipes that use dried fruit:
Apricot & Fig Tea Loaf
Chelsea Buns
Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars


  1. I love getting geeky about food..the history of particular dishes, the science behind them and their meaning, I get ridiculously excited about it all. I've not made hot cross buns before, when I was younger I always preferred teacakes but as I've gotten older I appreciate a hot cross bun much more. These look delicious, especially with the melted butter on each slice.

  2. Yummy! I grew up enjoying hot cross buns. These looks so fancy!

  3. These look absolutely perfect Emma. I think even Paul Hollywood would be happy with these.

  4. Laura@bakinginpyjamas23 March 2013 at 14:10

    I love a good home made hot cross bun, the ones in the shops are such a let down. I agree with you Emma about trying a slightly different version each time you make them, it's interesting to see how a slight change or an extra added ingredient can change a recipe.
    Thanks for the history of the hot cross bun, it's very interesting to see where a recipe comes from.

  5. These buns look beautiful Emma! I love seeing the progress from your very first version - I think these might just be the best yet :-)

  6. My grandmother came to the United States from England in the early 1920's. She became a Red Cross nurse, and later married a doctor. They established a practice in a small rural community. I have her recipe for Hot Cross Buns, and your entry has inspired me to finally use it. Thanks!

  7. ami@naivecookcooks23 March 2013 at 17:02

    Wow I am taken by surprise to see how far you went into all this research to find the true sense of cross buns! Wonderful job and amazing looking buns!

  8. I made these today Emma and they are truly delicious! Wasn't sure about the candied citrus peel as I am usually not a fan, but I figured that you would make it delicious - so glad I did it, it's amazing. Thank you:)

  9. Hi Emma,
    Am so fascinated by the history - we have all been talking about the origins of these buns and your post reminded me of something I read by Clarissa Dickson Wright, in her book, 'A History of English Food', see page 145, she goes on to say,.. seemingly pre-Reformation buns were marked with a cross before going in the oven to ward off evil spirits that could prevent the bread from rising properly! After the Reformation, the crosses were banned, deemed to be Papist, apart from on Good Friday.
    I am none the wiser, but love the buns and am now on my 4th attempt this year and have just made a loaf. Happy Easter

  10. Swiss Miss in the Kitchen24 March 2013 at 18:00

    oooooh I guess they made a fantastic afternoon treat? Beautiful!

  11. I loved this post! My degree was in literature, folklore, and mythology - I'm such a sucker for history and little tidbits of information like this. Other than the fabulous recipes, this is one of the reasons why I love your blog. Thank you!

    Don't you love how long the tradition of food remains?! We don't know the exact history, but here it is, eaten every year. Unaware, people connect to their ancestors and history through a simple meal... or little cake.

    Have a great Easter!

    -Jenni (Previously of Cocoa & Chanel)

  12. This is a fascinating post, and lovely to be reminded about the Eostre/Easter connection. I can't see that Bede would have made it up either. I agree with Jenni - I love the extra bits of information you give. They make your blog as interesting as it is beautiful to look at and inspiring to anyone who loves to bake. Have a lovely Easter.

  13. I loved your geekout! And your hot cross buns. I'm gonna veganize them, you'll be horrified to know. P.S. The OED is my one true love.

  14. Did you see Great british Bakeoff Masterclass tonight? They had a whole section on the origins of hot cross buns. They should have talked to you-you'd done more research!

  15. I've been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the net will be much more useful than ever before.

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  16. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:22

    I get ridiculously excited by it too, it's awesome. I hope you do try making them one day, they're fun and worth the effort (I wish I could make this recipe look shorter and less intimidating, but I'd lose too much information). And inordinate amounts of butter are the only way to go with hot cross buns.

  17. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:23

    Thanks Kiran! I like making them quite small with a delicate cross so they look neat.

  18. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:23

    Your comment put a smile on my face, thank you! I don't think I'd want to know what Paul Hollywood thinks of my bread.

  19. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:24

    Exactly - it's fun seeing what each tweak does and always returning to the same recipe. I don't think I could go down the alternative hot cross bun route, though - all the chocolate/orange, apple/cinnamon, cranberry etc. I'm glad you like the history bit.

  20. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:25

    Hehe, I hope they're the best yet! Glad you like them Kate.

  21. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:26

    I love your little story, thank you - it's so special to have a recipe with a family story or memory attached. I hope the buns went well.

  22. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:27

    I'm afraid I can get a little obsessive when something gets on my mind - I could (and probably will) do a lot more research :) Glad you like the buns.

  23. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:28

    I'm so pleased you made the recipe and enjoyed the buns! I don't normally like candied peel either - that's why I have to make it.

  24. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:31

    That sounds interesting, thanks for mentioning it. There are so many historical stories to do with the buns - I could only really focus on one little piece. The loaf sounds interesting - was it freeform or in a loaf tin?

  25. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:32

    Oh yes! Excellent elevensies too ;)

  26. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:40

    Oooh what a fantastic degree to do! So glad you liked the post. I love how you get all these myths building up around a recipe - and people use the recipe to prove the myths and the myths to prove the relevance of the recipe. Happy Easter!

  27. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:41

    Thanks Deborah, I'm really touched by your comment and that you like the extra bits of information.

  28. poiresauchocolat27 March 2013 at 16:42

    Hahah, I'm not horrified! Well, I'm a little sad about the lack of butter, but hey...

    The OED is the best, isn't it. So much love.

  29. Thanks so much for this lovely recipe! I think I may have gone wrong somewhere as my dough hardly rose at all, but they still turned out beautifully. I also really enjoyed reading your post, it was fascinating. Happy Easter :)

  30. poiresauchocolat30 March 2013 at 11:31

    Oh dear, I imagine it was a yeast problem - perhaps the milk was too hot when you added it and it killed it off? I made that mistake a few weeks ago in a fit of impatience. Or maybe your yeast was a bit old? Anyway, glad you still liked them and I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. Happy Easter!

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  70. Great post and recipe. I posted a recipe for Hot Cross Buns but, sad as it may make me, yours is so much better. :)

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  72. it is that time of year, hot crossed buns are so good!


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