‚Half for you and half for me, between us two, good luck shall be‘ - this an old Irish rhyme on the sweet bun that many of us know as a Hot Cross Bun, a real seasonal food, associated with the end of Lent (Fastenzeit), traditionally eaten and baked only on Good Friday (Karfreitag), now eaten around the Easter season, especially the week before Easter, the Holy Week (Karwoche). It's known and beloved in many countries including England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These lovelies have also been called 'one of the British Commonwealth's most loved and literal foods'.
A traditional hot cross bun is a yeasted and spiced sweet bun. It's filled with dried fruits such as raisins, currants, or sultanas and sometimes mixed peel, then marked on top with a cross that's either piped on or etched into the dough. According to the Oxford Companion to Food ,they're made from a ‚rich yeast dough of flour, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, currants and spices‘.
There is a rather definite explanation for why they appear around Easter. Of course there’s some pretty obvious Christian symbolism - bread (for communion), cross (for the crucifixion of Jesus), and spices (for the seven spices used by Joseph of Arimathea to embalm Christ’s body). Because they have a long history, there are also several stories, or tall tales, about them. And the legends and superstitions have grown considerably, over time.
One story has hot cross buns going back as far as the 12th century. It is said that a monk baked the buns and marked them with a cross, in honor of Good Friday. Over time they gained popularity, and became a symbol of Easter weekend.
Back in the days, Elizabeth I decreed they could only be sold on Good Friday, Christmas or for burials - too special to be eaten any other day, or too many superstitions. People believed the buns carried medicinal or magical powers, and feared them being abused. To beat the law, people baked the buns in their own kitchens. If caught, they had to give up all their illegal buns to the poor.
Another tale is that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday, and hung from the kitchen rafters, ward off evil spirits for the next year. They're also said to prevent kitchen fires from breaking out. Better still, this will ensure that all breads baked that year will turn out perfectly. Yet another tale is that taking the buns on sea travels protects the boat from shipwreck.
And, my personal favorite belief or call it superstition, is the one that those who share a hot cross bun will enjoy a strong friendship for the next year. As mentioned above, there is this old Irish rhyme that sums this one up - 'Half for you and half for me, between us two, good luck shall be.'
And, apart form all those lovely tales and stories and the strong sybolism, they’re utterly delicious (that is if you are into that sort of baked goods, and who isn't), plus they're pretty fun to make too, just taking a bit of time for that yeast to do its thing and rise.
Hot Cross Buns
(makes 12; prep 3.5 to 4 hrs; bake 20 minutes)
Ingredients for the Buns
- 500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting (around here that’s ‚Type 550‘)
- 10g fine sea salt
- 75g superfine (caster) sugar
- 10g instant yeast
- 40g unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 eggs, (M), free range or organic, beaten
- 120ml warm full-fat milk (I use 3.5%)
- 120ml cool water
- 150g sultanas (feel free to soak them in warm tea or apple juice for about 30 minutes prior to adding them to the yeast dough; strain well before using)
- 80g raisins
- finely grated zest of 2 oranges (organic and/or untreated peel)
- 1 baking apple, cored and diced, peel on (I like to use ‚Elstar‘)
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon (I like to use 'Ceylon cinnamon')
- 1 tsp‚Mixed Spice‘*
For the crosses
- 75g plain flour
- 75ml water
For the glaze
- 75g apricot jam
Mixed spice is a British blend of sweet spices, similar to the pumpkin pie spice used in the US and the Dutch spice mix called speculaaskruiden, used mainly to spice food associated with the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration on Decemeber 6. It is often used in baking, or to complement fruits or other sweet foods. The term 'mixed spice' has been used for this blend of spices in cookbooks at least as far back as 1828.
- 6 tsp ground coriander
- 6 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp ground allspice
- 6 tsp ground nutmeg
- 4 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp ground cloves
Preparation of the Buns
- Put the flour into a large mixing bowl. Add the salt and sugar to one side of the bowl and the yeast to the other. Add the butter, eggs, milk and half the water and turn the mixture round with your fingers. Continue to add the water, a little at a time, until you’ve picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl. You may not need to add all the water, or you may need to add a little more – you want dough that is soft, but not soggy. Use the mixture to clean the inside of the bowl and keep going until the mixture forms a rough dough.
- Tip the dough onto your lightly floured surface and begin to knead. Keep kneading for 5-10 minutes. Work through the initial wet stage until the dough starts to form a soft, smooth skin.
- When your dough feels smooth and silky, put it into a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm spot until at least doubled in size – at least 1 hour, but it’s fine to leave it for 2 or even 3 hours.
- Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and scatter the sultanas, raisins, orange zest, apple, cinnamon and mixed spice on top. Knead in until evenly incorporated. Cover and leave to rise in a warm spot for 1 more hour.
- Fold the dough inwards repeatedly until all the air is knocked out. Divide into 12 pieces (of roughly the same weight) and roll into balls. Place, fairly close together, on 1 or 2 baking trays lined with baking parchment or silicone paper.
- Cover each tray very loosely with cling film (kitchen wrap) and leave to rest for 1 more hour, or until the dough is at least doubled in size and springs back quickly when lightly prodded with your finger.
- Meanwhile, pre-heat your oven to 200°C (395°F).
- For the crosses, in a small bowl, mix the flour and water to a paste. Using a piping bag fitted with a fine nozzle (or fill a freezer bag and snip off a small corner) pipe crosses on the buns.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Warm the apricot jam with a bit of water, sieve and brush over the tops of the warm buns to glaze.
- Cool the buns on a wire rack BUT serve warm (best!) or at room temperature. You can eat them as they are or halvedm slathered with butter and maybe some local honey, homemade or marmelade.
In this recipe, the addition of one apple to the dough enhances the taste and lends a lovely, moist texture, you can leave the apple out and substitute mixed peel if that's what you prefer.
One a penny, two a penny,
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons;
One a penny, two a penny,
Source: This is the most common version of the Hot Cross Buns, an English language nursery rhyme, Easter song, and street cry referring to the spiced English bun known as a hot cross bun. The earliest record of the rhyme was published in London in 1798; earlier references to the rhyme as a street cry in London, 1733, noted:
Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs.
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.
Both the nursery rhyme and the street cry refer to the fact that you could either get two small buns OR one regular bun for one penny!
If dried fruits aren’t your thing you might want to try one of the many new variations on the traditional recipe, such as toffee, orange-cranberry, chocolate chip and coffee. But make sure to mark your buns with a cross and to use the same mixture of spices though, as ‚spice' and 'the cross' are important things in all hot cross buns‘ (Dorothy Hartley's, Food in England, published in 1954).