Every year, just before Easter, Grandma Abson would make hot cross buns. Traditionally, they are eaten on Good Friday, towards the end of the Christian period of Lent. The sweet spiced buns have symbolic references to the crucifixion of Jesus, as they are marked with a cross made from flour and water and flavoured with spices to signify those used to embalm his body. The citrus peel is seen as a reminder of the bitterness of his time on the cross.
Origins of hot cross buns
There are suggestions that hot cross buns originated in Saxon times, where buns marked with a cross were baked in honour of the goddess, Eostre to celebrate the beginning of Spring. The cross represented the rebirth of the world after winter the four quarters of the moon, the four seasons and the wheel of life.
Another story is that a spiced bun recipe was developed in the 14th century by a monk at St Albans Abbey. He called them ‘Alban buns’ and distributed them to the local poor on Good Friday.
During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1592, the sale of hot cross buns was restricted to Good Friday, Christmas and burials, so hot cross buns were often baked in domestic kitchens rather than bakeries.
The street cry ‘one or two a penny hot cross buns’ is noted in 1733 in Poor Robin’s Almanac and in the nursery rhyme published in the London Chronicle in June 1767.
Grandma Abson’s recipe for hot cross buns
250ml/½ pint milk
50g/2 oz butter cut into pieces
7g sachet fast action yeast
450g/1 lb strong plain flour
1 tsp mixed spice
35g/1½ oz sugar
1 egg lightly beaten
50g/2 oz currants
50g/2oz mixed peel
Shortcrust pastry for decoration
Heat the milk until nearly boiling; add the butter and leave to cool to hand temperature. Stir the yeast into the cooled milk mixture. Mix the flour, mixed spice and sugar. Make a well in the centre and add the yeast mixture and egg. Mix to a soft dough. You can do this in a food mixer with a dough hook.
Place in an oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film. Leave to prove in a warm place until doubled in size. Add the currants and mixed peel. Knead on a floured board or worktop for 10 minutes or so until smooth. Cover with oiled cling film. Leave to prove again in a warm place until doubled in size.
Turn out and knead for 2–3 minutes. Cut the dough into 10-12 pieces and shape into buns. Place on a greased baking tray, cover with oiled cling film and put in a warm place until doubled in size.
Make a small amount of shortcrust pastry, roll out and cut into thin strips. Brush with milk and place across each bun to make a cross. Bake in a hot oven (425F, Mark 7, 210C) for 15 minutes. Brush with a glaze made from milk and sugar and allow to cool.
Tips from Grandma Abson
Grandma Abson would leave the hot cross bun dough to rise on the hearth of the kitchen range. I use a sunny windowsill, airing cupboard or a warm place near a radiator or even better if you have a warming drawer. You can use fast-action yeast, which can be added straight to the dry ingredients. If using dried yeast, it needs to be dissolved in liquid first.
She also used shortcrust pastry for the cross decoration but you can mix about 75g flour with 5 tbsps of water to make a thick paste for the cross and pipe it across each bun. And she made a sugar glaze but you can use apricot jam to brush over the top of the buns if you wish.
Bake and eat them on Good Friday before the chocolate egg rush on Easter Sunday and sing the old nursery rhyme.