Have you ever smelt hot cross buns baking in a home oven? If you have, you won’t have forgotten for the aroma is irresistible.
And if you’ve actually eaten a spicy, buttery but-oh-so-light bun, fresh from the oven, you’d find it hard – if not downright impossible – to go back to those tasteless doughy squares wrapped in plastic from the supermarket. They fall into the fillers-for-kids category – and aren’t very nutritious at that!
These soft, small, plump, sweet, fermented cakes belong to the English baking tradition. According to Elizabeth David in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, such spice buns became popular in Tudor times (late 15th century).
According to Christian tradition, Good Friday is the day to make hot cross buns at home which still makes sense in the 21st century because for most of us it is a day of leisure at home with family. During the 18th century, hot cross buns became a speciality for Good Friday breakfast and were made extra spicy and rich with fruit and marked with a cross as a sign of Easter.
Apart from the obvious symbolism of the cross (which was carried over from pre-Reformation days), there are those who also see it as a picture of quadrants showing the four seasons.
But it’s not just the smell and the taste of home-baked hot cross buns which is so alluring, it’s also the making and baking. For what can be more magical than the transformation which occurs when flour and yeast and water come together? And what can be more sensual than kneading a sweet, aromatic dough and patting it into shape? Only caressing a soft pink baby’s bottom can match that. And then that marvellous fragrance which wafts through the house and out the door and up the street – it’s one of the best ways to make new friends.
Yeast cookery, however, does require patience and some practice. Whether you use fresh (compressed) or dried yeast in the following recipes, make sure it is mixed with warm liquid (approx. blood heat) and a little sugar until frothy and creamy (10 – 15 minutes) and then mixed into the dry ingredients. Yeast is a living organism and requires food, warmth and moisture to grow. A strong (high gluten) plain flour is best for this type of cookery. Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature, including the flour, and be patient with the rising (proving) stages which will vary according to the temperature of the day. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a clean tea-towel and leave in a warm place to double in bulk. Test for proper rising by pressing two fingers gently into the dough – if the indentations remain, the dough is fully risen.
Make sure the oven is pre-heated before popping in the buns – then sit back and sing “One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot-cross buns”.