Soft, chewy and studded with currents and sometimes pieces of dried fruit, their taste sweet and citrusy, hot cross buns are an Easter tradition stretching back centuries and though the white cross made from drizzled frosting would seem to indicate a connection to Christianity, their history goes back to remote pagan times. According to an article published on March 31, 1912 in The New York Times, ancient Egyptians made offerings of similarly decorated cakes to their moon goddess and the Greeks to Astarte, goddess of war and sexual love (now there’s an interesting combination). These cakes were decorated with four horns and then later with a cross thought to be an allusion to the four quarters of the moon.
Whatever their pagan beginnings, in 1361 a monk named Father Thomas Rockcliffe provided the poor of St Albans with hot cross buns on Good Friday. But with the outlawing of Catholicism during Queen Elizabeth’s time, consumption of hot cross buns was forbidden except at burials, on Good Friday or at Christmas. By the 1700s, they were being sold in the street with the cry of the bun sellers becoming a favorite nursery rhyme with several variations including “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs.”
“If I had time to make them every day, I’d be able to sell them all,” says Sandra Schlutt, owner of Sandra Kay’s Bakery and Cafe in Stevensville who has been making the buns and selling them at Easter time since she first opened 16 years ago. “I make them using a very traditional recipe and they’re very popular.”
At the award winning Bit of Swiss Bakery in Stevensville, they’ve been making hot cross buns since around the time they first opened, 45 years ago.
“The three main ingredients which give them their taste are currants, candied orange peel and all spice,” says pastry maker Jordan Gottlieb. “We just got an order in for 400. We start making them a couple of weeks before Easter as we get closer to the holiday we keep making more because people like them so much. It’s very traditional.”
The following recipe is from Martha Stewart’s Living
Hot Cross Buns
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for bowl and baking sheet
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
2 packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons plus one pinch salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
5 1/2 cups all-purpose, flour plus more for dusting
1 1/3 cups currants
1 large egg white
2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Generously butter a large bowl. In a small saucepan set over medium heat, heat 1 cup milk until it is warm to the touch.
Pour warm milk into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. With mixer on low, add yeast, granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, melted butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, and beaten eggs. With mixer on low, add flour, 1 cup at a time, until a soft, slightly sticky dough forms around the dough hook, about 3 minutes. Continue kneading, scraping down hook and sides of bowl as necessary until smooth, about 4 minutes longer. Add currants, and knead until combined, about 30 seconds.
Turn dough out onto a heavily floured surface. Knead by hand to evenly distribute currants, about 1 minute. Shape dough into a ball, and place in the buttered bowl; turn ball to coat with butter, and cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour 20 minutes. For a richer flavor, let dough rise in a refrigerator overnight.
Generously butter an 11-by-17-inch baking sheet. Turn dough out onto work surface, and knead briefly to redistribute the yeast. Divide dough into 24 equal pieces, about 2 ounces each. Shape pieces into tight balls, and place on baking sheet, spaced 1/2 inch apart. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until touching and doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Heat oven to 375 degrees, with rack positioned in center. To make egg wash, whisk together egg white, 1 tablespoon water, and pinch of salt in a small bowl; brush tops of buns with egg wash. Using very sharp scissors or a buttered slicing knife, slice a cross into the top of each bun. Transfer pan to oven, and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool. Make glaze: In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon milk, confectioners’ sugar, and lemon juice. Pipe or ladle glaze over buns, and serve.