What makes a hot cross bun a hot cross bun? Is it in the bun: the spice, the dried fruit and citrus zest, or the type of dough? Is that how you eat it – hot! – halved, grilled and dripping with butter? Or is it the cross itself? Hot cross bun purists will tell you that it’s all of the above, and any deviation from the classic is, well, deviant. And moreover, that the buns should only be eaten on Good Friday, never before or after. But if recent examples are to be believed, the rules are very loose.
Every year, from the end of Christmas, unorthodox hot cross buns line the shelves of our supermarkets and cause opprobrium among the fussy. There are chocolate chips, orange chocolate, lemon and white chocolate, mocha; rhubarb and custard, strawberries and cream, sticky caramel pudding; cheese, cheese and Marmite, cheese and jalapeño. If we believe the hot pedants crossed, each new combination of flavors brings us a little closer to the end of civilization.
Are they right, these traditionalists? Well, Easter buns haven’t always taken the exact same shape. The name of the hot cross bun originated in the 18th century, but buns with cut crosses have been found in the remains of Pompeii, and the Saxons ate cross buns in April to celebrate Eostre, goddess of fertility and dawn.
In the 14th century, Friar Thomas Rocliffe, a monk from St Albans, distributed a cross bun to poor locals on Good Friday. This Alban roll contained currants and cardamom, and the cross was cut into it rather than piped. The Rocliffe bun is considered the forerunner of the hot cross bun. Later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the sale of spiced buns was banned except on Good Friday, Christmas and at funerals. So, slowly, spiced buns became associated with Good Friday. But it was not until 1773 in Poor Robin’s Almanac that the first reference to “cross hot buns” – one a penny, two a penny – was made, and the pastry crosses on top, meant to symbolize the crucifixion, became a defining feature.
That’s bad news for purists: if the cross is what makes a hot cross bun, then even the weirdest flavor combinations are legit. I try to stick to the “live and let live” school of baking: if sticking fizzy candies and smoked ham into a dough and calling it a hot bun makes you happy, so be it be so. But if pushed, I’ll admit that I think the original really is the best. My platonic bun is soft but not too sweet, enriched but not too rich. It should be sprinkled with plump raisins and small nuggets of citrus peel. The spice should be generous and mixed – cloves and nutmeg joining in with cinnamon, which on its own can taste one-dimensional. My cross is made from a simple unsweetened flour-water batter, which is poured before the buns go into the oven. As the buns bake and grow, the cross becomes baked.
But knowing that the road from the bun to today’s shape is a little more twisty, I feel comfortable playing around when it comes to the dough. In the quest for the perfect bun, I tried a less conventional method. Tangzhong is the Asian technique of using a roux cooked in a leavened dough. Heating a small proportion of the milk and flour together cooks the starch in the flour, which absorbs some of the liquid in the flour. This creates a structure that supports more liquid. This means that the buns are significantly softer than when using normal yeast dough: they will be soft and tender, without the need for amounts of butter and brioche eggs. They should also rise more in the oven, baking into each other, creating wisps of fluffy crumbs when the buns are pulled apart. This technique also gives longer shelf life – but these buns are so good they’ll be gone by the end of Good Friday. A victory for the traditionalists.
Makes 9 Baked 30 mins Take 30 minutes, plus 3 hours of verification
For the buns
– 370g strong white bread flour
– 7.5g instant dry yeast
– 75g plain flour
– 1 egg
– 240 ml whole milk
– 80g soft butter
– 40g caster sugar
– 100g raisins
– 50g of mixed bark
– ½ teaspoon of salt
– 1 finely chopped apple
– 1 teaspoon of ground mixed spices
For the icing
– 50g caster sugar
– 30ml of water
– ½ teaspoon ground mixed spices
First, do the tangzhong. In a small saucepan, heat 90ml milk and 20g strong white bread flour, stirring all the time, until the mixture thickens and becomes gelatinous. Cook for a few minutes, then decant the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer.
Add bread flour, yeast, milk, egg, sugar and salt to the tangzhong and knead with a dough hook for 5-10 minutes until the dough is elastic. Knead the butter, then the raisins, zest, apple and spices. Cover with cling film and let rise until doubled in size, which should take 1-2 hours.
Line a 23cm square cake tin with a long strip of baking paper. Divide the risen dough into 9 equal portions and roll each into a tight ball. Arrange in the mold in 3 rows of 3, cover with cling film, and let rise until pressing lightly with a finger, they retain only the imprint. It will take 1-2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Just before baking, mix 75g plain flour with a little water to form a paste the thickness of toothpaste. Transfer to a piping bag and pass over the buns to form crosses. Bake for 30 minutes.
While the buns are rising, heat 50g caster sugar with 30ml water and ½ tsp ground mixed spices. Bring to a boil and, as soon as the loaves come out of the oven, generously brush the loaves to form a glaze.
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