Traditionally baked for Good Friday and sold two for a penny as the old song goes, hot cross buns are what the English Easter is about. Happy Easter!
Seasonal means occasional
Would you fancy mince pies in the middle of summer? I’m not at all sure. There’s this man living somewhere in England who apparently has Christmas every day. You must be truly obsessed to roast a turkey every day. Perhaps only every other day? Who knows?
However much I love some foods, I wouldn't want to eat them every day. That's why seasonal foods are so nice - simply because of what they are, seasonal, occasional.
It's something to look forward to, something to eagerly anticipate and relate to a cheerful time of spring, summer, holidays. Christmas is coming, we'd better make some mince pies! And then we have none for ten or eleven long months which makes the hearts and taste buds fonder for when they next come round.
Hot cross buns for Easter
Hot cross buns shout out ‘spring! Easter!’ Fluffy sweet buns that you might well have during the year in the guise of tea cakes or cinnamon buns, but not quite so spiced, not quite so shiny with glaze, nor adorned with those white crosses that have long lost their religious connotations but do look so pretty.
I start baking my first batches in March, regardless when this movable feast will fall on. I probably bake up to 50 in a season since I have many eager, greedy hot cross bun enthusiasts among family and friends.
Because there’s nothing, but nothing better to have for breakfast in early spring than a hot cross bun, homemade, lightly toasted with a pile of butter on its sliced half.
Easter is not as rich in cakes and bakes as Christmas. There is Simnel cake which comes in two versions, one leavened with yeast and the other more redolent of Christmas fruitcake, both with lavish marzipan decorations. There are Easter Sedgemoor biscuits studded with raisins and delicately iced.
There are foreign confections like colomba the dove cake from Italy, a counterpart to Christmas panettone. The Greeks bake koulourakia, fragrant biscuits flavoured with mahlep or the intricate, challah-like bread baked with boiled whole eggs nesting in the dough. There is Russian kulich copied on panettone and Scandinavian pulla bread. And there are chocolate eggs everywhere.
Hot cross buns are my favourite Easter bakes. I could not imagine an Easter Sunday breakfast other than one or two warm, lightly toasted hot cross buns, spread with cold butter. They are the festive equivalent of tea cakes or raisin buns that you can have all year round, but heavily spiced, hence 'hot', and marked with a piped pastry cross symbolically for Easter.
Hot cross buns myths and traditions
Of course the tradition of a spring holiday goes back to pre-Christian festivals, celebrating rebirth of nature after long winter. Whether they baked crossed buns as some sources maintain, in representation of four phases of the moon, is quite probable as offering of bread would have at some point replace blood sacrifice to gods.
As interesting is a more recent belief, that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday would not go mouldy for the whole year. Even more, it was supposed to have holy properties and cure all illnesses that would befall on the family if fed to the sick one. I completely encourage you put the magical freshness to the test but maybe not the cure-all capability.
How to make wholemeal hot cross buns
This is my best recipe for hot cross buns, tested about a thousand times. It comes from Andrew Whitley's book Bread Matters.
I’ve adjusted the mix of flours compared to the original which instructs to use only wholemeal flour. But a little wholemeal flour goes a long way and hot cross buns should not be too heavy.
The amount of raisins is scarily large but in my house the ideal raisin to dough ratio would be 1:1. If you're not so big on raisins, cut the amounts by a third - it will still be a lot.
It is an easy, forgiving dough, it just needs a morning or afternoon devoted to mixing, kneading and shaping at sensible intervals. I like making them because it is such structured work: ferment, dough, shaping, crosses and glaze.
Ferment is all the milk with a little sugar and flour to kickstart the yeast, and it matters not whether you use fresh or instant yeast.. It needs to stand for an hour to bubble up.
Then the rest of the dough ingredients is added: butter, an egg, the resmaining flour and sugar, some salt and the spice of course. Don't be timid - this amount of spice is correct! After all they are hot as well as cross.
The main dough is best mixed with a standing mixer, otherwise it is going to take a lot of elbow grease. Not impossible though, and it gives you an excellent upper arm workout! The raisins and/or sultanas are added at the end and you might want to do it by hand even if making the dough with a mixer: it will ensure even distribution of the fruit.
After a rise in the bowl, divide the dough into 16 pieces, about 75g each, and shape into balls. They will now need to rise until almost touching. Time to cross!
The crossing mix is a joy: I don't believe in just painting the crosses on the buns with white icing as some bakers do. Piping the sticky mix carefully onto risen buns is the best part.
And if you don't want them to be messy and wish to skip the post-baking glaze, paint them with ehh yolk beaten with a tablespoon of water before they go to the oven. That will give them a glossy but touchable glaze.
Do they keep?
They don't - they usually get eaten within a couple of days! Joking aside, they stay surprisingly fresh for two days, thanks to the glaze. I usually freeze half the amount, mainly to save some for later, but you can also keep them all in a tub or a bread bin because they are blissfully good toasted.
You need to take care not to ruin your toaster though because of the glaze. The best method is to slice the bun in half and place it, cut side down, on top of the toaster. Alternatively turn on your oven grill and place the buns on a piece of parchment set on the oven rack, cut side up.
And then spread some butter over the golden crunchy surface and enjoy it. Happy Easter!
More Easter recipes
Double chocolate hot cross buns with sticky glaze and white chocolate crosses are messy to eat, difficult to toast and absolutely irresistible this Easter!
Colomba di Pasqua, Easter Dove is the traditional Italian cake baked for Easter in cases shaped like a dove. A gorgeous, almond studded and orange flavoured panettone equivalent for Easter.
Homemade Easter creme eggs with filling made from buttery icing. Just like Cadbury's mini creme eggs, with white and yellow filling, made from milk chocolate melted into egg moulds.