Hot Cross Buns

Image credit CJorsch

Hot cross buns! Hot cross Buns!
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters
Give them to your sons
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns!

Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns!
If you haven’t got a penny
A ha’penny will do.
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Well God bless you.

One of my very favorite childhood associations with Easter is that my mother would make hot cross buns a few days before Easter Sundsay. We would often have them on Good Friday, and we almost always had them for breakfast on Easter morning. Strictly speaking, they’re actually Cross Buns, meant to be served “hot.” Cross buns are a sweet bread, with a sweet yeast dough made with currants and cinnamon; sometimes cloves or other spices, or candied orange peel are used. The round bun is then marked with a knife on the top; the cook makes two quick slashes with the knife before baking, and then (or in stead of) decorated with a white sugar-based glaze drizzled on the top of the warm-from-the-oven bun in the shape of a cross.

Despite a fair number of assertions that hot cross buns are pagan, the limited verifiable data we have about their origins associates cross buns firmly with England, Christianity, and the season of Lent, or more accurately, with Good Friday. The earliest specific reference we have is from 1733, when, according to the OED, Poor Robin’s Almanack asserts that “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns,” in an alternate version of the nursery rhyme at the top of this post. In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), Boswell notes: “9 Apr. An. 1773 Being Good Friday I breakfasted with him and cross-buns,” another probable reference to the proverbial Hot Cross bun. The buns were usually sold hot, fresh from the bakery, or sometimes, from street vendors.

In the Elizabethan era, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law forbidding bakers to make spiced breads and buns and sell on days other than those specified in the statute of 1592, which reads:

That no bakers, etc, at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subject any spice cakes, buns, biscuits, or other spice bread (being bread out of size and not by law allowed) except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain or forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor

People would be free to make cross buns at home, for personal consumption; they just couldn’t sell them. There’s some suggestion of a tradition that called for using the same dough for the Sunday communion wafer to make the buns; though I’m finding many references to this as practice, none of the references, printed or digital, cite a primary source for the practice, and frankly it sounds a little suspect to me. I don’t know the reason behind the statute, except perhaps, that because of the cross and the tradition of serving them on Good Friday that the buns had a strong association in the popular mind with Catholicism, something that Elizabeth I, as a Protestant monarch, was understandably touchy about. The statute didn’t last long; by the time James I took the throne it was already proving difficult to enforce, and the crown soon abandoned the attempt, and the law. In addition to the tradition of only preparing them on Good Friday, for many Catholics there’s a parallel tradition that that is all that they may eat.

There are a number of recipes for cross buns online. This one calls for cinnamon, allspice, currants and orange rind, and is likely much closer to the “authentic” eighteenth century (and presumably older) versions. This one, using British measuring units also uses orange, and lime. This is a very straight-forward cinnamon and currants version. This is the recipe for Hot Cross Buns mother used when I was a child and that I still use today.

About the author

She plays o’ the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.