I know what you’re saying, “hot cross buns?“. I grew up knowing that hot cross buns always appeared around Easter, and I certainly loved eating them, but I never knew their origin or why they were important to the Easter holiday.
During Elizabethan times (16th century) the celebration of Easter was the most important feast day in Great Britain. Often referred to as the Golden Age, this was a time of relative calm. The country was experiencing greater wealth. Protestants and Catholics resolved their differences. Parliament and the Monarchy worked together. And Queen Elizabeth began an event during Holy Week, known as the Cambridge Fair, so that she could be ‘among the common people‘.
At that time all bread dough was marked with a cross in the belief that it would ‘ward off evil influences that might prevent the dough from rising’. The Chelsea Bun House in London was one of the favorite spots of not only the common people, but royalty and the upper classes. They were most busy on the weekends when customers would enjoy the sweet, rich, currant buns the shop was so famous for. During the Cambridge Fair when the streets would fill with people for the three-day event, they would serve thousands upon thousands of their sweet, rich, currant buns. As reported in the London Encyclopaedia, Pan Macmillan, 2010, p. 155, the Chelsea Bun House “on its final Good Friday of 1839, sold almost quarter of a million hot cross buns.”
The buns quickly became a tradition to be eaten for breakfast on Good Friday. Street sellers would be out before dawn selling these sweet, fruit-laden breads. According to legend, one bun would be saved until the following year to bring the family good luck!
To bring your family good luck in the next year, go out and buy some Hot Cross Buns today. Or if you are daring enough to make these delicously rich buns, give the recipe a try ……..
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Hot Cross Buns
This is a three-step recipe and is perfect for a rainy day, when you can immerse yourself in the sights, smells and textures. Plan on 4 hours from start to finish. These are not the overly-sweet, icing rolls you find in U.S. stores. They are the classic Easter rolls, rich with a hint of cinnamony spice. Bakes at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Makes 12 to 16.
All purpose flour – 3-1/2 cups
Salt – 1-1/2 teaspoons
Sugar – 1/2 cup
Instant, dry yeast – 2-1/2 teaspoons
Butter – 6 tablespoons, melted
Eggs – 2 medium (beaten)
Milk – 1/2 cup, warmed
Water – 1/2 cup, warmed
Cinnamon – 1 teaspoon
Nutmeg – 1/2 teaspoon
Dried, mixed fruit and candied peel – 1 cup
Flour – 1/2 cup
Water – 1/4 cup
Apricot jam – 1/2 cup
Warm the milk (a microwave oven is fine) and add the yeast. (I generally use canned milk for my bread baking. You can’t beat the convenience and it’s creamy and smooth.) Set aside to allow the yeast to proof (bubble up).
In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, salt, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix well. When the yeast mixture is bubbly, add it to the dry ingredients with the melted butter, beaten eggs and water. Beat until all the ingredients are blended together well. The dough should be soft, but not soggy.
Tip the dough out onto a floured board. Sprinkle the mixed dried fruit over and then begin kneading. You want to knead the fruit into the dough and work the dough until it becomes soft, smooth and shiny. This should take about 5 to 7 minutes.
When the dough feels smooth, put it into a large oiled bowl. Turn the dough over and over until it is oiled as well. Cover the bowl with a towel and leave to rise in a warm spot. The dough should rise until it has doubled in size – from one to two hours (longer is fine).
After the dough has fully proofed, punch it down to knock out all the air, and tip it onto a floured board again.
Meanwhile, warm your oven to 350° and line the baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut the dough into pieces (12, 14, 16 you decide how many you want to make and how big they should be). Flatten each piece and then tuck the sides under until you have smooth, uniform rolls. Place on the baking sheets, fairly close, but not touching.
For the classic cross, mix 1/2 cup flour with 1/4 cup water til smooth. Put this paste into a piping bag (plastic bag will do fine) and pipe a cross on the top of each roll. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown.
When they come out of the oven, brush each roll with apricot jam (thin with a little water if necessary). The jam adds a nice sheen and sweetness. Cool on a wire rack. Enjoy!
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Resources: Porters English Cookery Bible, Wikipedia Elizabethan Era, London Encyclopaedia