Why Eat Hot Cross Buns at Easter? (Also: I baked bread and so can you)

Happy Easter!

Can you say that a day later?

Perhaps more accurately: Happy Easter Monday!

Or more obscurely: Happy Second Day in the Octave of Easter!

This post is one part recipe and one part history. If you’re looking for the history, scroll on down to the bolded sections.

When I started brainstorming blog posts relating to Easter, hot cross buns came to mind immediately. I shortly discovered that they are actually an iconic Good Friday tradition, rendering this post mildly anachronistic. My bad.

At any rate, I was excited for an excuse to give bread baking a try. This recipe worked well, though I replaced the traditional currants with bits of preserved apricots and raisins. Generally, hot cross buns are sweet rolls flavored with cardamom, orange zest, cinnamon and dried fruit, with the eponymous crosses indented across their tops or drizzled with icing. For a different take, I’m intrigued by this recipe that replaces the milk or water with Earl Grey tea.

The process was easier than expected. I proofed the yeast in warm milk and two teaspoons of sugar and 10 minutes later was mind blown to find the mixture had turned mostly to telltale froth – it lives!

Science.

From there, I mixed the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately, combined those two until the dough turned shaggy, then kneaded, kneaded, kneaded for 10 min or so.

For the uninitiated (like me), shaggy dough means lumpy and just-come-together.

A quick google search tells me the kneading sets a chemical reaction in motion that forms gluten (mind blown again). I covered the dough and left it for two hours to rise, returning to find it had doubled in size. Seriously, science is so cool.

Behold! The risen dough.

The biggest glitch came when I broke the dough into little rolls and set them to bake for 10 min, only to leave them in a minute too long and find them slightly burnt. Still, the results were more than edible and definitely bread. I’ll call it success.

I totally understand how people get hooked on bread making, because between the yeast frothing and the dough rising I felt like I was engaging in some form of everyday alchemy. He is risen, indeed.

Never having actually tasted a hot cross bun, I ventured into the rain Saturday to purchase a professionally made example from the local bakery, huddling in a damp line that stretched out the door and attracting some amused comments when I ordered a single hot cross bun 15 minutes later: “You stood in this line for that?!”

It was worth it. I’ll leave it to you to guess which bun I can claim credit for.

I went down a historical rabbit hole tracing the origin story of the hot cross bun. What follows are five of the more noteworthy myths and legends.

1: Hot cross buns were first left as sacrifices to the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre…

whose name has long been used to argue for Easter’s pagan origins. According to an 8th century CE Northumbrian monk with a name worthy of Harry Potter – I’m looking at you, Venerable Bede – Anglo Saxons named what became the month of April Ēosturmōnaþ after Eostre, the goddess of fertility and dawn. Venerable Bede went on to describe the early Saxon custom of leaving out small loaves of sweetened bread for the goddess.

Despite its popularity, most historians today debunk this myth, pointing out that Venerable Bede is the only ancient source that mentions Eostre, and this in the context of a treatise called “The Reckoning of Time” that is essentially a very mundane comparison between different calendars. Moreover, Anglo-Saxon calendars generally named periods of time for the activities associated with them, making Ēosturmōnaþ an outlier. It’s likely Eostre was simply the Saxon word for “dawn.” Centuries later, Jacob Grimm (yes, one of those brothers) also wrote about Eostre, though he cited zero sources.

2. Hot cross buns baked on Good Friday would never go stale and had special healing powers…

particularly when mixed with crushed communion wafers. Medieval cooks hung hot cross buns in their kitchens, in the hopes that the cross would expel bad spirits and prevent the outbreak of kitchen fires. Similarly, popular convention held that bringing the buns on a sea voyage would protect against shipwreck and splitting a bun with a friend would cement goodwill.

3. Queen Elizabeth I restricted consumption of hot cross buns to Good Friday, Christmas, and funerals…

attributing an uptick in “excessive popery” to their popularity. (Side note: as far as archaic derogatory phrases go, popery really trips off the tongue). Clearly the ban had limited staying power, because in 1733 Poor Robin’s Almanack reported the popularity of hot cross buns at market, publishing the rhyme:

Good Friday comes this month

The old woman runs, with

One a penny, two a penny

Hot cross buns

4. Ladies in 19th century London preserved the buns in hopes of scoring an eligible bachelor…

with one London newspaper commenting in 1855 that young ladies were apt to, “puncture the date on its back with pins, and put it away, like a bag of lavender, in their drawers. Whoever keeps one of these mealy treasures for an entire twelvemonth is sure, it is said, to get married the next.” Questionable, and yet…

5. England’s St. Albans Cathedral claims to have THE original hot cross bun recipe…

thanks to Thomas Rocliffe, a monk who baked the spiced rolls and passed them out to the parish poor on Good Friday in 1361. Apparently the buns were so delectable that they set off centuries of copycat bakers. While the tale smacks of urban legend, most food historians seem to agree that it is the most probable origin story and St. Albans continues to sell their version of hot cross buns today.

6. Finally, tradition holds that the dried fruits and spices studding the rolls represent the spices embalming Christ at his burial and that the cross on top represents the Crucifixion, hence the association with Good Friday.

On a personal note, this seems oddly fitting. There is so much paradox embedded in Christian theology – God on the cross, the human and the divine, servant leadership – that commemorating the Gospels’ low point with a trace of sweetness somehow works. The spices could just as easily hint at the empty tomb to come and Easter morning.

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