The English custom of eating spiced buns on Good Friday dates back to at least Tudor times, when a London law forbade the sale of spiced buns except on Good Friday, Christmas, and at burials. The first known mention of the name “hot cross buns” comes from a rhyme in the 1733 book Poor Robin’s Almanack: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns.” Although on modern hot cross buns the cross is usually piped on with pastry, in most recipes before the 20th century the cross is cut or stamped into the buns. This 1896 recipe from Fannie Merritt Farmer is an exception to both traditions; in her version, the cross is piped on with icing.
Hot Cross Buns:
- 1 cup scalded milk
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/2 tsp salt
- active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp) (I adapted Fannie Farmer’s recipe to use dry yeast, since I’m never able to find compressed yeast anywhere)
- 1/4 cup lukewarm water
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
- 3 cups bread flour (I used bread flour because earlier in the book, Farmer states to always use bread flour for yeast recipes. However, all-purpose flour would probably work too)
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup raisins or currants
- 1 egg yolk for glaze
- Add butter, sugar, and salt to scalded milk.
- Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water.
- When milk mixture has cooled to lukewarm, add the yeast, cinnamon, beaten egg, and flour.
- Mix until smooth.
- Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, adding more flour if necessary. The dough will be sticky.
- Add the raisins, place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled (about 1 hour).
- Punch down dough, then cut dough into 12 equal-sized pieces.
- Shape into balls and place one inch apart on a lined baking sheet.
- Let rise until nearly doubled in size, for about 45-60 minutes.
- Brush rolls with an egg yolk beaten with about 1 tbsp water (the recipe calls for a whole egg; but if you use just the yolk, you can save the egg white for the icing).
- Bake at 375 for about 15-20 minutes, until buns are golden brown.
- 1 egg white
- confectioner’s sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Put the egg white in a bowl with 2 tsp of confectioner’s sugar.
- Beat for a few minutes, then gradually add more sugar while constantly beating.
- As the mixture thickens, gradually add the lemon juice.
- Continue adding sugar and beating until the frosting is thick enough to pipe.
- When the buns are cool, pipe thick crosses over the buns before separating them.
My favorite part about this recipe is that the buns aren’t super sweet; although they get an extra hit of sugar from the icing, the buns themselves are more like ordinary bread rolls. I like that, since I think some modern recipes for hot cross buns are overly sweet. The texture reminds me of bread rolls as well, most likely because I used bread flour; I am curious whether they would have a different texture with all-purpose flour. My one complaint is that the amounts of raisins and cinnamon are very low. I would have preferred more of both for more flavor.
These were definitely at their best when freshly baked, but they’re still pretty good toasted the next day, too, especially if you slather them with jam. I can see why people have been making buns like this for hundreds of years; I think I’ll keep the tradition going next year, too!
Ayto, John. (2012). Hot cross bun. In The diner’s dictionary: Word origins of food & drink. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Farmer, F. (1896). The Boston cooking-school cook book. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. https://n2t.net/ark:/85335/m51d4w