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Hot Cross Buns

I still remember my piano lessons, which began at age three (and ended soon after!) The first song I learned was “Hot Cross Buns”. I recently taught it to my six year old son, when he became aware of these treats, which appeared (ironically) in stores as soon as Lent began.

Hot Cross Buns at Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly, April 2010, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Hot Cross Buns at Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly, April 2010, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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!

The commonly known (and now heard throughout my house) cry actually appeared in print no earlier than 1798, published in London in that year’s Christmas Box. An earlier version, however, appeared in 1733 in in Poor Robin’s Almanack, and ran as follows,
“Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.”

A vintage illustration of a Hot Cross Bun seller.
A vintage illustration of a Hot Cross Bun seller.

The price is stated quite clearly in this verse and remarkably, remained constant for over 200 years—a fact pointed out by Charles Dickens’s son in his 1889 edition of All the Year Round.

Buns marked with a cross on top had been known since the time of the ancient Greeks and the spiced, fruited buns now associated with the name, were once sold throughout England, where the cry of street hawkers could be heard all down the streets. They were, however, by Elizabeth’s newly puritan era considered “too popish” (i.e. Catholic) to be sold on any day except Good Friday (owing to the cross on the top), Christmas, and at burials. Anyone found violating this law forfeited their entire stock of buns for the nourishment of the poor.

On Good Friday, however, Christians who had been observing Lent by self-denial of dairy and egg products, found good reason to rejoice. Christ was raised from the dead and that was cause enough for celebration. The spices used in the buns were reminiscent of those brought by the women to the garden tomb. Somewhat surprising to me was the fact that early crosses in the buns were made of simple cuts, or pastry dough, rather than the frosting which now decorates bakery buns.

To those who had endured 40 days of fasting from such delights, the anticipation of Hot Cross Buns could not be put off past breakfast. In The Life Of Samuel Johnson (1791), which Jane Austen is known to have been familiar with, Boswell writes: “On the 9th of April [1773], being Good Friday, I breakfasted with him on tea and cross-buns …” Later, he notes, “April 18 [1783], (being Good-Friday) I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross bun to prevent faintness”.

To quote one slightly post Regency source,

This is the season at which all good Christians devour hot cross buns for breakfast, under the comfortable impression that a religious duty is being performed; and in this instance we are happy to find a spirit of faith and religion in the rising generation, for the little boys devour hot cross buns with a most sacred Gusto, which shows that if there is any virtue in the act, the youth of the present day are the very best performers of the religious duty. It is a most comfortable thing, when any kind of eatable commanded by religion happens to be Nice, and we must say even we feel a holy and comfortable glow come over us, when we feel that we Ought to substitute for the plain baker’s bread, the more savoury, and more sacred substance, called Hot Cross Buns.
‘Figaro In London’, Published 1836

Surprisingly, recipes for Hot Cross Buns are scarce before the 18th Century. The following one is from an 1825 source. A more modern, open source version can be found below it.

TO MAKE CROSS BUNS
Put two pounds and a half of fine flour into a wooden bowl, and set it before the fire to warm; then add half a pound of sifted sugar, some coriander seed, cinnamon and mace powdered fine; melt half a pound of butter in half a pint of milk; when it is as warm as it can bear the finger, mix with it three table spoonsful of very thick yeast, and a little salt; put it to the flour, mix it to a paste, and make the buns as directed in the above receipt … [for common buns … make it into buns, put them on a tin, set them before the fire for a quarter of an hour, cover over with flannel, then brush them with very warm milk, and bake them of a nice brown in a moderate oven] put a cross on the top, not very deep.
‘Five Thousand Receipts’, By Colin MacKenzie, Published 1825

  • 1 cup (240 mL) milk
  • 4 teaspoons (20 mL) water
  • 1 cakes fresh yeast
  • 3 cups (720 mL) all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup (80 mL) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1.25 mL) cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon (1.25 mL) nutmeg, grated
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1/4 cup (60 mL) melted butter
  • 1 cup (240 mL) currants
  1. Heat milk and water to lukewarm.
  2. Crumble yeast. Mix with 1/2 cup (120 mL) flour. Stir in tepid milk/water and mix well.
  3. Cover and set aside in warm place until yeast is active and frothing, about 10 – 15 minutes.
  4. Mix remaining flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
  5. Stir egg and butter into the yeast mix, add the flour mixture and fruit. Mix well.
  6. Put dough onto a floured surface and knead. Return to bowl, and let rise until double in bulk, about 1 hour.
  7. Turn onto a floured surface and knead again.
  8. Preheat oven to 375° F (190° C).
  9. Divide dough into twelve pieces and shape into buns. Mark a deep cross on the top of each bun.
  10. Arrange on a baking tray, cover with tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes. Cook in preheated 375° F (190° C) oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

 

Laura Boyle is fascinated by all aspects of Jane Austen’s life. She is the proprietor of Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe. Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends is her first book. Her greatest joy is the time she is able to spend in her home with her family (1 amazing husband, 4 adorable children and a very strange dog.)

 

 

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