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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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Mr. Woodhouse’s Thin Gruel

The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said — much praise and many comments — undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable; — but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin.
Emma

Of all Jane Austen’s hypochrondriacs, perhaps her most endearing is Mr. Woodhouse. Afraid of germs, draughts, too rich food and all manner of nervous complaints brought on by change, he forces himself, and often those around him, to live on a diet of plain foods:

“My poor dear Isabella,” said he, fondly taking her hand, and interrupting, for a few moments, her busy labours for some one of her five children — “How long it is, how terribly long since you were here! And how tired you must be after your journey! You must go to bed early, my dear — and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go. — You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.”

Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing as she did, that both the Mr Knightleys were as unpersuadable on that article as herself; — and two basins only were ordered.

Gruel was, by nature, a dish reserved for the very poor, who could afford nothing else, and invalids, who could tolerate nothing else. A type of thin porridge, it is made of oats stewed with either milk or water, and is served with salt or sugar and milk.

The first evidence for dishes resembling porridge is prehistoric. Neolithic farmers cultivated oats along with other crops. Various types of grains and grain meals could be stewed in water to form a thick porridge-like dish. Anglo Saxon sources describe “briw” or “brewit” made from rye meal, barley meal or oats served plain or with vegetables in. There are also references to some types of porridges being fermented.

Porridges and gruels were an easy way to cook grains. The grain only had to be cracked, not completely ground into flour. It could be cooked very simply in a pot at the edge of a fire. Bread required an oven to cook in. It formed a basis for many dishes, both sweet and savoury. It was served with meat, stock or fat, as well as with vegetables, fruits, honey or spices. It could be allowed to cool and set in a “porridge drawer”, and could then be sliced to be eaten cold or even fried.

Eighteenth Century cookbooks such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, 1747, give recipes for “Water Gruel” made of oatmeal and water, and flavoured with butter and pepper. It might be served with wine sauce, sherry and dried fruits by rich people, whereas the poor ate the dish on its own. It could be served with any meal at any time of the day. Sugar only became widely available in Britain in the Eighteenth Century, so it was probably not used on porridge before then.

Oliver Twist As a inexpensive dish, Gruel or Porridge became the meal of choice served at workhouses around the nation in the early to mid 1800’s. In 1837, Charles Dickens sarcastically wrote “…that all poor people should have the alternative of being starved by a gradual process in the [work] house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factory (grain processor) to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day….”* Who can forget the image of young Oliver Twist asking, “Please sir, may I have some more?”

This is not to say that all porridges were reserved for the indigent. Oats were a kitchen staple at the time for every household and many richer versions found their way on the tables of the wealthy as well as the working class.These dishes included plumb porridge or barley gruel, made from barley and water, with dried fruit added. Burstin was made by roasting hulled barley grains and then grinding them, it could then be served with milk Frumenty was hulled wheat cooked with milk, cream and eggs and flavoured with spices. SUrely Mr. Woodhouse would have been shocked at such profligacy!

To Make Water-Gruel
You must take a pint of water and a large spoonful of oatmeal; then stir it together and let it boil up three or four times, stirring it often; do not let it boil over; then strain it through a sieve, salt it to your palate, put in a good piece of fresh butter, brew it with a spoon til the butter is all melted, then it will be fine and smooth, and very good: som love a little pepper in it.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796

Recipe for Oatmeal Gruel
1/3 cup rolled oats
1 pint water
1 pint or more hot milk
1¼ teaspoons salt

Add the salt to the water, and bring to a boil in the inner cup of a double boiler. Stir in the rolled oats. Boil over the fire two or three minutes, then set the inner cup in the outer cup of the double boiler which contains boiling water, and continue the cooking for three hours or longer. Then rub the oatmeal through a strainer. Add hot milk to make of the proper consistency for gruel.

Barley gruel, cornmeal gruel, or rice gruel may be made by the same recipe, using one-third cup pearl barley, one-fourth cup cornmeal, or one-fourth cup rice, instead of the rolled oats. And in making cornmeal or rice gruel one hour’s cooking of the cereal is sufficient. It may be necessary to cook the barley four or five hours.

It may sometimes be desirable to make the gruel entirely of water.

Portions of this article are quoted from Nicky Saunder’s article, “The History of Cooking: Porridge”. Many thanks to Lothene: Experimental Archeology for their kind permission to reprint.

*Oliver Twist, Chapter 2

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