Yesterday our local supermarket was bereft of bread with the usual pre Easter panic shopping but there was a surfeit of those horrible chemical laden, artificial smelling, long life Hot Cross Buns, the ones that started appearing on the shelves the very day the Valentines day chocolate displays were out of the way…. You have to love our “Hallmark Events” culture.
Seeing these sad commercial things sweating it out in their plastic bags, I got to thinking about their origins. I seemed to remember that though they have been associated in our Anglo culture with the event that occurred on a Friday almost 2000 years ago (since at least the late middle ages), but their origin and design actually goes back much further.
Thankfully my trusty old go to pastry text “The New International Confectioner” a book that I have relied on and referred back to for almost 40 years, has a full half page devoted to the history and mythology of Hot Cross Buns. Steeped in pagan rites, it cites ancient Babylonian fire symbols of a circle with a cross inside and notes that cakes and breads were routinely decorated thus, that the Ancient Greeks did a similar thing with the cross symbolizing the four phases of the moon and in fact many basic breads are still scored in much the same way as would have been the case two thousand years ago.
For example below are images of petrified bread from Pompeii, loaves created following ancient roman texts, modern day Khobz from Morocco, Irish Soda bread and German Easter Bread just to illustrate the form, style and cultural /ethnic traditions that pre-date the commercialization of todays Easter celebration but which all look remarkably familar.
Of course the other misnomer with hot cross buns is the spicing, today, allspice and mixed spice make up the predominant blend, as well as commercial bun spice which is so strong it cant be natural. Interestingly though these spice mixtures are almost certainly Arabic or Levantine in origin, bought back by western Europe by the crusaders, or infused into Europe via the Caliphate that occupied Spain and the Mediterranean for several centuries.
These sweet spices make up many of the most savoury seasonings in the Arab world and have become greatly used in French cuisine particularly through their incorporation into Quatre Epices. Of course the English adopted the French tradition and used these particular spices in their (originally savoury) mince pies, a fetid beef, suet and dried fruit concoction that was made palatable and sweet smelling by the use of these exotic spices. Clearly they developed a tasting or a liking for these relatively expensive ingredients as they went on to be used almost exclusively in luxury goods like cakes and pastries.
But getting back to where I started, my family all love a good hot cross bun, but I can’t abide the type one buys in the supermarket. So this being Good Friday, and with a little time to spare, I decided to step up and make some for the family. Personally, I like mine a little lighter in spice and not as sickly sweet, and certainly without the awful mixed peel that tastes like citrus cleaning product, rather in its place Sukkade, a Dutch candied citron that is oh so delicate.
As for the recipe, it’s pretty straight forward, we made ours in about 3 hours start to finish and the family loves them, I hope you do too.
Hot Cross Buns
500g plain flour
300ml water – luke warm
15g dry yeast
Pinch nutmeg – ground/grated
¼ teaspoon clove – ground
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
20g Succade (Dutch candied citron peel)
1 egg – beaten for glazing buns
1 ½ teaspoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
pinch of cinnamon – ground
pinch of clove – ground
Method – Makes 12:
- Sift flour, then prepare a starter “sponge” by mixing a quarter of the flour with the sugar and yeast, stir in the water to form a smooth light batter, cover and leave to ferment until foaming and frothy.
- To this “sponge” add the remaining flour, spices, salt and butter and knead well until silky smooth, soft and elastic.
- Cover and allow to double, roll out and sprinkle currants, sultanas and Zuckader over, work in lightly, divide into 12 equal portions and shape into small rolls.
- Grease baking dish and place rolls in dish leaving about 1cm all around edges and between rolls to allow for expansion
- Mix ingredients for “cross paste” and fill into a small piping bag with a fine nozzle and reserve.
- Cover and allow to double again, buns are ready when they do not spring back when pressed.
- Brush with beaten egg, pipe cross over to decorate and bake in an oven preheated to 200C for 12-15 minutes.
- While baking prepare the bun glaze by bringing spices, sugar and water to the boil
- Remove buns when golden brown on top and bottom, brush with bun glaze while still hot and leave to cool thoroughly (if you can!)