Hot Cross Buns



Easter is coming—and before we get to it we arrive at the time for one of my favorite treats. Hot cross buns are a sweet yeasty roll traditionally served at the end of Lent, specifically on Good Friday. The cross of icing that tops them symbolizes the crucifixion, although it was adapted from a pagan symbol that represented either the four quarters of the moon or the perfect balance of the sun at the vernal equinox, March 21.


A monk named Thomas Rockcliffe began distributing the buns to the poor in St. Albans in England in 1361 as part of a missionary effort. They became a popular treat throughout the country.


When Elizabeth I was queen (her father Henry VIII had banned the Catholic Church for reasons of his own) she outlawed the consumption of the buns except during religious festivals-—burials, Good Friday, and Christmas. Vendors on the streets of London are said to have hawked the buns enthusiastically on the days on which they were allowed to be sold, giving rise to the nursery rhyme:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns,

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.

If ye have no daughters, give them to your sons.

One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.


Many make the buns with glaceed fruits and/or citrus peel instead of (or in addition to) the raisins or currants. I like them best this way.




for the buns:


1 generous teaspoon active dry yeast (about half a packet)

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup lukewarm water

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 to 2-1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (generous)

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt (generous)

2/3 cup raisins or currants


for the glaze:


1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

milk as needed

(for a different flavor, try substituting orange juice for the vanilla and milk)




In a small dish combine the yeast, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, and the lukewarm water. Leave them for 5 minutes or so to proof. While they are proofing, heat the milk and butter just to lukewarm.


In a large bowl combine the yeast, water, milk, butter, remaining sugar, egg, and vanilla, and whisk them together. Stir in the baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Beat in 1 cup flour and the raisins or currants; then stir in enough flour so that the mixture begins to stick together. Turn the mixture out onto a floured board, and knead it for a minute or two, adding more flour if necessary. Leave the mixture to rest for 10 minutes.


At the end of the rest period, continue kneading, adding more flour as needed, until the mixture becomes smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover it with a damp towel, and let it rise until it almost doubles in bulk (1 to 1-1/2 hours). Place the dough on a floured or greased board, knead it 2 or 3 times to release air bubbles, and divide it into 12 pieces that are as close in size as you can make them.


Roll the pieces into little balls, and place them on a large greased cookie sheet. Cover again with a damp towel, and let rise until almost double in size, 45 minutes to an hour. About 15 minutes before you think the buns will be finished rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.


Uncover the buns, and gently slash a cross on each with a serrated knife (this doesn’t always work perfectly but isn’t 100 percent necessary). Bake the buns for 18 to 22 minutes, until they turn light golden brown. Remove them from the cookie sheet and cool them on a rack for a few minutes.


While they begin to cool, make the glaze by whisking the vanilla into the confectioner’s sugar and then adding milk, a tiny bit at a time, until you have a thick glaze. Applying the glaze is a matter of timing. The buns must be a little cool (so the glaze doesn’t run off entirely) but not too cool (in which case they glaze doesn’t stick). After 15 to 20 minutes of cooling, try spooning the glaze into the criss-crosses on the buns to form a cross. If it runs off too much (it will always run off a little), wait a few more minutes.


Allow the buns to cool after glazing, then place them carefully in a container that won’t mess up the glaze. Try to eat these buns within 2 days. They are most delicious with lots of butter.


Makes 12 buns.


Easter is coming!

Easter is coming!



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2 Responses to “Hot Cross Buns”

  1. Carol Cooke says:

    Thank you for the history/religion lesson on the origin(s) of hot cross buns. Sounded vaguely familiar from my Protestant upbringing. They were very popular in the Boston area when I was growing up. I also prefer them with the glaceed fruit and orange peel and, like fruitcake, are under-appreciated in my opinion. Loved the bunny ears!

  2. Jim Littrell says:

    Yum, Tinky!

    These constitute one of my favorite Lent breakers, though for many Christians (though not for me, poor lost priest that I am…), Good Friday has been and remains a fast day.

    Now then, speaking as an expert, the cross was indeed a pagan religious symbol, ancient way before Christians arrived on the scene. In the case of Christians, though, the cross was adapted by Constantine as a powerful statement about his power and the transformational power of the Christians.

    Before Constantine, the early Christians had a variety of symbols–what we’d call logos these days (the pictogram of a fish, the alpha/omega, and so forth) but not so much the cross. What was happening here with Constantine was not so much the adaptation of a pagan symbol (though God knows, Christians were always great syncretists and brilliant at the art of cultural appropriation, as were the Greeks and Romans who in some ways spawned them) but as the incredibly potent adaptation of the execution cross, which in and for Rome until and during the early years of Constantine, was probably the most horrible, feared, and widely used method of executing people in the empire.

    So to take a thing so deeply connected with pain, suffering, torture, and humiliation and turn it into a standard was an enormous (and at the same time, more than slightly threatening) statement by Constantine, once he became emperor, of his power to redefine the known symbology and real instruments of power and control of his day, under the rubric of unifying the empire under Christ and becoming “holy Roman.”

    And in parts of the empire where the earlier pagan cross flourished, it was an even more potent sign. Anyway, its use on cakes by the monks of St. Alban’s (it being where it was, and happening when it happened) afforded an opportunity to make a similar transformational statement to whatever Druids and such remained about, as well, I suppose, as making the church and its crucified Savior even more palatable–literally!

    Great recipe! I especially like notion of slashing the crosses! Very “passion of the Christ”! (You see, I really am a twisted soul!)

    Thanks as ever!

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