Hot Cross Buns are sweet buns made with spiced, yeasted dough, speckled with raisins or currants, and marked with a cross. In this post, learn about the traditions, myths, and history of Hot Cross Buns and, of course, learn how to make soft, delicately sweet, and perfectly spiced Hot Cross Buns yourself.
As if the early days of spring didn’t already entice us out of our winter gloom, with budding trees and warm afternoons, the arrival of spring also means that bakeries and home kitchens are serving up their annual offerings of sweet, sticky, cinnamon-infused Hot Cross Buns. When I split open a warm, fragrant bun and spread on a lavish serving of salted butter, I know spring is really here.
But what is the story of Hot Cross Buns and why do these spiced buns disappear after Easter?
And, perhaps even more importantly, how can YOU make up your own beautiful batches of sweet, spiced bread so you can indulge in warm, fluffy, fresh-from-the-oven spiced buns whenever you wish?
The History of Hot Cross Buns
Bunnies, eggs, and Hot Cross Buns???
Have you ever wondered how Hot Cross Buns found themselves nestled into our society’s spring-time folklore and why bakeries only line their shelves with these delicious treats in the weeks before the Christian calendar celebrates Easter?
Do Hot Cross Buns, with their crosses etched on the top of each spiced bun, have Christian origins?
Or, as some historians reveal, do these remarkable baked goods have pagan roots, and perhaps even pre-date Christianity?
Are Hot Cross Buns Pagan?
For those raised in the Christian faith, Hot Cross Buns are anchored within the symbolism of Easter and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The cross represents the crucifixion of Christ on a Roman cross and the spices in the dough symbolize the spices the women used to embalm Jesus’ body at his burial.
But ancient pagan cultures may have also marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring with spiced bread, and may have also inscribed crosses on the small cakes, perhaps to represent the sun wheel and the four phases of the moon. 
Historians report that the Druids, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans made sacred “cakes” in honour of Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, and some were marked with the image of deer or ox horns, and others a cross, signifying the four quarters of the moon.
In Pompeii, the remains of such buns can even be found in an ancient bakehouse. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus recorded that they were left in sanctuaries built at crossroads for fugitives and hunters. 
“The pagans worshiped the goddess Eostre by serving tiny cakes, often decorated with a cross, at their annual spring festival,” Sue Ellen Thompson states in her book, Holiday Symbols And Customs. “When archaeologists excavated the city of Herculaneum in southwestern Italy, which had been buried under volcanic ash and lava since 79 C.E., they found two small loaves, each with a cross on it, among the ruins.” 
In his award-winning book, The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson also reports that the Saxon invaders in Britain ate buns marked with crosses in honor of Eostre, the pagan goddess of light, from whom it is believed the name Easter is derived. 
A 14 Century Monk Creates The Alban Bun
While spiced loaves of bread and even small buns marked with crosses may have been present in various ancient traditions and ceremonies, the history and traditions of cross buns do have strong Christian ties.
One of the early recorded stories of the Christian origin of spiced “cross buns” is in “Ye Booke Of St Albans, a gentleman’s guide to hawking, hunting, and heraldry,” which was printed in the 1480s.
A monk named Brother Thomas Rocliffe from St Alban’s Cathedral created the recipe in 1361 and then handed out the buns to the poor locals on Good Friday. 
According to the report, “These cakes so pleased the palates of the people who were the recipients that they became talked about, and various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey.” 
In my research, I have also found references to stories that the medieval church used the same dough as the consecrated Host to make cross buns that they gave to parishioners after Mass. These buns were holy and only allowed to be made by the church. 
In an article written in 1947 by Clementine Paddleford called, “Hot Cross Buns for Easter,” she states that as early as 1252, commercial bakers held competitions with their cross-stamped buns and that the popular, mystical buns were also made privately at home, despite the fact that they were “holy” and only to made by the church.
Why Were Hot Cross Buns Banned?
Shockingly, during the reign of Elizabeth I of England, the London Clerk of Markets officially banned the spiced buns in 1592, issuing a decree that forbid the sale of cross buns and other spiced breads, except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. 
If caught disobeying the law, all of the buns had to be given to the poor. To avoid this rule, people made the buns at home in their own kitchens. In the time of James I of England (1603–1625), more attempts to limit the sale of spiced buns failed and the rule was abandoned. source 
The reason for the ban may have been because of the cross buns’ connection to Catholicism and the superstitions attached to them.
Elizabeth I became the Queen of England after the country had endured decades of religious instability and persecution between Catholics and Protestants.
(Quick history recap: In 1534, Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope, and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. But in 1553, Mary I, Elizabeth’s half-sister, became queen and returned England to the Catholic Church. When Mary died in November 1558, she did not have a Catholic heir and the throne went to Elizabeth I, a Protestant. During the various reigns, Catholics and Protestants were persecuted and martyred, scarring the country with immense division and distrust.)
So in an attempt to unify the country within The Church of England, Queen Elizabeth I passed The Elizabethan Settlement in 1559 which included the Act of Uniformity, making Catholic Mass illegal in England and forcing attendance at Anglican services.
But regardless of the intent of the ban, it did not suppress the popularity, superstitions, and traditions of cross buns, and the demand continued to grow over the coming centuries.
From Street Cry to Nursery Rhyme
Until the 18th century, these famous spiced buns were referred to simply as “cross buns.”
It wasn’t until 1733, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the “Poor Robin’s Almanac” first referenced “hot cross buns” in a street cry used by street sellers hawking their fresh-baked buns on Good Friday. 
“Good Friday come this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.” Poor Robin’s Almanac, 1733, Oxford English Dictionary
The Hot Cross Bun rhyme probably evolved from the street cry and, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, it was recorded in “The Christmas Box,” published in London in 1798. 
Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One ha’ penny,
Two ha’ penny,
Hot Cross Buns!
But there are many variations of the popular Hot Cross Buns song. This version pictured below was published in 1878 in a collection of Nursery Rhymes called The Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.
Myths and Superstitions of Cross Buns
During the last few centuries, there have been various myths and superstitions about hot cross buns.
One pervasive superstition was that Hot Cross Buns that were baked on Good Friday would not grow mouldy. Believers would put one bun aside for the year and if someone became ill, they would scrape off a piece of the bun to help heal the sick.
Hot Cross Buns were also given to sailors to protect against shipwrecks and hung in kitchens to protect against fires and ensure that all the loaves of bread baked perfectly.
And as a pact of unbroken friendship for the coming year, two friends would share a cross bun and declare: “Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be.” 
A remarkable tradition that dates back to 1848 remains at The Widow’s Son public House on Devon’s row, Bow, East London.
Before the pub was built, there was a house of an old widow whose navy son was due to return from sea on Good Friday.
She baked him hot cross buns, but he never returned. After she died, the buns she made for him over the years were found hanging from the beams.
Each year, the pub still carries out the ceremony, with a sailor from the Royal Navy presenting a freshly cooked bun to be hung above the bar. 
When Should You Eat Hot Cross Buns?
In the weeks preceding Easter, you will find Hot Cross Buns lining bakery shelves in countries that celebrate holidays and traditions based on Christianity, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, the United States, India, New Zealand, and South Africa.
While some bakeries only offer the buns a week or two before Easter, some stores begin selling them as early as New Years’ Day.
In the Christian tradition, Christians eat Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday to mark the end of the Lent fast.
What is the Cross on a Hot Cross Bun Made Of?
In the early versions of “cross buns,” the cross was usually slashed into the top of the bun, similar to the cross that is cut into the top of Irish Soda Bread.
Later, the crosses were cut out of shortbread pastry and placed on the tops of the cross buns.
Nowadays, the most popular and “traditional” method of making the crosses on the buns is to pipe the crosses on with a paste made with flour and water after the buns have risen, but before they are baked. (Some recipes will call for different ingredients to make this paste, sometimes using sugar or milk along with the water and flour.)
Alternatively, you may find recipes that pipe icing on the tops of Hot Cross Buns after they are baked. However, if using icing to mark crosses, the buns must be fully cooled before piping.
Personally, this method of waiting for the buns to fully cool before adding icing crosses interferes with the joy of eating fresh, still warm from the oven, Hot Cross Buns. Since we glaze the tops of the Hot Cross Buns as soon as they come out of the oven, they are sweet enough and don’t require piped icing crosses.
So my recommendation if you are making your own Hot Cross Buns is to pipe your crosses with the flour and water paste before baking. When they are finished baking and still piping hot from the oven, glaze with either sugar syrup or apricot jam syrup. Allow to cool for a short time, but serve/eat the buns while they are still warm and fluffy.
How to Make Hot Cross Buns
There are countless variations of Hot Cross Bun recipes, but there are consistent ingredients in all traditional Hot Cross Buns.
The buns are made of sweet, spiced, rich dough that bears similarities to brioche dough.
The dough uses flour, yeast, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, cinnamon (and often other fragrant spices such as allspice and nutmeg,) raisins or currants, and sometimes candied fruit. (For full ingredient list and recipe instructions see recipe below.)
When the buns come out of the oven, they are glazed with either a simple sugar syrup or with a glaze made with apricot jam or preserves.
The crosses on the top of cross buns were originally cut into the tops of the buns, as they are with Traditional Irish Soda Bread, but now are most commonly made by piping a flour and water paste on the top of the risen buns before they are baked.
However, instead of the flour paste crosses baked into the buns, some bakers will pipe icing on the buns after they have cooled.
As I mentioned before, I prefer to use the flour paste to bake the crosses into the buns because, if using icing, the buns must be fully cooled before piping the crosses.
Since the buns are made with sweet dough and are glazed with sweet syrup after they are finished baking, they don’t need icing crosses for sweetness.
And for me, the best part of making your own hot cross buns is eating them while they are still warm and fluffy from the oven, so I don’t want to wait until they are cool before piping the crosses.
A Sticky Dough
Whichever hot cross bun recipe you choose, you will be working with a sticky dough that requires extra kneading. So if you have a mixer with a dough hook, now is the time to pull it out.
Of course, a dough hook is not required. But if kneading by hand, oil or flour your hands and surface well and knead for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and shiny. If using a dough hook, your dough may be fully kneaded after about 7 minutes.
The dough will pull away from the edges of the mixing bowl but will still be quite sticky. It should not feel dry and solid, but if it is too wet and sticky, add more flour a tablespoon at a time.
Once your dough is kneaded, add your raisins/fruit and knead just until well distributed. If you add the raisins or the fruit to the mixer with the dough hook, it will probably still require additional kneading by hand to spread out the raisins/fruit evenly in the dough.
After kneading, the dough will need to proof/rise for 60-90 minutes. Form the dough into a large ball and place in greased/oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a clean, warm, damp towel.
Place in a warm area, free from drafts, and allow to rise for 60-90 minutes, or until doubled in size. (I usually proof my dough in my oven at about 100°. I turn on the oven to 200°, allow it to warm up a bit, and then turn it off. Be careful to not have your oven above 100° though – you don’t want to kill the yeast or partially cook your dough. You can also add a bowl of boiling water to the oven to keep the dough from drying out.)
After your dough has doubled in size, place the dough onto a lightly floured or oiled surface and gently work the dough into a symmetrical ball so that you can divide the dough into four even pieces. Then cut each of those four pieces into three equal-sized pieces, so that you have twelve pieces of dough, the same size. (Ideally, if you have a kitchen scale, weigh the ball of dough and divide by 12. That number will be the weight that each ball of dough should weigh to create evenly sized buns.)
Once the 12 pieces of dough are relatively evenly sized, form each piece into a ball by kneading/tucking the edges of the dough around to the bottom and then gently rolling the ball until the top is smooth. Place dough balls into a parchment-lined or well-greased 9″ x 13″ baking pan or on a baking sheet.
Cover and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 60 minutes. (You can refrigerate the dough, allowing it to rise overnight. Allow the dough to return to room temperature before baking.)
For the full list of detailed instructions, please see the recipe below.
How to Measure the Flour
Also, I want to note, that I weigh my flour to get the most accurate measurement.
If you do not have a food scale, do not despair, but please do not “scoop.”
When you “scoop” flour with a measuring cup, the flour is packed down into the cup and you will have more flour than the recipe intends.
So, if you don’t have a kitchen scale, fluff up the flour and then sprinkle the flour into the measuring cup so it is not densely packed.
But the best way to measure flour correctly is to use a kitchen scale. Place your bowl on the scale, “tare” the scale, (which will set the scale number back to 0,) and then add flour until you hit the correct weight.
By the way, it is not critical to weigh sugar. Granulated sugar measures easily and uniformly in a dry measuring cup and you can pack brown sugar when measuring in a dry measuring cup.
My kitchen scale and my thermometer make my life in the kitchen SO much easier. I don’t have to second guess myself, I can find out exactly the weight of my ingredients and the temperature of my food.
So you will see in my recipes that I include the weight of some ingredients, especially flour.
(I am in Canada, and officially we use the metric system, but some imperial measurements linger in our daily lives. For example, while we use Celcius for the weather, our ovens, which are mostly made in the United States, are in Farenheight. But I have included Celcius in the recipe as well.)
Hot Cross Buns Recipe
- 210 ml milk (3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp - between 100°F - 110°F)
- 8 g active dry yeast (1 packet or about 2½ tsp)
- 67 g granulated white sugar (1/3 cup + 1 Tbsp, divided)
- 2 large eggs room temperature
- 6 Tbsp unsalted butter melted but not hot
- 540 g all-purpose flour (approx 4 cups + 3½ Tbsp)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1½ tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1 cup raisins or currants
- zest of lemon or orange optional
- 100 g all-purpose flour (3/4 cup)
- 8 Tbsp water approx
- 1-2 Tbsp apricot jam or preserves
- 2-4 tsp water hot
- Proof yeast - Warm milk to about 100° - 110°. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1 package of yeast (8 g). Stir and allow yeast to activate and bloom for about 7-10 minutes, until mixture is foaming and bubbling.
- Soften raisins - While yeast is proofing, soften raisins or currants. Put raisins/currants in a heat proof medium-sized bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for 5-10 minutes and drain. Set aside.
- Mix dry ingredients - In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- Mix wet ingredients - In bowl of mixer, (or a large mixing bowl if working by hand,) add eggs, remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, and melted butter. Mix until well combined. (If using lemon or orange zest, add as well.)
- Add yeast mixture to mixing bowl and whisk until well combined.
- Slowly add flour mixture, about a third at a time, incorporating flour into mixture before adding more. Use mixer with dough hook on low speed or mix by hand.
- Knead dough - If using a dough hook, knead for about 5-7 minutes, until the dough is shiny and smooth. (Use speed recommended for kneading dough for your mixer. I use a Kitchen Aid and knead the dough at level 2.) If you are kneading by hand, oil or flour your hands and your surface well, and knead for about 10-12 minutes.NOTE: this is a sticky dough and will not have the same consistency as regular bread or pizza dough. The dough will pull away from the edges of the mixing bowl but will still be quite sticky. But if your dough is too sticky and "runny," add more flour a tablespoon at a time. If your dough is too dry, add a teaspoon of milk at a time.
- Add raisins - When you are almost finished kneading the dough, add your drained raisins/currants. Knead until fruit is well distributed.
Let Rise and Form Buns
- Let dough rise - Form dough into a large ball and place in greased/oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a clean, warm, damp towel. Place in a warm area, free from drafts, and allow to rise for 60-90 minutes, or until doubled in size. (I usually proof my dough in my oven at about 100°. I turn on the oven to 200°, allow it to warm up a bit, and then turn it off. Be careful to not have your oven above 100° though - you don't want to kill the yeast or partially cook your dough. You can also add a bowl of hot boiling water to the oven to keep the dough from drying out.)
- Portion dough - With lightly floured or oiled hands, turn dough onto a lightly floured or oiled surface. Gently work the dough into a symmetrical ball, somewhat flattened, so that you can divide the dough into four even pieces. Then cut each of those four pieces into three equal-sized pieces, so that you have twelve pieces of dough, the same size. (Ideally, if you have a kitchen scale, weigh the ball of dough and divide by 12. That number will be the weight that each ball of dough should weigh to create evenly sized buns.)
- Form buns - Once the 12 pieces of dough are relatively evenly sized, form each piece into a ball by kneading/tucking the edges of the dough around to the bottom and then gently rolling the ball until the top is smooth.
- Let buns rise - Place dough balls into a parchment-lined or well-greased 9" x 13" baking pan or on a baking sheet. Cover and allow to rise until doubled in size. (You can refrigerate the dough, allowing it to rise overnight. Allow the dough to return to room temperature before baking.)
- Prepare flour paste - While the dough is rising, prepare the flour paste for the crosses. In a small bowl, mix together about 3/4 cup of flour with about 6-8 tablespoons of water. Whisk mixture to create a thick paste. The consistency should be thick enough that it will hold its shape and not spread over the top of the buns, but thin enough that you can pipe it through a pastry bag or plastic bag.
- Pipe crosses - Once the balls of dough have doubled in size, preheat your oven to 350°F OR 170°C. Using a piping bag and a small round tip or a plastic bag with a small tip of a corner cut off, create the crosses by piping lines vertically and horizontally across the buns. Do not attempt to make crosses on each bun individually.
- Bake at 350°F (170°C) for 28-30 minutes, until tops are golden brown. (If you want, you can use your thermometer to check that the temperature in the center of the buns is between 190°F-200°F OR about 90°C.)
- Prepare glaze - When buns are almost finished baking, make your apricot glaze or sugar syrup. If using apricot jam or preserves, simply mix together 1-2 tablespoons of jam with 2-4 teaspoons of hot water until you have a nice consistency for glazing. If making a sugar syrup, add equal parts water and sugar to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring for a couple of minutes until all the sugar has dissolved.
- Glaze buns - Using a pastry brush, glaze buns immediately after removing from the oven and let cool for about ten minutes.
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