Homes that celebrate Easter wouldn’t be doing it right if there weren’t Hot Cross Buns on the table on Good Friday. For a long time, I never knew that Hot Cross Buns were made for Easter. My only association with them was from nursery rhyme that goes “Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns……….”, another one of those things I learnt at school that I had no about!
In fact it was only a few years ago, when we had neighbours who celebrated Easter, that I discovered the Hot Cross Buns were eaten on Good Friday. We were living in Kerala then, and in typically as is done by Catholics in Kerala, the Easter celebration with Palm Sunday which is the Sunday before Easter.
On Maundy Thursday , also known as “Pesaha Vyaazham” (Passover Thursday), an unleavened steam cooked bread made from rice called “Pesaha Appam/ Inri Appam” decorated with a palm leaf cross is served with “Pesaha Paa”l, a jaggery sweetened coconut milk. This bread is cut and shared among the family members, and is eaten dipped in Pesaha Paal, in commemoration of the last supper.
Hot Cross Buns are made and eaten on Good Friday which is called “Dhukka Veliyaazhcha” meaning “Sad Friday”! I have seen these buns also made as slightly larger round loaves.
Now Hot Cross Buns supposedly have their origins way before Christianity and even Easter is supposed to have its origins in pre-Christian times. At the beginning of the spring, the Saxons used to mark the transition of winter to spring in a month long celebration during which they offered buns to their goddess of dawn and spring, Eostre.
These buns were marked with cross supposed to represent the sun wheel or the 4 phases of the moon, depending on which story you would like to believe. It is believed that Easter comes from the name “Eostre”, and these buns were re-interpreted and adapted by the Christian Church during missionary efforts.
Today Hot Cross Buns are small lightly sweet yeasted and spiced buns that are dotted with raisins with a cross marked on top with sugar icing or a flour paste and then sugar glazed. This cross signifies the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is also significant that the month long lean Lent period which precedes Easter is broken with this little bread that is made with butter, eggs, spices and raisins.
Not surprisingly, they were very popular in 19th century England when street vendors used to sell them apparently singing “One a penny two a penny, hot cross buns…., butter them, sugar them and put them in your muns”, to make their wares more appealing to the buying public.
By the way, the word “muns” was slang for mouth. This probably gave rise to the popular nursery rhyme. Though Hot Cross Buns are associated with Easter, this wasn’t always so.
In the 16thcentury England, the then ruling Protestant Monarchy saw these very popular buns as a threat because Catholics made them from dough kneaded for consecrated bread used at Mass or Holy Communion. So in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I issued a law allowing bakers to sell hot cross buns only during Easter, Christmas or at funerals and thus Hot Cross Buns came to be associated with Easter.
Other than having religious significance, there are a few folklore traditions attached to them. Hot Cross Buns were thought to have medicinal, even magical, value as a Hot Cross Bun baked on Good Friday would not become mouldy!
Sailors would carry Hot Cross Buns with them on sea voyages to guard against shipwrecks.
Some believed that hanging a Cross Bun in the kitchen guaranteed that bread made there would always rise. And if you shared sharing a Hot Cross Bun with someone, preferably while saying “Half for you and half for me, between us two shall goodwill be”, it meant you would be good friends forever!
Whatever the origin, or the stories that come with these buns, there’s no denying that a batch of these baking in your oven will envelop you, your kitchen and possibly your home in a fragrant aroma of baking bread and warm spices. Nothing quite like that to put you in a good mood, when you know you’ll soon be having one (or two maybe?) split and slathered with butter along with a cup of coffee or tea. And take my word; you don’t need to wait for Good Friday/ Easter to make these.
Here’s my recipe for Hot Cross Buns. It’s not an authentic one, not that I know there’s such a recipe, but I can guarantee it is a good one! I substituted a little whole wheat flour because I like the dimension it adds in taste, but feel free to use all white flour.
I didn’t have dark coloured raisins so I used golden ones. I must say the dark coloured variety are more pleasing to the eye and look better if you have to photograph your Buns. If you reallly like raisins, you can add an extra half cup to the dough.
I used chai masala along with some cinnamon and nutmeg, but feel free to use a spice mix that you prefer or have on hand. You will need to use a little more spice than you would normally think necessary to get the full flavour in these buns.
Some people make the buns and use icing to mark the crosses on the buns, but I have gone the traditional way of using a flour paste to make the crosses and then brushed a sugar glaze on the cooled buns.