Cooking Up History: One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot-Cross Buns!

This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Educational Programs Specialist in the Library’s Informal Learning Office. 

Illustration and rhyme that reads: 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!

Stokes’ Wonder Book of Mother Goose; New York : Frederick A. Stokes Co., [c1919].

I grew up hearing this traditional nursery rhyme from my British mother and later taught it to my children. We sang it all year round – but we only actually ate those sweet, spicy, delicious buns at Easter. Nowadays they show up in British supermarkets at all times, to the dismay of those who firmly believe you shouldn’t eat them before Good Friday. It’s even claimed that a hot-cross bun baked on that day will never go stale or moldy, but they’ve never lasted long enough in our house to test that theory.

The cross on the buns is held to represent the Crucifixion, but there’s evidence that eating buns decorated this way long predates Christianity. Hot cross buns are linked to the ancient world, as food writer Clementine Paddleford explained here.  The Saxons seem to have included them in celebrations honoring Eostre, goddess of spring, or light. It’s often said that “Eostre” morphed into “Easter,” in another example of Christian celebrations superseding pagan ones. The jury is still out on this, however, as this blog post from the Library’s American Folklife Center explains.

Whatever their true origins, hot cross buns are now as much a part of many Easter celebrations as chocolate eggs and the Easter bunny. If you’d like to make your own, various recipes and related historical anecdotes abound in the Library’s newspaper collections:

  • A 1962 article in the Nebraska Frontier features English Hot-Cross Buns.
  • The Montana Farmer-Stockman printed one recipe in 1959. Another, two years later, uses cardamom (which I highly recommend) and margarine (which I don’t).
  • A 1960 Evening Star piece on festive Easter breads has yet another version.
  • A recipe in the Ohio Bluffton News (1955) includes potato.

All of these methods feature frosting crosses rather than baked-in ones, which is a little messy if you plan to toast the buns or eat them warm. They also use compressed yeast, like many older recipes. As this 1891 trademark registration demonstrates, that was a complicated process. Nowadays it’s much simpler to use the easily-available rapid-rise version.

The author’s homemade hot-cross buns

Here’s our tried and tested family recipe:

Ingredients:                                                                                                  

  • 3 1/3 cups bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 7 ½ tablespoons cold butter, grated
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoon milk, lukewarm
  • 3/4 cup dried currants
  • 1/4 cup candied orange peel or dried apricots, chopped small
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Woman pulls a cover off of risen bread dough

Mrs. Bettenhausen with bread she is baking. McIntosh County, North Dakota; Nov. 1940; Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection; Prints & Photographs Collection

Method:

  1. Sift the flour, yeast, spices and salt into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Rub in the grated butter with your fingertips until it’s completely blended into the flour. Stir in the sugar.
  3. Beat two of the eggs with the milk. Make a well in center of the flour and pour in the egg and milk mixture. Stir to make a soft dough – it should not be at all dry. Add a tablespoon or two more flour if it’s really sticky, but any more than that will make the buns too dense.
  4. Knead until smooth and elastic; about 8 minutes by hand, less if you use a stand mixer and dough hook. Put the dough to rise in a lightly greased bowl. Cover, and let rise until doubled in size, about two hours.
  5. Tip the dough onto a lightly greased work surface and knead by hand for about a minute. Flatten it out and scatter the currants and peel/apricots over the top. Knead again to distribute the fruit evenly.
  6. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces. Form each piece into a round bun *, and place about 1 ½ – 2 inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  7. Using a sharp knife, cut a cross into the top of each bun. Cover loosely, with a light cloth or plastic wrap and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.
  8. Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Beat the last egg with 1-2 tablespoons of milk and brush each bun with the mixture. Mix the all-purpose flour with enough water to make a paste that’s firm, but not stiff. Put it in a small Ziploc bag, seal it and snip off one corner. Pipe crosses into the scored tops of the buns. You can use a teaspoon if you prefer, but piping is neater.
  9. Bake the buns for about 20 to 25 minutes, until a deep golden brown. While they bake, dissolve 3 tablespoons of sugar in about 4 teaspoons or boiling water. When the buns are baked, remove from the oven and brush this glaze over each one before transferring them to a rack to cool.
  10. Slice, and eat with butter, either warm from the oven or lightly toasted. Enjoy!

How to get your hot cross buns ready for an Easter breakfast? You could make them in advance, but like most breads, they really are at their best soon after baking.  A fast-rising mix is one solution, as suggested here. The recipe in Clementine Paddleford’s article above starts the process the evening before and continues at 6 a.m. the next morning. As that’s not how I like to begin my day, I’ve come up with a workaround.  Whichever recipe you choose, go as far as shaping the buns and letting them rise for the recommended time before baking. Cover them loosely and refrigerate overnight. Early next morning, take them out of the fridge, preheat the oven and hop back into bed. Half an hour or so later, bake as directed. You’ll end up with delicious, freshly baked buns scenting the kitchen and you won’t have been up for hours.  Do send us pictures of your baking at [email protected]; we’d love to see them. Happy Easter!

*Click here to see the full series of images of Ruth Newman baking referenced in this post. The images are part of the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, in the Library’s American Folklife Center.

One Comment

  1. Thomas Holbrook
    April 8, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Though an American, I used to read this to my small children from a “Mother Goose (or similar) book.
    Thanks for this, as well as for your periodic similar items of bookish provenance.

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