My favourite bit of hot cross bun folklore is about a mother who lived in London’s East End in the early 1800s. It’s a sad but rather sweet story. Her sailor son was meant to dock home on Good Friday and she’d made him some hot cross buns, but sadly he didn’t make it home. Every Good Friday afterwards she would bake him a hot cross bun, I suppose just in case he came walking through the door. Her home is now a pub – aptly called The Widow’s Son – and every year on Good Friday a Royal Navy sailor presents the pub with a hot cross bun as a mark of respect. And I suppose he (or she) might stay for a quick nip of something. Just to be polite.
Marjorie who I met at an event in Bury St Edmunds cut me right down to size when I just asked her when she would eat hot cross buns. As far as she’s concerned, they are for Good Friday and that is that. I heard lots of stories from her and others about how on Good Friday the bakeries were the only shops that were open as well as the fishmongers, so that people could buy their hot cross buns. And in some areas the milkman would deliver hot cross buns with his daily round on Good Friday morning.
(If you’re interested in finding out about the actual history of hot cross buns, take a look at what Emma Gardner has written about that.)
I usually prepare the dough on the Thursday evening so that on Good Friday morning I can whizz up a batch of hot hot cross buns relatively speedily for (an admittedly late) breakfast.
200ml full fat milk
zest of an orange or lemon
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
pinch of saffron threads
3 cardamon pods, pestled or mushed between your fingers
a 7g packet of active dried yeast
450g bread flour
50g golden caster sugar
1/4tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
150g dried fruit – a mix of sultanas, raisins & currants
50g mixed candied peel
3tbsp plain flour
3tbsp golden syrup
1. Put all the ingredients for the spice-infused milk into a pan together and heat to a simmer. Turn the heat off and leave to cool / infuse for an hour or so.
2. Mix the yeast with 1tsp of the sugar and strain into that the milk.
3. Put the flour, the rest of the sugar, salt, ginger and cinnamon into a large mixing bowl and make a sort of well in the middle.
4. Beat two of the eggs together and pour them into the well; likewise with the milky yeast liquid. Bring it all together into a dough – you might need a splash more milk – and knead for about 10 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic.
5. Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a greased large bowl. Cover with cling film and leave it to rest and rise for a few hours (or overnight) at room temperature away from draughts.
6. When the dough has risen give it a good old punch to knock the air out. It will feel like hitting a fluffy feather pillow. Most satisfying. Give it another quick knead and then stretch it out into a rectangle. Sprinkle the dried fruit and mixed peel onto the dough and continue to knead as you wrap the fruit into the dough.
7. Break off 13 even pieces, roll them in your hands, flatten slightly and sit them a small distance apart on baking trays lined with baking paper. Now using a normal table-knife, mark a cross on each bun. Really press down into the bun but don’t cut through. As the buns rise the cross will join up a bit. Cover the trays with cling film and pop somewhere warm (not the oven) for half an hour to rise again. Preheat the oven to 200C.
8. Mix the 3tbsp of flour with cold water to make a paste that is just stiff enough to hold its shape. Scoop that into a piping bag and pipe the crosses. Beat the remaining egg with a little water and brush this over each bun – that will make them all brown and scrummy looking.
9. Bake for 15 minutes until browned. Gently heat the syrup in the last few minutes of the buns’ cooking time. Straight away when they come out of the oven brush each one with the syrup so that they’ll be shiny, sticky and sweet. Then transfer the buns to a wire rack to cool – although some should absolutely be eaten soon whilst warm.