Hot Cross Buns may date back to celebrations of the vernal equinox in Pagan Britain, with the cross on top representing the four seasons. According to British writer Elizabeth David in her comprehensive English Bread and Yeast Cookery, it was during the reign of Elizabeth I that sales of Hot Cross Buns became restricted by law to Good Friday among a very few other occasions. In 1592, the London Clerk of Markets decreed “That no bakers, etc at any time or times hereafter make, utter, or sell by retail, within or without their houses, unto any of the Queen’s subjects any spice cakes, buns , biscuits, or other spice bread … except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor.” Since then, the buns have been associated with Good Friday.
I started making Hot Cross Buns before Easter each year when my children were very young, to go along with the old rhyme “one-a-penny, two-a-penny, Hot Cross Buns” and was very pleased with the both the flavor and the texture of the buns. Sometimes I make them with candied orange peel, but more recently I have switched to using orange rind that I have removed from fresh oranges with a zester. This gives them a subtle orange flavor without adding more sweetness. The recipe below makes about 15 buns.
Hot Cross Buns
1 cup milk
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup warm water
1 packet active dry yeast
1 egg + 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten with a fork in a small bowl
4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
thin strips of peel from 1 ½ oranges (removed with a zester)
2/3 cup dried currants
Heat the milk in a small saucepan until it is scalded (hot, but not boiling, with small bubbles at the edge of the pan). Scalding the milk inactivates a protein in the whey that can inhibit bread dough from rising, so for yeast breads made with milk, I generally scald the milk before adding it to the other ingredients.
Put the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, pour the hot milk over, and stir until the butter is melted and the sugar dissolved. Let the milk-butter-sugar mixture cool to lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup of lukewarm water and stir it into the milk mixture along with the eggs.
Chop the orange zest into small pieces and place it in a bowl with the currants. Dust the currants and orange zest with a little of the flour so that they won’t stick together. Add the flour gradually to the milk-yeast mixture, stirring to combine. Add the fruits and spices before you have added the last of the flour. When the dough is still somewhat sticky, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead in just enough remaining flour to make a light, elastic dough the kneads easily. Knead it for about 6 to 7 minutes (a good forearm exercise). Place the dough in a buttered bowl and cover it with a cotton towel.
Let rise until doubled, about 1 ½ hours.
Punch the dough down and shape into about 15-16 buns, by rolling pieces of dough around in your hands. Place the buns on parchment paper-lined baking sheets (or you can butter the sheets). Cover the buns with a towel and let rise for about a half hour. Use a sharp knife to very carefully cut the shape of a cross into each bun. You don’t need to go very deep, especially if you will be using icing to put a cross on each bun later.
While the buns are cooling, you can mix up a simple confectioner’s sugar icing. You may have your own favorite glaze for this. This time I simply stirred together a little cream with powdered sugar until it was a consistency that I liked, then added a squeeze of lemon juice for flavoring. Added a bit more powdered sugar to thicken it back up and then used a knife to slowly drip the icing onto the warm buns. You could also put the icing into a small plastic bag with a tiny hole cut in the corner, and squeeze out the lines onto the buns that way. The buns are also very good without any icing at all!