Signs of Spring in the 18th Century: Hot Cross Buns

Since Lent is, traditionally, a time of fasting and abstinence, there’s a certain irony in the hot cross bun becoming the symbol of Lent and Easter.  The early recipes, for example Hanna Glasse’s from her 1740 volume The Art of Cookery, flavor the buns with a little sack (white wine) nutmeg, and caraway comfits.  The “comfit” is a candy; sugar coating is applied to a seed or nut, and reading the process necessary to create comfits, using the facilities of a modern kitchen, is to marvel at the ingenuity and determination of an 18th century candy maker.  The addition of caraway comfits transforms a simple yeast bun into a specialty holiday confection, where a bite into the yeasty bun unexpectedly exploded into the crunchy sweet of candied spice.  There’s a rather fascinating article on the 18th century manufacture of comfits on the historic food website.

To make Buns (Hanna Glasse, 1740)

TAKE two pounds of fine flour, a pint of good ale-yeast, put a little sack [white wine] in the yeast, and three eggs beaten, knead all these together with a little warm milk, a little nutmeg, and a little salt; and lay it before the fire till it rises very light, then knead in a pound of fresh butter, a pound of rough carraway comfits, and bake them in a quick oven, in what shape you please, on floured paper.

But by the 1800s piety, and ferocious competition between London bakeries, turned Hanna’s lowly cross bun with comfits into something thoroughly richer but without that burst of candied sugar.  Still a sweet, spiced, bun the comfits have been replaced with chewier dried fruit and cream or butter has been substituted for the sack or water.  This is likely the bun you’re familiar with from your childhood, light, rich, sweet, and laced with currants and candied lemon peel.

If, evidently, you’re over a certain age.  Otherwise, you’ve never heard of the hot cross bun and are content with oversized muffins for your Good Friday breakfast.

This is nothing short of a tragedy.  Hot cross buns are so delicious that in 1821 The BunHouse of Chelsea required a number of constables to control the crowds besieging the shop.  According to the Literary Chronicle And Weekly Review “it requires the utmost exertion to get near enough to the window to obtain a supply of the favorite cakes.”

Our quest for a hot cross bun took us on a thirty mile loop of the area, ending, finally, four towns down the road at Red Hen Bakery where, like the bun buyers of Chelsea, we narrowly watched the customers in front of us as we coveted the last six buns in the case, much to the amusement of the girl behind the counter.  “We have a whole tray back here,” she grinned as we breathlessly demanded her last six buns “sure you don’t want more?”

Like the first lambs born on the edge of winter hot cross buns mark the verge of spring.  There should be buns, good coffee, and lambs on the first of the greening, to celebrate when winter ends and warmer days begin. Hot cross buns, smaller than a fist, light with spice, chewy and brightly sweet, to lose them to ignorance, indifference, and inconvenience is to lose just that little bit of joy which comes softly on the leading edge of summer.

Hot Cross Buns.  If you can’t ask for them by name, or travel thirty miles to get them, likely you’ll have to bake them yourself. Recipes run the gamut from King Arthur Flour’s Easy Hot Cross Buns flavored with rum to this recipe from England  By slamming the two together I’ve come up with a recipe which is reasonably straightforward and produces a bun good enough to share with someone who has never had the wonder of a hot cross bun:

Hot Cross Buns from the Farm at Morrison Corner

  • 1 1/2 T dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water (about 100-100 degrees F)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 cup milk with a splash of cream in it
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 heavy teaspoon sea salt salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4 to 4 1/2 cups sifted flour
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 2/3 cup dried currants and 1/3 cup chopped citron or lemon peel or 1 cup currants soaked in 2 T rum to soften


  • 1 cup  confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or the grated rind of a lemon (depending on your preference)
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 teaspoons (or less) milk, or enough to make an icing you can pipe through a tube (or paper cone)

Sprinkle the yeast into the lukewarm water. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar. Let sit until frothy while you warm the milk.  Add the butter, sugar and salt to the warm milk and stir until the butter has melted.  Beat the eggs until they are light and combine with the milk then add your frothy yeast.

In a second bowl stir together 3 1/2 cups of flour and the spices, pour in the milk and yeast,  and beat together.  Add your dried fruit and turn your dough out onto a heavily floured board to knead (adding flour as necessary) until smooth, elastic, and fairly firm.  Plop your dough into a greased bowl, turn to grease the top, and set aside in a warm spot to double in size (which in a normal house takes a couple of hours).

Turn the dough out onto the board, punch it down, and tear balls of it off to make 24 little buns.  Set the buns an inch or two apart on cookie sheets and carefully cut a cross into the top of each bun.  Set them aside to rise again until just touching.  If you want them to have a nice glossy finish whip together a little milk and egg white and brush over the top of your buns, then bake at 400F for 20 minutes, until golden brown.  When the buns are completely cool pipe the icing into the crosses.  Hot Cross Buns are not.. in fact.. hot if they have their icing crosses on them, so you might want to break a few open while they are hot and enjoy them with a bit of butter, jam, or, if you’re very lucky, clotted cream!

2014-lambs-bucket2Spring… finally.

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