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What makes a good Hot Cross Bun and where to find one

April 1, 2018

hot cross buns on a board with a cup of tea

The French are very good at seasonal baking and cakes, with things like Galette des Rois and La Chandeleur. Apart from Christmas, the English staples seem to have fallen by the wayside, except for the Hot Cross Bun. In the UK they can be found all year round now apparently, but here in Dubai they make an appearance the week before Easter then disappear. This is just as it should be in my book!

Why are they called Hot Cross Buns? They used to be served warm from the oven on Good Friday and they have a cross on them.

The origin of Hot Cross Buns is shrouded in a bit of mystery and varying tales, but while they have been given Christian meaning in more recent times they are thought to have a pagan origin or even have roots with the Romans. Their popularity gained in the 1600s as sugar and spices transported from across the world became cheaper and more abundant.  Crosses are now made of pastry but were probably just a mark made with a knife in olden days. Their consumption was regulated by Queen Elizabeth I who decreed that they could only be eaten on Good Friday and at burials or for Christmas. If you were caught baking them on any other day you had to donate the lot to the poor.

lots of hot cross buns a cup of tea and a teapot

Marks and Spencer hot cross buns

There are various superstitions attributed to these spiced baked spheres too. From warding off evil spirit to keeping bread fresh and free from mould throughout the year if hung from the rafters of your kitchen. This was taken to extremes in some cases and there some Hot Cross Buns exist which are over 100 years old and have been passed down through generations.

So what makes a good Hot Cross Bun?

These are eaten on Good Friday as they mark the end of Lent where eggs, butter and sugar, have been given up as fast for forty days (or at least used to be). All of these things are packed into these spiced, fruited buns.  A traditional Hot Cross bun should be topped with a slightly sticky glaze to make them glorious shiny and a cross. Some people pipe the cross, others roll out a little pastry to make a slightly thicker, neater one. It should be plain though, just flour and water (we will tackle the thorny problem of novelty shortly). The texture of the bun should be light, reasonably fluffy and rich from the egg and milk but plain enough not to be sickly when combined with fruit. Any added sweetness to the dough must be barely noticeable.  Plump raisins and soft, tangy candied peel must be dotted through the bun evenly.

How to eat a Hot Cross Bun

When fresh from the oven, within a couple of hours, the buns should be soft enough to prise apart, spread with butter and eat plain. Any older than they are best toasted before anointing with your best butter – whether salted or unsalted is up to you but I favour the former. Traditionally additions like jam or marmalade should not be necessary, and I think the bun is sweet enough not to need it. Naturally, you should always accompany one with a cup of tea.

hot cross buns and a cup of tea plus cookbook

Baker and Spice hot cross buns

Three methods of making a Hot Cross Bun

Why do Hot Cross Buns differ in texture and taste? There are several bread making techniques (and these are a risen bready bun).

Slow-rise

This involves taking a starter made of dried yeast or natural yeasts from the atmosphere combined flour and water that froths into a ‘sponge’. The dough itself is left overnight in a cool place to slowly rise and let the gluten develop. It typically uses much less yeast in proportion to flour.

Yeasted

I have called this yeasted for want of a better term. These are the type of bun you are most likely to make in your home kitchen. You add yeast to the other ingredients, knead and leave to prove at room temperature for an hour or two, then you knead again, shape and leave for a second prove before baking.

Quick rise, Chorleywood process or activated dough development’ (ADD)

In the 1960s, a method was invented in the UK which enabled large units to manufacture cheap, fluffy bread, with little or no proving, using additives and enzymes. This how the buns, sold in packs, in the supermarkets are made. ‘The Shocking Truth about bread’ is an article with a good explanation.

Hot Cross Bun variations

No surprise here. I’m a traditionalist and like a classic bun made by hand with care and to the specifications described earlier on what makes a good one. Invention is not necessarily a bad thing if it improves on the original. This year I’ve seen replacements for the dried fruit, flavoured glazes, savoury buns with bacon crosses, additions of Marmite and seeds, and even some made in the shape of Miffy the rabbit.  My friend Miss Foodwise adds a little grated carrot to the dough for a lighter crumb. The recipe I use is further down the page.

hot cross buns with letters spelling out hot cross buns

Lafayette Gourmet hot cross buns

The best Hot Cross bun in Dubai

This taste test all started when Marks and Spencer sent me a parcel of buns out of the blue. I decided to get my hands on as many as possible to see which I like best. Baker & Spice and Jones the Grocer sent some and Russell Impiazzi from Lafayette Gourmet delivered his personally on Good Friday. I bought some from Spinneys and Lime Tree Cafe.

Quick rise

Marks & Spencer

I was given five varieties of bun and was very intrigued by the flavours.  The Luxury traditional were my favourite, not too sweet with a good proportion of sultanas, currants, orange and lemon peel. The cranberry and orange also worked well as the cranberries added a tangy sharpness. Surprisingly the dark chocolate and salted caramel fudge was not bad in flavour – a sort of riff on pain au chocolate. The blueberry buns were far too sweet with a strange cooked taste to the fruit, and the Bramley apple were like bottled apple sauce in a bun – just wrong. The texture of all was soft, light and a bit pappy as the production method dictates. They were much better toasted but not that satisfying. The glaze had soaked into the bun so none were shiny.

Spinneys

These are the Fine Fare brand made by Spinneys in the UAE. They had kept their shape and were reasonably shiny with the glaze. The texture was similar to the M&S ones, they had a nice smattering of plump fruit and a subtle spice. For my tastes, the dough was far too sweet and I struggled to finish one, even tempered with butter. They were the most economical of all tasted.

Yeasted

Lafayette Gourmet

Chef Russell Impiazzi delivered these himself having just finished a children’s Easter cookery class which he’d baked these for. He apologised that there was no peel and chocolate chips instead of fruit due to the demands of his children. The appearance was the best of all the buns I tested; regular in shape, neat crosses and a wonderful, glistening glaze on top. I took a quick picture and wolfed one down immediately. They were nicely spiced, the dough unsweetened (I think) giving a nice foil to the dark chocolate.

Lime Tree Cafe

These buns were part of the array of decorated Easter goods spread over tables in Lime Tree. They looked the part but were the most expensive of all the buns I tested as even take away comes with butter and jam (I declined but the price did not adjust). The texture was fluffy, open and soft enough to pull apart, but the spicing level way too intense – the dough itself looked light brown due to the amount used – the cinnamon and clove left a bitter aftertaste.

Jones the Grocer

Gleaming with a very sticky almost jammy glaze, these were a generous size with a very homemade looking cross (not a bad thing!). The texture was good – needed slightly more time to prove I think as the crumb was not as open as the LG ones. The spice was very subtle, more of a warm after taste. Sultanas and soft pink peel dotted through for tanginess rather than sweetness. On the edges some of the crosses had gone hard and chewy – but overall a good bun.

Slow rise

Baker & Spice

This was a much denser bun, fresh from the oven really excellent with just butter, and by the end of the day better toasted. The spice was spot on and the sweetness provided by the glaze not the dough. There was a really good sharp tang and soft citrus bits from chunky homemade orange jam that’s used instead of peel. I had another taste of these with the Dubai Eye team on radio where we sampled a chocolate version too. The traditional Hot Cross Bun met with enthusiastic approval but the chocolate bread studded with chocolate was thought not to be chocolatey enough. I think these would be nice with a sweetened cream, cinnamon butter or dunked in hot chocolate – all not really HCB territory.

hot cross buns on a cake stand

Home made hot cross buns

Make your own Hot Cross Buns

As the name says, these are really best with the warmth of the oven still a memory. They are not difficult to bake and very satisfying when you pull them apart.

Traditional Hot Cross Buns

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A seasonal bun enjoyed just before Easter, which is best homemade

Ingredients

Ingredients

  • 250g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 250g plain white flour
  • 125ml warm water
  • 125ml warm milk
  • 5g fast-action dried yeast
  • 10g salt
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1 medium free-range egg
  • 50g butter
  • 100g sultanas and currants (or a mixture of dried fruit)
  • 1 dried apricot, cut into small pieces or 1 tsp homemade mixed peel
  • finely grated zest of half an orange
  • 1 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • pinch allspice

For the crosses:

  • 50g strong plain white flour
  • 1tbsp sunflower oil
  • 2-3tbsp water (or enough to make the dough into piping consistency)

To finish:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 50ml orange juice

Directions

  1. You can do this by hand but the dough is sticky so I recommend using a food processor or free-standing mixer with a dough hook.  Warm the water, milk and butter together very gently until the butter melts and when it has cooled to blood temperature (i.e. feels barely warm when you stick your finger in it) mix in the yeast and leave for 5 minutes.  Combine the flours, milk and yeast mixture, salt and sugar in the bowl of your mixer and fit with the dough hook. Add the egg and mix to a sticky dough. Now add the dried fruit, orange zest and spice and knead on a low-speed until silky and smooth.
  2. Cover the dough in the bowl with a tea cloth or cling film and leave to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size.
  3. Knock back the dough and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape into rounds and dust with flour. Place on a floured board and leave to prove, covered with a linen tea towel (or in a large plastic bag) for about 30 minutes until doubled in size. Transfer carefully to a floured baking tray.
  4. Preheat the oven to 200°C and make the paste for the crosses by beating the water and oil into the flour until smooth . Transfer the paste into a piping bag with a small nozzle.  Beat the egg and milk together.
  5. Make a cross with a sharp knife across the top of the buns.  Brush with the egg wash (the beaten egg and milk) and then pipe crosses onto the indentation. Bake for 15–20 minutes.
  6. Transfer to a wire rack.  Dissolve the sugar in the orange juice (or water) in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.  Brush the glaze over the buns.  Cool to room temperature before pulling apart and eating plain or halved with butter.

hot cross buns on a bread board

Are you a traditionalist like me or do you fall on these different twists and flavours with gusto? Have you even eaten a Hot Cross Bun? Are there any different seasonal treats you like to make or eat? Let me know in the comments below.

Disclosure: As mentioned above, some of the bakers were kind enough to supply me with samples for testing. I know Chef Aaliya of B&S and Chef Russell of LG well – however this did not influence my appraisal and these are my honest opinions.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2018 11:41 am

    I can’t believe it’s Easter morning and I still haven’t eaten a single hot cross bun this year! I must remedy that! Fab post, this!

  2. April 1, 2018 1:33 pm

    Wow! Your photography is gorgeous, and these hot cross buns look super delicious. I loved reading about the history and different kinds of hot cross buns. I love how food is so entrenched in tradition, I think that’s what makes it so lovely, besides being delicious of course! 🙂

  3. April 1, 2018 3:25 pm

    Great posting Sally! And thanks for the link to my recipe! Like you I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Hot Cross Buns and I’m conflicted with myself abiut adding the carrot, yet it works so well and doesn’t take away too much from the traditional bun. Infind store-bought supermarket HC-buns far too fluffy and spongy for my liking, the bun should be more substantial. I prefer them halved and toasted and from leftovers I make a bun and butter pudding!

  4. April 1, 2018 6:44 pm

    Fabulous post, they are here in Quebec for a week then gone too. So cool to read about the history as well. So craving one now, they are gorgeous.

  5. April 1, 2018 7:34 pm

    What a pretty batch of hot cross buns! I’m tempted to reach into this picture and enjoy one with my tea! LOL
    Thanks for sharing this recipe and explaining it in simple terms.

  6. April 1, 2018 10:38 pm

    “you should always accompany one with a cup of tea “, I absolutely agree 🙂 . I make way too many hot cross buns . These are the most delicious ones in my opinion !
    The pictures are so lovely and inviting – I am almost tempted to whip up another batch.

  7. roxanabegum permalink
    April 1, 2018 10:40 pm

    Nice post about buns. I love baking bread and it was nice to know about the various hot cross buns. The recipe is really good. And I have tried some spinneys baked foods and liked them.

  8. April 2, 2018 1:32 am

    Great post. My daughter and I made them yesterday (as in our family they are strictly reserved for the Easter weekend) and pretty much used a recipe that meets your criteria. It was very warm and I think we may have made a little error in the amount of yeast, because they rose and rose and rose. We called them Hot Cross mutant buns! But they were really delicious, especially warm from the oven, spread with butter, with a cup of tea.

  9. April 2, 2018 8:54 am

    Lovely photography and very informative, crisp and clear writing! Loved this post. 🙂
    Hot cross buns are something very new to me. I’ve only heard of them in the nursery rhyme – never had a chance to try them out. 🙂

  10. louiseloveslondon permalink
    April 2, 2018 11:25 am

    Wow… Your photos are beautiful! Being new to British traditions I still haven’t tasted hot cross buns, but it’s about time to do so. I like that they come in different varieties as well!
    X Louise

  11. April 3, 2018 4:15 pm

    I have to confess to having tried some of the M&S flavoured ones and really not liking them too much. Like you, I found the classic version much the best. I’d love to try making my own…I just need lots of space in the freezer!

    • April 4, 2018 6:06 pm

      Agreed Fiona. They certainly weren’t my favourite…

  12. April 3, 2018 8:49 pm

    Oooh I need to try these next year…i haven’t had a hot cross buns since moving to France 7 years ago. At least I made my own Simnel cake to celebrate English Easter traditions 🙂

  13. April 4, 2018 2:29 am

    I love a traditional hot cross bun, freshly baked. And you’re right, it has to be accompanied by a cup of tea!

  14. The Real Geordie Armani permalink
    April 4, 2018 12:02 pm

    Happy Easter my friend x

  15. April 7, 2018 10:49 pm

    My husband made a sourdough version this year. It had a beautiful tang. So delicious to wake up to that smell in the morning.

  16. April 11, 2018 8:56 pm

    Never had a hot cross bun before but they look so good! Need to give this recipe a try.

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