How The Cross Bun Evolved
Though the beginnings of the Hot Cross Bun, and indeed the earlier Good Friday Bun, had humble origins, once they had supplanted the simple type of paschal cakes made for fasting during Lent on Good Friday, they then changed beyond recognition; as commercial bakers, in competition (in a more secular and capitalist society) over time improved on the recipe; until it stabilized into the well known ‘traditional’ recipe we still use today; with only a few differences in ingredients between recipes (i.e using lard or butter).
Below you can see one of the earliest ‘bun’ recipes from Hannah Glasse in 1740; contrast this with the much richer, spiced, dried fruit filled ‘Cross Bun’ recipe of 1850 from Eliza Leslie, aslo below.
‘The Art Of Cookery’, By Hannah Glasse, Published 1740
To make Buns.
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.
Yet for many fasting Christians, ardant in their beliefs (like the early Puritans) even this simple bun recipe above would have been considered too ‘rich’ as a food eaten in Lent. “Formerly, a cake was in much request on this day, [Good Friday] called water cakes, composed of flour and water only; but, to compensate for the want of flavour, the tops of the cakes were smeared with turmeric, which made them of a fine yellow colour. These have given way to the sweet crossbuns.” From ‘The Mirror Of Literature’, by Reuben Percy, published 1824. A recipe for a simple water cake from 1789 is given below.
‘The Complete Confectioner’, By Frederick Nutt, Published 1789
Water Cakes. Take three pounds of powdered sugar and four pounds of sifted flour, mix the flour and sugar together on a clean dresser with half water and half whites of eggs, and as many carraway seeds as you think proper, mix all together so as to make it a very fine paste, that you can roll it on the dresser and the thinner the better, cut out the shape you like with a tin cutter; round and scolloped is the general fashion, but vary the shape to your own fancy … put them on a sheet of [buttered] paper and … bake them very little so as just to change the colour of them.
Under the pretext of pious living, coupled with a fierce competition between bakeries to bake (and sell) the best buns, the Hot Cross Bun had evolved by the 1800s into something of a ‘treat’ and a ‘luxury’. In 1821 the, ‘Literary Chronicle And Weekly Review’ wrote, “at Chelsea; the BunHouse there, on Good Friday, affords quite a treat to the cocknies, and is recommended to all strangers as one of the ‘sights of London’. The shop is literally besieged the whole day, and, notwithstanding the presence of a number of constables [Police] to keep order, it requires the utmost exertion to get near enough to the window to obtain a supply of the favourite cakes”. Hardly the intended plain and simple food of the fasting season promoted under the precisianist Puritans in the 1600s.
As a food item, by the middle of the 1800s, the best Hot Cross Buns had become a rich, sugary-sweet, dried-fruit filled spiced bun, using much more butter than previously and substituting cream instead of water in the ingredients, (see the recipe below from 1850) and this, during a time of supposed fasting, was ironically pointed out in many Victorian magazines:-
‘Figaro In London’, Published 1836
This is the season at which all good Christians devour hot cross buns for breakfast, under the comfortable impression that a religious duty is being performed; and in this instance we are happy to find a spirit of faith and religion in the rising generation, for the little boys devour hot cross buns with a most sacred Gusto, which shows that if there is any virtue in the act, the youth of the present day are the very best performers of the religious duty. It is a most comfortable thing, when any kind of eatable commanded by religion happens to be Nice, and we must say even we feel a holy and comfortable glow come over us, when we feel that we Ought to substitute for the plain baker’s bread, the more savoury, and more sacred substance, called Hot Cross Buns.
Although it should also be noted that not everyone in the 18th and 19th centuries was so fortunate to be able to eat Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday. The image I have used to illustrate the 1850 recipe below comes from ‘The Illustrated London News’, a newspaper published in 1872, it shows the plight of the urban poor (in the children to the left) in London and the charity of the rich girl giving them a hot cross bun she has just bought. The starvation and wretchedness of the poorest classes in the urban slums was especially bleak on traditional feast days.
Hot Cross Bun Recipes – The Golden Age
Even though they were first mentioned in writing by name in the 1730s ‘Hot Cross Buns’ had their ‘golden-age’ in the 1800s. The recipe below is a classic and traditional Victorian recipe, one we would recognise today as an acceptable ‘traditional’ recipe. It is an excellent example of all of the most common elements found in a later, authentic, Hot Cross Bun – fine flour, a yeast ferment, ground mixed spices, dried fruit, and it is made with butter, sugar and creamy milk, with the marking of a cross before baking and a sugary glaze brushed over. See more recipes for traditional Good Friday Buns and a recipe for the more common name for them, Hot Cross Buns.
‘Miss Leslie’s: The Lady’s New Receipt-book’, By Eliza Leslie, Published 1850
CROSS-BUNS.—Pick clean a pound and a half of Xante currants ; wash, drain, and dry them; spreading them on a large flat dish, placed in a slanting position near the fire or in the sun. When they are perfectly dry, dredge them thickly with flour to prevent their sinking or clodding in the cakes. Sift into a deep pan two pounds of fine flour, and mix thoroughly with it a tablespoonful of powdered cinnamon, (or of mixed nutmeg and cinnamon,) and half a pound of powdered white sugar. Cut up half a pound of the best fresh butter in half a pint of rich milk. Warm it till the butter is quite soft, but not till it melts.
While warm, stir into the milk and butter two wine-glasses (or a jill) of strong fresh yeast. Make a hole in the centre of the pan of flour; pour in the mixed liquid; then, with a spoon or a broad knife, mix the flour gradually in; beginning round the edge of the hole. Proceed thus till you have the entire mass of ingredients thoroughly incorporated; stirring it hard as you go on. Cover the pan with a clean flannel or a thick towel, and set it in a warm place near the fire to rise.
When it has risen well, and the surface of the dough is cracked all over, mix in a small tea-spoonful of soda, dissolved; flour your paste-board; divide the dough into equal portions, and mixing in the currants, knead it into round cakes about the size of a small saucer. Place them on a large flat dish, cover them, and set them again in a warm place for about half an hour.
Then butter some square tin or iron baking-pans ; transfer the buns to them; and brush each bun lightly over with a glazing of beaten white of eggs, sweetened with a little sugar. Then, with the back of a knife, mark each bun with a cross, deeply indented in the dough, and extending entirely from one edge to another. Let the oven be quite ready; set in it the buns; and bake them of a deep brown colour. In England, and in other parts of Europe, it is customary to have hot cross-buns at breakfast on the morning of Good Friday.