It’s amazing how much flavor, comfort, nostalgia, and tradition I find in these little buns. They are one of my favorite foods; it’s probably a good thing they are only available for purchase during Lent or I would eat way too many of them. I’m always excited when I realize that Lent has begun and hot cross bun season is underway. This year that happy thought occurred on one of those first Saturday mornings in March when I went to my most reliable local source for the buns, Le Boulanger. Unfortunately, I was too late; they had already run out of them. When I tried again a couple of days later, I noticed they were missing from the bakery case again and I found that the baker had run out of butter and they were waiting to get some buns from another one of their shops. That’s how the search for the hot cross bun tends to go. Lots of misses and the occasional hit.
Le Boulanger makes a decent bun, but my favorite local one comes from Draeger’s Market (shown at the bottom right corner of the photo gallery above – Le Boulanger’s is shown directly above it). The Draeger’s bun is loaded with candied fruit and has a hint of cloves. It most reminds me of the hot cross buns from my youth. The Prolific Oven makes a bun too, but it’s rarely available, very heavy on the raisins, contains orange zest (not candied orange peel), and has a very untraditional cream cheese frosting on the cross (shown in large photo on left). But really, I enjoy any of these buns, preferably served warm with a little butter and black coffee.
Of course, you can make your own hot cross buns. According to Evelyn Birge Vitz, who wrote the book A Continual Feast, the hot cross bun was originally eaten only on Good Friday (that’s the Friday coming up this week). It might be a good day to make your own buns if you are so inclined. In her book, Vitz explains that …
According to tradition, Father Rocliff, a monk and the cook of St. Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire, on Good Friday in 1361 gave to each poor person who came to the abbey one of these spiced buns marked with the sign of the cross, along with the usual bowl of soup. The custom was continued and soon spread throughout the country – though no other buns could compare, it was said, with Father Rocliff’s.
So the buns, like the Sedgemoor biscuits I made for the first time last year, come from England. Vitz has a fine-looking recipe in her book, but I’ve only made hot cross buns using this recipe from local baker, Flo Braker. It appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in April, 1998. You won’t be disappointed with it. Of course you can use the spices you like best in your buns. I replace the cinnamon in Flo Braker’s recipe with 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg.
Now if making your own yeast dough is not appealing to you, you could try an idea I found in Sunset magazine a few years back. I’ve never tried this myself, mind you, but it’s probably worth a go. Maybe I’ll even try it this Friday. Anyway, Sunset suggests you use a purchased dough for your buns. They recommend you soak 1/2 cup of golden raisins in 2 tablespoons of brandy for 30 minutes. Then, knead that mixture and your spices (they suggest 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg; I’d add a little ground clove too) into your dough (one pound thawed frozen bread dough) in a large bowl with floured hands until the spices and raisins are all incorporated. Next, divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and shape them into round rolls (I would cut some crosses with a knife or kitchen shears at this point). Space them evenly on a buttered baking sheet, brush them with one large egg beaten with one tablespoon water, and bake in a 350 oven until golden, about 25 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes before you use a plastic bag with its tip cut off to pipe crosses on the buns with icing you make by mixing 3/4 cup powdered sugar and 1 tablespoon milk. Oh my gosh, I almost forgot to tell you to be sure to add chopped, candied orange peel to the dough when you add the raisins and spices. I guess the Sunset recipe didn’t call for them, but they’re my favorite part of a hot cross bun. I can usually find the candied citrus peels at Whole Foods.
Do you remember this rhyme? It also comes from Vitz’s book:
Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns,
One a penny, two a penny, Hot Cross Buns!
If your daughters won’t eat them,
Give them to your sons;
But if you have none of those little elves,
Then you must eat them all yourselves!
A few final notes: if you are in the Santa Cruz area, you might try Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola for a good bun; I had a friend who lives on that side of the hill bring me one once and it was very good. If you are interested in things like Feast Days and traditional foods that are eaten around the world, you might want to try to find the book I mentioned above (this one is written from a Christian perspective). It was published in 1985. I purchased mine online several years ago. You could search your library for similar books. Lastly, if you have a good source for hot cross buns, I’d love to hear about it.