Hot cross buns are slightly sweet, spiced rolls that are marked with a cross on top. They’re typically served on Good Friday, before Easter, but the origins of this tradition are somewhat murky, as some stories state that the cross-topped buns were around before they became one of the traditions of this particular holiday, made by Greeks and Saxons long before they became a staple of the Easter holiday. As with so many holiday-related foods, you don’t necessarily need to observe a holiday (at least not in its religious sense) to use it as an excuse to try the dishes associated with it.
Hot cross buns are – at least in my experience – a lot more popular in the UK than in the US. I rarely see them here unless I’ve baked a batch, although I’m sure there are plenty of bakeries that get them out this time of year. The buns are pretty simple and are kind of a variation on a dinner roll, in terms of their overall look and their soft texture. The dough is enriched with butter, eggs and milk (I like to use buttermilk in these to enhance the buttery flavor) and dotted with dried fruits. British recipes will usually call for “mixed spice” and “mixed peel” (candied citrus peel) as additions, but since those two items aren’t readily available to me, I substituted my own spice mix and stuck to raisins and currants as add-ins.
The cross on top of the bun is the most interesting part. I’ve seen some sweetened up hot cross buns that use frosting to form the cross on top. This recipe is a little more traditional and uses a paste of flour and water that is piped across the buns to form the cross. The flour mixture holds its white color in the oven, allowing the cross to really stand out. The finished buns are often brushed with hot apricot jam to glaze and sweeten them, but this can be omitted to simplify the recipe and you won’t miss out on much.
Serve these with butter and jam, or butter and honey, for a breakfast side on Easter – or any other holiday. Play around with the fruit mix ins and the spices, too, if you like. Raisins/sultanas and currants are pretty standard. Mixed spice usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves and/or allspice, so I would use a blend of these flavors to spice these up. I used 1 tsp ground cinnamon and 1/4 tsp each nutmeg, cloves, mace and allspice in my batch, although I simplified this to “mixed spice” in the recipe below.
Hot Cross Buns
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (.25 oz)
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water, warm (100-110F)
3-4 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2 tsp mixed spice (cinnamon, mace, cloves, nutmeg)
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup raisins and/or currants
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup water
In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), combine active dry yeast, sugar and warm water. Stir well and let sit for 5 minutes, until foamy.
Stir in 2 cups all purpose flour, buttermilk, egg, spices and salt. Add an additional cup of flour and the softened butter and stir (or mix with a dough hook) until the dough starts to come together. Add additional flour in small amounts until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Stir in dried fruit. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, press gently to deflate, and divide into 16 equal pieces (quarters, then quarters again). Shape each piece into a ball and place in a lightly greased 9×9-inch baking pan. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Once the dough has risen, whisk together 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup water in a small bowl until smooth. Scrap into a piping bag and pipe continuous lines vertically and horizontally through the rows of buns, forming crosses.
Bake for 30 minutes, until buns are a dark golden brown (an internal read thermometer will read about 200F when inserted deep into the center of the bread).
Cool in pan until buns are close to room temperature before serving.
Makes 16 buns.