Hot cross buns are a type of spicy, sweet yeast bread traditionally exchanged between Christians on Good Friday, particularly in England. They are also available at other times of the year, and are among the family of yeast leavened pastries available at most bakeries. Hot cross buns have a familiar and distinctive appearance, being puffy pastries quartered with a cross made from dough, icing, or simple slashes in the buns before they are baked. Traditionally, hot cross buns are baked together in a large pan and torn apart, creating a ragged edge along the sides of the bun.
A true hot cross bun is a type of yeast bread, made by mixing yeast, warm milk, flour, sugar, spices, butter, and currants or raisins. The dough is allowed to rise in a warm place and then formed into buns and placed on a pan for the second rising. If the baker is making crosses in the dough, he or she will slash the tops of the buns before putting them in the oven, or will form strips of dough into a cross which is adhered to the top of the bun. After baking, the buns are allowed to cool and are then pulled apart.
Some hot cross buns are made with an icing cross, usually with a sweet lemon glaze. This causes them to resemble many other breakfast pastries which use icing as a decorative accent. However, unlike other sweet buns, hot cross buns are traditionally spiced with the addition of spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Dried fruit such as currants is added to give the pastry texture.
The exact origins of hot cross buns are disputed. The buns have been associated with Easter tradition since at least the 1300s, when a monk distributed the buns to the poor on Good Friday. However, the symbol of the cross pre-dates Christianity, and the buns may have originally been exchanged at pagan holidays like the Solstice, with the cross symbolizing the change of seasons and phases of the moon.
According to one story, hot cross buns were wildly popular in the pagan community, and the early Christian church attempted to ban them. Elizabeth I of England supposedly legalized the buns by associating them with Christian holidays. This story seems somewhat apocryphal, given that hot cross buns had been a part of Christian celebrations since before the birth of Elizabeth, and that the Christian church does not generally declare wars on pastry.
Wherever the buns came from originally, they are a popular and delicious Easter food now. Hot cross buns can be found in bakeries year round, and many also make special Easter versions which can be pre-ordered by families who do not wish to make their own. Hot cross buns are delicious while fresh and hot, of course, but are also delightful toasted with a smear of butter.