[Updated] For Easter: The Story of Hot Cross Buns


Howard F. asks: What is the religious significance of hot cross buns, and where can I get them?

Dear Howard: Hot cross buns are an English pastry associated with Good Friday. Actually, some are like bread rolls, while others are more like muffins or even cupcakes in texture and taste. What they have in common is candied fruit inside, and a plus sign (+) of white powdered-sugar frosting on top. Additionally, many are flavored with cinnamon, making them a cousin of Cinnabon.

Hot cross bun from Our Daily Bread, Chatham

The buns appeared as early as 1733, when “Hot Cross Buns” was the subject of a street cry, as quoted by Wikipedia:

Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.

This gave rise to a children’s rhyme, which was first anthologized in 1798:

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One ha’ penny,
Two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!

The plus sign, of course, is a representation of the cross upon which Christ was supposedly crucified at noon on Good Friday, rendered for the square format of the bun, as seen from above. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the icing cross is the successor to a cross that used to be cut in all bread dough in medieval times “to let the devil fly out.” Sometimes, a pastry cross was used rather than one made out of frosting.

Apparently, the Saxons who lived in England during Roman times would mark their breads with a cross, too, but theirs represented Eostre, the Goddess of Light. It is her name that gave rise to the modern English word for Easter. Weird, huh?

If you want to make them yourself, here’s a recipe.

Otherwise, they’re readily available in bakeries in the week-long run-up to Easter. My favorites are found at Amy’s Bread, where the consistency is something like a dinner roll, and Pasticceria Rocco (243 Bleecker Street, 212-242-6031), where they’re more like sweet muffins.

Pasticceria Rocco’s lusher version of hot cross buns

[Update] FiTR recently stumbled on a further, estimable example of hot cross buns at Errol’s Caribbean Bakery (661 Flatbush Avenue, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, 718-469-6078) on the northern verge of Flatbush on Flatbush Avenue. You’ll remember that was the joint we recently declared as purveying the third-best jerk chicken in the neighborhood. Well, their hot cross buns are pretty good, too, with a sweet yeast-risen dough, and stripe of frosting that tastes like it might have been originally intended for one of their famous red velvet cakes.

In Flatbush, a Jamaican take on hot cross buns