Am I the only person who finds it harder to buy hot cross buns every year?
It’s not because they’re hard to find – indeed, they’re everywhere, and available all year round. Recently in Cape Town, I found hot cross buns on sale in October! No, it’s not for scarcity I find it hard to buy them, but for cachet.
Once confined to Good Friday, these seasonal treats are special no more. Walk into a supermarket and you’ll find them heavy with chocolates white, milk or dark. They’re found studded with cranberries, soused with apple puree, cinnamon swirled and painted with synthetic bun essence.
Some declare themselves free of fruit or palm oil. While I have no beef with the latter it’s the lack of fruit which causes me grief, and by that I mean peel. While few buns can found without currants or sultanas, without peel hot cross buns lose all appeal. It’s a heavy hot cross to bear.
Sticky date, caramel, coffee and even not-cross buns with smiley faces are the new norm in our all-year-round bun ecosystem. It’s a far cry from the small, circular spiced cakes baked by the Ancient Greeks and used to worship pagan gods come northern spring.
By the reign of Elizabeth I, 500 years later, hot cross buns were so prevalent a decree was made to ban their sale outside of Easter, Christmas or for burials, where they stifled weeping with their comforting, spicy aroma. They were certainly apt funeral food: white crosses symbolise the crucifixion, offset by the buns’ glossy, smile inducing oven-tanned top.
The best hot cross buns are redolent with spice, which symbolise the anointing of Christ’s body, and filled with fruit – including peel – which gave them a medicinal quality. It was once believed eating them could cure sickness. Hung in the kitchen, hot cross buns were thought to ward against fires and ensure breads turned out perfectly. Indeed, legend says buns baked tomorrow will keep all year round.
Which is why my search for the best hot cross buns started a month ago. They need to be a decent size – not quite as small as a scone but not the size of a dinner roll – with a spicy aroma I can smell before I see them. A vivid white cross is essential, though I’m not so hung up on it being made from traditional shortcrust pastry. I want plenty of fruit in there with a good portion of candied clementine thrown in. Hold the chocolate, caramel, swirls or otherwise. All they need is a good smothering of butter. And peel.
There’s appeal in the peel, you see.