Tuesday 12 November 2019

Hot cross buns get a modern makeover


M&S Hot Cross Bun with eggy bread with ice-cream
M&S Hot Cross Bun with eggy bread with ice-cream
Darina Allen's traditional hot cross buns

As hot cross buns get a modern makeover, Katy McGuinness looks at the tradition behind them.

Hot cross buns!  Hot cross buns!

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters,

give them to your sons.

One a penny, two a penny,

Hot cross buns!

The spiced English bun studded with raisins is traditionally eaten during Lent, particularly on Good Friday, and Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) is the biggest single day for sales of hot cross buns.

The buns are marked with a cross, a reference to the crucifixion, the idea for which is said to have come from a 12th Century English monk. The first written mention of the buns comes in Poor Robin's Almanac in the 17th Century: "Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns."

Originally the cross was made with a knife mark or a simple dough; these days it can be made of anything from a simple sugar icing to rich dark chocolate to a brewer's paste-flavoured dough on a savoury cheese bun.

There are numerous traditions and superstitions associated with hot cross buns. One says that if you hang a hot cross bun from your kitchen rafters on Good Friday, the bread will remain fresh for a whole year. This refers to the body of Christ which, according to the Bible, did not show any signs of decay after the crucifixion and prior to the resurrection.

While hanging in the kitchen, hot cross buns work hard, multi-tasking to ward off evil spirits, prevent kitchen fires and ensure that all breads baked during the year turn out perfectly. The bun should be replaced each year on Good Friday to ensure continued good fortune.

If taken on a voyage at sea, hot cross buns are said to offer protection from shipwreck.

According to an old rhyme, sharing a hot cross bun with a friend ensures continuation of a strong bond in the year ahead: "Half for you and half for me, between us two, good luck shall be."

In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that hot cross buns could only be sold on Good Friday, or Christmas, or for burials. They were simply too special to be eaten any other day. To get around this, people baked the buns in their own kitchens, but had to give them to the poor if they were caught.

"Nowadays hot cross buns are traditionally eaten in Ireland on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday," says Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School. "This practice would have been frowned on in the past when these were black fast days and the people would scarcely have had enough to eat, not to mention spicy fruit-filled buns."

These days, of course, hot cross buns come in many different guises, many of which our forebears would be hard-pressed to recognise. Sadia Usman has what many would consider a dream job, working as the product developer for hot cross buns with Marks & Spencer, which this year introduced three new varieties to their range of hot cross buns. In addition to established favourites including traditional luxury hot cross buns, toffee fudge and Belgian chocolate, Kentish Bramley apple, and chocolate and orange, hot cross bun aficionados can now feast on cranberry and orange and carrot cake versions.

There's even, for the first time, a savoury cheese hot cross bun - delicious sliced open, toasted and buttered and filled with bacon for an alternative bacon sandwich. The bun features Turkish sultanas, onion, chives and traditional hot cross bun spicing that's redolent of chutney - plus a cross made of brewers paste-flavoured dough.

A trained chef, Osman is one of M&S's team of bread specialists, and it is her job to figure out what their customers want in a hot cross bun and work with the suppliers, Gunstones of Sheffield, through brain-storming and innovation sessions, to deliver it.

"Essentially," she says, "I am a product designer, coming up with ideas and inspiration. Then I work with my technical colleagues to turn those ideas into reality. I work from research that's done with customer panels and feedback that comes from my in-store colleagues. We can tell a lot from sales from one year to the next. I have to be aware of trends, and correlate historic buying with new trends. The big question is always how far can we push our customers without going too far. It's about giving them something exciting but not too whacky."

M&S works on developing its hot cross bun range year-round, and Osman is already in discussions with Gunstones about new flavours for 2018 - but she's not telling.

"I'm always looking for inspiration to add to the bank of ideas. I might be off working on baguettes and be inspired by something that I see and think that it could work for hot cross buns."

Far from being a treat eaten only on Good Friday, these days M&S sells a limited range of hot cross buns 12 months of the year, relaunching its range each January. The biggest seller is its luxury traditional hot cross bun and, while Osman is reluctant to say that any M&S hot cross bun has been a failure, she will admit that last year's mini mocha was not as successful as they had hoped.

Although she says that asking her for her own personal favourite is like asking a mother which of her children she likes best, she does admit to a fondness for the new carrot cake hot cross bun.

"I tend to eat my hot cross bun at my desk," she explains, "and because it has a cream cheese filling it doesn't need butter, everything is already in there."

Of course, although most of us think of hot cross buns as something to be sliced and simply eaten with butter, imaginative chefs such as Dan Doherty of London's Duck and Waffle have other ideas. At a recent dinner in London to celebrate M&S's new hot cross buns, he devised a menu that included a hot cross bun spiced whiskey sour, seared mackerel with hot cross bun chermoula, and lamb rump topped with a hot cross bun herb crust. For pudding, there was hot cross bun ice-cream with Earl Grey brûlée, hot cross bun tuile, Earl Grey and brandy-macerated raisins with burnt orange segments. What better way to ward off evil spirits?

Darina Allen's traditional hot cross buns

Celebrated chef and author Darina Allen is the owner of the Ballymaloe Cookery school in Co Cork, cookingisfun.ie

Makes 16


25g fresh yeast

75-110g caster sugar

450g bakers flour

75g butter

¼ tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp nutmeg

2-3 tsp mixed spice, depending how fresh it is

1 level tsp of salt (important to add)

2 organic eggs

225-300ml tepid milk

75g currants

50g sultanas

25g candied peel, chopped

Egg wash made with milk, sugar, 1 organic egg yolk, whisked together

For the cross:

Shortcrust pastry or liquid cross (see below)

Liquid cross:

50g white flour

1 tbsp melted butter

4-5 tbsp cold water


Dissolve the yeast with 1 tbsp of the sugar in a little tepid milk.

Put the flour into a bowl, rub in the butter, add the cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice, a pinch of salt and the remainder of the sugar. Mix well. Whisk the eggs and add to the milk. Make a well in the centre of the flour, add the yeast and most of the liquid and mix to a soft dough, adding a little more milk if necessary.

Cover and leave to rest for 2 or 3 minutes then knead by hand or in a food processor until smooth.

Add the currants, sultanas and mixed peel and continue to knead until the dough is shiny. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.

"Knock back", by kneading for 3 or 4 minutes, rest for a few minutes. Divide the mixture into 14 balls, each weighing about 50g. Knead each slightly and shape into buns. Place on a lightly floured tray. Egg wash and leave to rise.

If using shortcrust, arrange a cross of pastry on each one. Leave to rise until double in size. Then egg wash a second time carefully.

We tend to decorate with what we call a "liquid cross". To make this, mix the flour, melted butter and water together to form a thick liquid. Fill into a paper piping bag and pipe a liquid cross on top of each bun.

Preheat the oven to 220˚C/Gas Mark 6.

Bake in the preheated oven for 5 minutes then reduce the heat to 200˚C/Gas Mark 6 for a further 10 minutes or until golden. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Split in two and serve with butter.

M&S Hot Cross Bun with eggy bread with ice-cream


For the ice-cream: 600ml cream

400ml milk

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole allspice seeds

300g sugar

6 egg yolks

2 M&S luxury hot cross buns, chopped into little chunks and toasted very well

For the eggy bread: 80ml double cream

3 large eggs

60g caster sugar

100ml whole milk

4 M&S Kentish Bramley apple hot cross buns

Butter for frying


1. Bring the milk and cream to the boil with the cinnamon and allspice and infuse for 10 minutes. Beat the eggs and sugar in a bowl.

2. Using a fine sieve, pour the infused liquid over the egg and sugar mix. Whisk gently to combine. Transfer back to the pan and cook very gently, stirring frequently so that the mix thickens and coats the back of a spoon.

3. Once thickened, strain and chill. Once cold, add the toasted hot cross bun pieces and pour into a plastic tray to freeze for at least 6 hours or overnight. Ideally, beat every half hour to stop ice crystals forming.

4. For the eggy bread, whisk the cream, eggs, sugar and milk in a bowl.

5. Halve the hot cross buns. Melt a large spoon of butter in a large frying pan until it sizzles.

6. Soak the hot cross buns in the egg mix and fry until crispy and golden. Be careful not to have the pan too hot as the sugar and raisins in the buns may burn. Use more butter as needed to prevent this.

7. Scoop ice-cream onto your hot eggy bread and drizzle with chocolate sauce.

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