If you’re looking for a sweet Easter treat, there’s plenty to choose from: chocolate rabbits, jelly beans, intricate sugar eggs and — of course — the ubiquitous Peeps. But there’s one slightly more refined treat that many in the United States are familiar with mostly from the song.
“One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns” — made from spices, dried fruit, and a lightly sweetened, eggy dough — have been the Good Friday bread of choice in England since the 1500s. Yet the tradition of eating a special, rounded cake during spring festivals is actually much older, dating back to ancient Greece, writes John Ayto in An A-Z of Food and Drink. As one story goes, a 12th century monk added the crosses to the bun to tie them firmly to the Christian religion. Today, in bakeries throughout the U.K. and the United States, as well as other former British colonies, hot cross buns are still big business.
“Every holiday has its, as we would call it, enriched bread, with lots of butter and eggs,” says Leslie Mackie, founder of Seattle’s Macrina Bakery.
Macrina Bakery’s hot cross buns aren’t like the traditional recipe: Instead of cardamom, clove, nutmeg or other often-seen spices, its buns use rosemary. Raisins replace currants or other dried fruits. The “Tuscan hot cross bun,” as it has been dubbed, is topped with a lemon glaze.
In the U.K., hot cross buns are a bigger part of the Easter tradition than in the United States. Baker Tom’s Bread, a chain based in Cornwall, in southwest England, makes a chocolate bun with large chunks throughout, in addition to the normal variety. It’s the bakery’s second-busiest holiday after Christmas, baker Tom Hazzeldine says, and special orders for the buns start coming in weeks in advance.
In most bakeries, the buns are a special Easter-only treat (though some supermarkets sell them year-round). In 16th century London, satisfying a craving for the buns in, say, August would have been hard to do, as a law actually forbade the sale of buns “except on Good Friday, at Christmas, and at burials,” writes Ayoto.
But making hot cross buns something special is important for bakeries, which live and die by their holiday sales. Scarcity gives people a reason to keep coming to the store. “You’re always anticipating the next holiday,” Mackie says.
It’s those times of the year where families traditionally gather at home that are best for bakeries, says Mackie. She explains, “That’s when they’re buying in the specialty shops and markets.”
Though Los Angeles’ Flour Bakery offers the buns for about a month near Easter, “customers want them earlier every year,” executive pastry chef Nicole Rhode says.
She admits that the bakery’s “sophisticated” (and less sweetened) buns aren’t as big of a hit with children, who tend to gravitate toward more sugary cupcakes and cookies. But for adults looking for something special during Easter, hot cross buns are an easy option. “You don’t need to add butter or jam or anything,” says Rhode. “Just a good strong cup of coffee.”