One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Pagan Buns?
I’ve become inordinately concerned with the topic of hot cross buns these last few days. The fixation began earlier this week when my favorite flour company named today “National Hot Cross Bun Day” in a social media post.
“Don’t you mean Good Friday?” a number of commenters replied.
I pondered how to balance my roles as a Christian (who is wary of getting riled up over the interplay of religion and culture), and as a food scholar (who is curious about the practice of renaming a somber religious holiday after its notable food).
The following day, a prominent food publication posted a recipe for the spiced buns, commenting that they wish to honor the long history of the treat. I appreciated the juxtaposition with the flour company’s approach, whether intended or not.The spicy sweetness of hot cross buns holds the juxtaposition of this odd day—while we mourn the darkness, we know the light is on its way.
Just as I became content to bake my own batch of buns and move on from this silly concern, a well-respected food culture and news outlet released an article suggesting this be the year of Hot Agnostic Buns. They cited the pagan origins of Easter, and similarly the pagan roots of the buns, as reasons to re-appropriate them and make them more inclusive.
I immediately bristled at the sweeping assumption that Easter’s origins are unquestionably pagan. Luke Harrington’s helpful article last week confirms that this idea is no more than unsubstantiated myth. This led me to wonder: could the pagan provenance of hot cross buns be debunked as well?
I am by no means the first to question the history of this Triduum treat. My research brought forth a variety of myths and legends, all of which disagreed about how the buns truly came to be.
Perhaps you have heard that the spices studding the rolls represent the spices embalming Christ in his burial and that the cross sliced through the top or piped on with icing represents the cross on which he died.
Maybe you’ve heard of the 12th-century monk who is said to have been the first to imprint the shape of a cross atop his small loaves.
It’s possible you’ve heard of Queen Elizabeth I’s 1592 declaration that these buns were only to be sold on Good Friday, Christmas, and for funerals. Maybe you’ve even known that some of the controversy behind this ordinance involved the incorporation of crushed blessed Communion wafers into the dough.
Any of these tales could be true—I myself am prone to hold onto the symbolism of spice—though the evidence is sparse that they are anything more than lore.
Just as many myths abound, so do many legends of mystical qualities. It’s been said that, in medieval times, the buns were preserved for their healing qualities—grated and pressed into wounds or swallowed for rapid recovery. Perhaps this relates to the idea that they contained remnants of the Eucharistic feast?
Some believe a bun baked on Good Friday will never go stale. Others claim that a bun shared between friends cements the friendship for the coming year.
Other writers claim the history goes back as far as celebrations of the seasons in ancient Greece or cakes served to the goddess Eostre. (Yes, the very one Luke reveals might have simply been the invention of Venerable Bede.) The cross, they say, marks the four seasons or the phases of the moon.
Undoubtedly, bakers have been incorporating spices and dried fruits into bread long before Hot Cross Buns came to the fore. Similarly, slicing shapes into the top of yeasted dough has long been a baker’s best practice—the score allows steam to escape so the bread can expand without tearing. The shapes of scores allow bakers to personalize their bread—which was necessary in communities that shared ovens. Two intersecting lines is the simplest design, so there’s no doubt crossed loaves existed long before Christianity too.
Do these similarities in flavor and shape mean that Good Friday buns were necessarily the result of appropriation? I find that assumption a bit tough to chew.
The most compelling claim of provenance comes from St. Alban’s Cathedral, where it’s said that the 14th-century monk Brother Thomas Rocliffe developed a recipe for buns made with the expensive spice Grains of Paradise, a relative of cardamom. On Good Friday, he passed the buns out to the poor. Word spread of the delicious buns, and many bakers attempted to replicate them. But St. Alban’s claims the original recipe never left the safety of their walls. To this day, the bakers at St. Alban’s hold to this historic formula.
The name Hot Cross Buns was first recorded in the year 1733, when Poor Robin’s almanac posted the well-known ditty sung by women walking the street to sell their spiced treats:
Good Friday comes this month
the old woman runs, with
One a penny, two a penny
hot cross buns.
Food historian Ivan Day finds St. Alban’s tale most convincing as well. This timeline allows the buns to have incorporated into British holiday practice in plenty of time for the almanac’s song to catch on. He claims the folklore about the buns’ pagan influence arose from 19th-century antiquarians. These ideas about ancient roots, he says, are “conjectural theories” presented as “indisputable truth.”
Perhaps I’m overreacting in my irked response to National Hot Cross Bun Day. I don’t wish to become a grumpy Christian spewing ownership over minutiae. I’ll likely still sigh when the term gets thrown about—a sigh breathed out from the wish that others could appreciate the somber beauty of Good Friday too.
Last night we marked the meal where Christ set forth his model for the church—a community meant to eat together and remember our self-sacrificing Savior. While the symbolism of hot cross buns doesn’t share the sacredness of bread and wine, it still serves to remind us of the dark wonder of this day. We cannot make it to Easter Sunday without marking the day of death; we cannot escape the scent of a buried Christ. The spicy sweetness of hot cross buns holds the juxtaposition of this odd day—while we mourn the darkness, we know the light is on its way.
I’ll eat my own buns (see my recipe, below), which I stud with coriander and golden raisins, and I’ll be grateful that—aware of their meaning or not—others find joy in these treats too.
Just, please, do not wish me a happy Hot Pagan Bun Day.
If nothing else, respect the name for the sake of the well-beloved song:
One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.
Golden Raisin Coriander Hot Cross Buns
1 cup whole milk
½ cup olive oil
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 ½ teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup golden raisins
- Whisk together milk, olive oil, and two of the eggs in a medium-sized bowl.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, coriander, yeast, and salt. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir until you have a shaggy dough. Let rest for fifteen minutes.
- While the dough rests, zest and juice the orange into a small pot with a lid. Add the golden raisins. Cook over medium heat until the juice begins to simmer, stirring regularly. Remove from heat, add the lid to the pot, and let rest. The raisins will absorb some of the juice.
- Pour the dough onto a clean countertop. Pour the raisins over half of the dough. Fold the other half over the raisins. With the heel of your hand, press the dough forward. Rotate 90°, fold in half, and repeat. Continue this kneading motion for ten minutes, or until the dough is smooth and pliable. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover with a damp towel.
- Let the dough rest in a warm spot for an hour.
- Divide the dough into 15 pieces and roll each piece into a round.
- Place the buns on an oiled 13×18-inch half-sheet tray, let rest in a warm spot for an hour.
- When the buns are almost finished with their final rest, preheat the oven to 350°F. Whisk together the last egg with a splash of water and brush the egg wash on top of the buns. Cut a cross shape about ½-inch deep in each bun. Bake for twenty minutes and enjoy.
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