One legend says that if you hang a hot cross bun from your kitchen rafter, it will expel bad spirits. Another promises protection from shipwrecks if you carry a bun on your boat. While these ends sound nice, I wasn't looking for magical intervention; I just wanted a warm, slightly sweet, dried fruit–studded bun for Easter or any time.
Hot Cross Buns' Backstory
These days, hot cross buns are a tradition for some and a curiosity for others, but the humble little rolls have a long history. Some say the first versions were baked by the ancient Greeks as honey-sweetened celebratory treats before they became a Good Friday tradition for Christians in the Middle Ages.
But by the 16th century, they'd become common all year long. They were too common for some, including Queen Elizabeth I, who decreed in 1592 that hot cross buns could be sold in England only on Good Friday, on Christmas, or at funerals. The rest of the year, renegade bakers faced fines or even jail time for breaking the directive.
The trick with hot cross buns, as with so many breads, is achieving the right structure. The light, airy buns are richer than most breads but not buttery like a brioche. And the lean icing cross often found on top of the buns whets my sweet tooth, but only just.
I used a stand mixer to knead together a basic dough from the usual suspects—flour, water, yeast, sugar, and salt. I knew I needed to let it go for a few minutes, because a nice long knead helps develop gluten and build elastic structure in the dough, trapping air and allowing the buns to rise to lofty heights. (Learn more about how to knead dough from this article.) I also added some butter and eggs to make the dough richer and more flavorful—but not so much that it would weigh things down.
Bread IllustratedHere at America's Test Kitchen, we have a slight obsession with bread. (Need proof? Check out this profile of one of our editors, Sacha Madadian.) We channeled that obsession in our first book devoted to the subject, which went on to win the IACP award in the Best Baking Book category.
My next move was to look through cookbooks for traditional bells and whistles to embellish my hot cross buns. A colleague suggested including warm spice in the dough—not a mandatory addition, but it sounded good to me, so I added a bit of ground cinnamon to my next batch of buns.
I loved the aroma of the cinnamony baking bread wafting from the oven. But when I inspected my baked buns, my optimism deflated. They were dense and compact, a far cry from the pillowy rolls I'd baked before. I assumed I had simply mismeasured something, so I made a couple more batches of buns, measuring extra carefully, to check my work. Still bad.
What gives? A chat with our science editor shed light: He taught me that cinnamon contains a flavor compound called cinnamaldehyde, which can inhibit yeast activity and prevent bread from fully rising, especially when lightness is the goal. What's fine for a relatively dense cinnamon swirl bread can prove fatal to a soft, airy bun. That lovely, comforting spice was impeding my dough.
I ditched the cinnamon and moved on to the dried fruit. I made batches with both currants and raisins, and my tasters much preferred the bigger, sweeter flavor of raisins plumped in warm water.
The real signature of a hot cross bun is its top. I tried the old English technique of making crosses from ropes of flour paste dough that are then draped over each bun and baked, but these were a pain to make and didn't add much fun. Besides, my tasters wanted icing. A simple confectioners' sugar and milk icing did the trick, piped in long, continuous stripes across the rows of baked buns in the pan to create a series of crosses.
Hot cross buns are great any time of day, but I especially like them at breakfast. So my final task was to make sure I could have freshly baked buns without having to get out of bed at the crack of dawn. After testing a few make-ahead methods, I found a winner: Make the dough the day before, form it into buns, tuck them into their pan, and let them proof as usual. Then refrigerate them overnight. Come morning, pop them into the oven to bake. Hot cross buns, with an emphasis on the hot.