Hot cross buns are lightly sweetened, mildly spiced rolls with a distinct image of a cross that runs across the top. They are specifically associated with Good Friday, and have been for almost a millennium. Over time, hot cross buns in the U.S. became extremely sweet, and today are often criss-crossed with a sugary icing, but that isn't the recipe of yore. The original crossing mixture was more of a paste. Classic hot cross buns hold genuine symbolic value that can stand deliciously and proudly alongside any holiday baked treat.
A Quick History
The buns were first made by monks in honor of Easter throughout the United Kingdom, Scotland, Ireland, and Britain. By the 16th century, they were so intertwined with Good Friday they appeared in verse: "Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns." Hot cross buns reign in the land of nursery rhymes and bakeries to this day.
The Real Deal
The early version of the crossing mixture — still made this way in Europe to this day — is not difficult. This recipe embraces the European versions. It makes great-looking crosses that consistently hold their shape and taste delicious. You lightly score the buns to form the shape of a cross making straight lines, and then a luscious paste is piped into the grooves.
The Magic of the Buns
Hot cross bun history features many a tale of good luck for those making, eating, and even keeping these buns. Great friendships are said to be sealed over a shared bun, and baking and eating them atavistically protects you from getting the evil eye. The bun itself is said to last from year to year, and was allegedly made into bread pudding. For those without special ancient powers, hot cross buns last for about two days.
How To Make Hot Cross Buns
What You Need
For the buns:
1 1/4 cups milk
2 (1/4-ounce) packages (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
3 cups bread flour
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg or 6 to 10 scrapes from a whole nutmeg
1 cup dried currants or raisins
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest (from 1 medium lemon)
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh orange zest (from 1 orange)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
5 large eggs, divided
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
1 teaspoon water
For the crossing mixture:
1 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
5 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the glaze:
2/3 cup Lyle's Golden Syrup, or apple or apricot jelly
1/4 cup water
Small and medium saucepans
Stand mixer with paddle attachment
Sifter or fine-mesh sieve
3 large mixing bowls
Rimmed baking sheet
Piping bag fitted with a small, plain tip with a 1/4-inch opening
1. Scald the milk: Heat the milk in a saucepan set over medium-low heat until tiny bubbles form at the edge of the pan, just before it simmers. An instant-read thermometer will read between 180°F and 185°F. (If you don't have a thermometer, test it with your finger; it should be warm, not uncomfortably hot.) Be careful not to let it boil. Set aside and let cool to room temperature.
2. Dissolve the yeast: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the yeast, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, and the warm milk and mix at low speed just until combined, about 20 seconds. Let stand in the bowl until the mixture is foamy, frothy, smells distinctly like yeast, and is beige in color, 5 to 6 minutes.
3. Sift the dry ingredients: Meanwhile, combine the bread flour, all-purpose flour, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, lemon and orange zests, and the remaining sugar in a large mixing bowl and whisk together to fully combine, 15 to 20 seconds.
4. Mix together: Add half the flour mixture to the stand mixer and mix at medium-low speed, just to combine, about 1 minute. Add 4 of the eggs, the egg yolks, vanilla, and butter; mix to combine, about 1 minute. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix to combine, about 1 minute.
5. Knead the dough: Scrape the bottom of the bowl and the paddle attachment with a silicone spatula to incorporate all the ingredients into the dough. Switch to the dough hook attachment. Mix at medium speed for 5 to 6 minutes until the dough comes together and can be easily scraped down with a dough scraper; it won't completely clear side of the bowl. The dough remains just a little tacky.
6. Add the currants: Switch to the dough hook and add the currants. Knead at low speed until they are distributed throughout the dough, about 1 minute.
7. Let the dough rise: Transfer the dough to a clean mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel, and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free spot until the dough has almost doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
8. Prepare your pan and work surface: Meanwhile, line a 12x18-inch rimmed baking sheet or large pan with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface.
9. Divide and roll: When the dough has risen, place it on the work surface and divide it evenly into 24 pieces (about 1/4 cup each). Roll 1 piece of dough into a ball (if the dough is too sticky, dust your hands very lightly with flour) and place on the prepared baking sheet, about 3/4 inch in from the edge. Repeat with the remaining dough, placing the balls 3/4 inch apart, making 4 rows across and 6 rows down the length of the sheet. Flatten the balls with lightly floured fingers so that they are about 2 inches in diameter.
10. Cover and allow to rise: Spray 2 large sheets of plastic wrap with nonstick vegetable oil spray and place them side by side over the buns, sprayed-side down. Allow the buns to rest and rise, 40 minutes to 1 hour. They will rise and spread enough that they are just barely touching (and then they will spread some more during baking).
11. Make the crossing mixture: While the dough is rising, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl and mix to combine. Add the egg and milk and mix to combine until the paste is smooth and thick. Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a plain small tip with a 1/4-inch opening.
12. Preheat the oven: 20 minutes before the end of this second rise, preheat the oven to 350°F.
13. Slash the buns: Remove the plastic wrap and place the baking sheet on a work surface, countertop, or table. Holding a ruler over one row of buns, run a sharp knife over the center of each to make a 1/8-inch-deep slash through the tops of a whole row of buns. Repeat with the other rows. Then, turn the pan 90° and, again holding the ruler over one of the rows as a guide, slash the center of each bun, making a line that is perpendicular to the the first slash. Repeat with the remaining rows so that each bun has a cross from end to end.
14. Pipe the crosses: Squeeze a line of the crossing mixture into the slashes on each bun, following the grooves from bun to bun and edge to edge and filling them all, so that the top of each bun has a filled cross.
15. Make the egg wash: In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water for the egg wash. Using a pastry brush, gently but thoroughly coat the buns with the egg wash.
16. Bake the buns: Place the buns, still on their baking sheet, on the center rack of the oven and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the buns have become a deep golden-brown in color. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of one of the buns should read between 195°F to 200°F. (Be careful not to touch the currants with the thermometer, as they will be hotter than the baked dough.)
17. Make the glaze: While the buns are baking, combine the syrup or jelly and water in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the jelly is fully dissolved and the mixture is warm. Set aside.
18. Glaze the buns: Remove the buns from the oven and immediately glaze them; use a clean pastry brush to coat them well with the glaze.
19. Let the buns cool: Let the buns sit in the pan to cool completely before serving, about 1 1/2 hours.