Come early spring, and in particular the week of Easter Sunday, searches for classic hot cross bun recipes begin to rise. Chances are you've seen the traditional Easter bread recipe in bakeries or on the table as part of the holiday brunch. I never regret biting into one of the buttery, cross-topped yeast rolls, but while developing BH&G's latest hot cross bun recipe, I began to wonder why we eat hot cross buns at Easter…and no other time of year. I spoke with experts to learn about the history of hot cross buns and how they came to be an Easter tradition.
What Are Hot Cross Buns?
“Hot cross buns are yeast buns made with milk and butter and spices and dotted with raisins or another dried fruit," explains Elizabeth Hopwood, Ph.D., lecturer in English and acting director of the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola University Chicago.
To achieve the showy cross on top, the buns are scored prior to baking.
How to Make Hot Cross Buns
- Flour, yeast, water, sugar, and warm baking spices such as cardamom and cloves come first, then it’s time to stir in the dried fruit—most often raisins.
- Kneading comes next (about three to five minutes should do the trick), followed by the first rise. Then, after a six-hour nap in the fridge, one of our favorite parts: punching down the risen hot cross bun dough.
- Here’s where the buns begin to develop: Divide the dough into equal-size portions, roll into balls, and allow to rise once more on a sheet pan until the rounds double in size.
- Once doubled, all that’s left to do is score with a crisscross pattern, bake, and glaze or decorate as desired.
Why We Eat Hot Cross Buns at Easter
“Any sweet, yeasted bread with dried fruit and spices abound at Easter—my aunt makes Polish babka—and on Good Friday, in particular. Nobody knows exactly where the first hot cross bun was ‘invented,’ but the Christians might have continued an earlier practice from the Jewish tradition of challah bread. In the United States, we continued this English tradition,” says Beth Forrest, Ph.D., a food historian and professor of liberal arts and food studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
The history of hot cross buns is a bit fuzzy, but they likely date back to the Middle Ages when it was a cultural institution to share sweet sacrifices with the gods. Many believe that monks first developed hot cross buns in the 1300s, then distributed them to feed the poor. In the late 1500s, when many English citizens believed the buns had magical or healing powers, Queen Elizabeth I began restricting their sale to only Good Friday, Christmas, and at funerals so the magic wouldn’t be abused. That’s when many home bakers began whipping up their own hot cross buns.
Superstitions related to that magic have become English folklore. On Good Friday, some hang a hot cross bun from their kitchen ceiling for good luck and a safe cooking space (in other words, no fires and perfectly baked loaves of bread). This bun is believed to stay fresh and mold-free all year until replaced, just as Jesus showed no signs of change between his burial and resurrection.
According to the book The English Year: The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night, the first official mention of hot cross buns in literature is in the 1733 edition of Poor Robin’s Almanack, which referenced the baked goods: "Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs. With one or two a penny hot cross buns.” (Remember that song from childhood piano lessons?!)
“Hot cross buns have Catholic roots,” Hopwood says. “Primarily because of the use of dairy, hot cross buns were often forbidden during Lenten periods—when Catholics would instead eat non-dairy breads. The shape of the cross, of course, also represents Catholic imagery of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.”
The spices in the bread dough are said to represent the spices used to embalm Jesus before he was buried (and rose again, just like the buns).
So it seems like dairy and previous prohibitions on the sale of these sweet treats are why we eat hot cross buns at Easter, but know that if you’re not a big fan, any sweet bread will do. Especially if you want to celebrate the spring holiday with some international flair.
“Easter food traditions vary across the world. Once you start researching them, you discover that Easter is honestly a global feast,” Forrest says, adding that Mexican capirotada, Balkan pinca, or the Italian colomba di Pasqua are all classic (and delicious) Easter bread recipes.