It’s April – nearly time for hot cross buns, though the mass-produced variety is increasingly available almost year-round.
The Taste of Britain, by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, specifies just what constitutes a hot cross bun:
A circular bun about 100mm in diameter, 50-60mm high. Weight: about 50g. Colour: golden brown, highly glazed, with a white cross marked on the surface. Flavour: lightly spiced.
but finds little of substance to say about their cultural origins:
Hot cross buns are baked for Good Friday in Britain. Their early history is unknown. Speculations have been made about possible pagan origins, but no firm conclusions have been reached.
The Oxford Companion to Food says a little more about the flavour and their (speculative?) wide-ranging origins:
a round bun … containing … spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves … marked on top with a cross … The mark is of ancient origin, connected with religious offerings of bread, which replaced earlier, less civilised offerings of blood. The Egyptians offered small round cakes, marked with a representation of the horns of an ox, to the goddess of the moon. The Greeks and Romans had similar practices and the Saxons ate buns marked with a cross in honour of the goddess of light, Eostre, whose name was transferred to Easter.
England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive, by Sue Clifford and Angela King of Common Ground, offers a selection of religious and pagan origins:
the cross … links them to the communion wafers marked with a cross and consecrated on Good Friday. Their origins may go back much further, the crossed bun perhaps representing the four quarters of the moon, or the sun and our four seasons
Home-baked hot cross buns are far superior to plastic-wrapped shop-bought imitations, though many good craft bakers produce excellent buns. To bake them at home, take your pick from dozens of recipes from Delia to Dan (Lepard).
(On the subject of Easter, ever wondered how Easter eggs are made? See inside Cadbury’s Bournville Easter egg factory.)