Hot Cross Buns

Today is Good Friday. One of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, Good Friday is a day of quiet contemplation, commemorating the crucifixion of Christ. But this somber day has a bright spot (and I’m not just talking about the imminent end of Lent and a return of chocolate to my daily diet).

Hot Cross Buns!

Freshly iced confection
Freshly iced confection

According to several centuries of English tradition, hot cross buns are meant to be consumed through Lent but especially on Good Friday. (How that works with the fast we Catholics are also supposed to keep this day is a puzzle to me, but I’ll leave that discourse to theologians.) When it comes to hot cross buns, I’m all about the tradition of eating them.  The top of the bun is marked with a cross, first with a sharp blade before rising, then with icing after being baked. Does it take away from the solemnity of this day that a hot cross bun, made from scratch, is sinfully delicious?

I have made hot cross buns for lots of years from several different recipes, and this is the one I keep coming back to. The orange flavor is from fresh zest, which I started substituting for candied orange peel or citron (both more commonly used) because the crowd around the kitchen garbage can got to be a problem. My daughters liked the sweet roll but picked out every currant and candied peel when they were kids.  Now they’re more tolerant of currants, or maybe just more subtle, and we all like the orange zest better anyway.

Tonight my husband delivered a batch of these buns to our parish priests after the Good Friday Mass. It’s a starkly solemn occasion, and all those exiting the church at its conclusion do so quietly. B brought the hot cross buns back to the sacristy, where the priests were removing their vestments. Father’s eyes lit up when B handed him the pan. “We are living the dream!” he whispered with a grin.

Hot Cross Buns (adapted from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, by Zoe Coulson, © 1980 by The Hearst Corporation)


1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt (This cookbook was published before it was common to specify salted or unsalted butter. I have not adjusted the amount of salt here to account for using unsalted butter, but if you like, the amount of salt can be increased up to 1 1/2 teaspoons to make up for the lack of salt in the butter. Or leave the salt measure as is and use salted butter.)

3 packages instant dry yeast (equals a scant 3 tablespoons of yeast if you buy dry yeast in bulk)

9 cups all-purpose flour, divided use

freshly grated zest of 2 oranges

2 cups whole milk

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized chunks

2 large eggs at room temperature

About 1 cup dried currants

Egg wash: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon water

Icing: With a hand mixer, beat together 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons whole milk, 2 tablespoons softened butter, a pinch of salt, and 1 teaspoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice.

1. In the large bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with a flat beater, combine the sugar, salt, yeast, and 2 cups of flour.

2. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over low heat until baby-bottle warm. The butter doesn’t have to melt.

3. In a separate small bowl, combine the orange zest with another 2 cups of flour, rubbing the zest and flour together with your fingers, then stirring with a fork to distribute throughout.

4. With the mixer at low speed, slowly pour the warm milk and butter over the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Mix until all are combined. Scrape bowl and beater with a spatula to ensure there are no dry pockets of flour, then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes. Scrape bowl again, then return the mixer speed to medium and add the eggs and the 2 cups of flour mixed with orange zest. Scraping the bowl occasionally, beat for 2 more minutes.

5. Fit the mixer with a dough hook, then add the remaining 5 cups of flour gradually with the mixer speed on low. Let the dough hook knead until all the flour has been incorporated. Continue to knead for several minutes, until the dough forms a neat ball that leaves the sides of the mixing bowl. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead by hand for a few strokes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Grease the inside of a large bowl with a film of vegetable oil, and put the dough in the bowl, turning the dough to grease the top. Cover the bowl with a light cloth, and let the dough rise for about 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size.

6. Grease 2 9×13-inch pans. Punch the dough down, then turn it back out onto the lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the top of the dough with a handful of currants, and begin kneading. Gradually incorporate all of the currants as you continue to knead, using a little flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Cut the dough into 2 equal pieces; cover 1 piece with cloth while you work with the other. Cut that half of dough into 4 equal pieces, then cut each of those pieces into thirds. You should have 12 small blobs of dough now. Shape each gently into a ball, then place in the greased pan. Do the same with the other dough half, filling the second greased pan.

7. Cut crosses into the top of each ball with a sharp knife or clean, unused single-edge razor blade. Cover the pans with light cloths, and allow the buns to rise for an hour.

8. Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush buns with egg wash (see ingredient list).

9. Bake until golden brown on top and lighter brown on bottom, about 30 minutes.

10. Transfer pans to wire racks for the buns to cool, then mix up the icing (see ingredient list). Put the icing in a pastry bag or a plastic sandwich bag, snipping off a tip to squeeze it through. Pipe crosses on each bun.

(Note 1: These buns are best the day they are made, with a little “breath of the oven” remaining, but they are still delicious the next day after a few seconds in the microwave.)

(Note 2: In researching hot cross buns on the internet, I learned of a variation that replaces the currants with chocolate chips. I’ve got a batch of those now rising overnight in the fridge. Same recipe as above, just with mini-chocolate chips kneaded in. It’s got to be good.)

After the second rise, brushed with egg wash and ready for the oven.
After the second rise, brushed with egg wash and ready for the oven.
The icing will firm up as it sits.
The icing will firm up as it sits.

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