Back in medieval times, the traditions of Lent were very strict. Not only were adults required to fast from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the fast included abstinence from animal products such as eggs, milk and butter. Out of such deprivation rose the hot cross bun, a bun originally made without the forbidden ingredients but marked with a Christian cross on top.
Historians disagree on the origins of the bun, with some saying that the bun evolved from pagan times when the cross cut into the top of each bun was said to ward off evil spirits. Other traditions indicate that the cross represented the four phases of the moon or was first designed by a monk or more pragmatically marked off how much bread a fasting person could eat at one seating.
Today the rules of fasting and abstinence for Catholics and other Christian denominations are not so severe. Those between 18 and 60 are expected to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday while those 14 years of age or older are expected to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent including Good Friday. The emphasis now is on positive good deeds as well as sacrifice.
Just as the rules of Lent have changed so has the hot cross bun. Today it is made of a yeast-raised dough flavored with spices, dried fruit and sometimes almonds. Recipes vary but the bun always has a cross of white icing on the top. Though its origins may be unknown, there are many who still look for the bun throughout Lent and most especially on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
While there are dozens of recipes here is a traditional one from that most traditional cookbook, Fanny Farmer's Cookbook.
<mh>Hot Cross Buns
<lst>1 cup scalded milk
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup sugar
3 cups flour
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/4 cup raisins stoned and quartered
1/ yeast cake dissolved in 1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/4 cup currants.
Add butter, sugar and salt to milk; when lukewarm add dissolved yeast cake, cinnamon, flour and eggs well beaten; when thoroughly mixed, add raisins, cover and let rise overnight. In morning shape in form of large biscuits, place in pan one inch apart, let rise, brush over with beaten egg and bake twenty minutes. Cool and with ornamental frosting make a cross on top of each bun.
<mh>Tradition Lives On
<bt>The tradition of hot cross buns lives on in local stores and bakeries.
Heidelberg Pastry Shop in Arlington began baking the sweet buns Saturday and will continue to offer them to their customers through Easter Sunday. "Customers look for them. Ours are very good, " said Susan Smith, an employee of the bakery who added that she usually doesn't like hot cross buns but liked the version made by the bakery. "It's a yeast dough, a little bit of spices with a soft subtle taste, almonds and diced citron and a cross on top in white icing."
Maribeth's Bakery, a wholesale bakery that makes baked goods for hotels and clients throughout the metropolitan area including about 15 in northern Virginia, is very familiar with the tradition. "Customarily we make them just for the Easter holiday. But if people request them we will make them earlier," said manager Tammy Green. The bun is a yeast bread with dried fruits and of course the icing cross on top. The Alexandria-based bakery also sells retail with customers calling in individual orders.
"We sell a lot of them especially at the Alexandria market as well as here," said Grace Banahene, owner of Grace Pastries in Herndon. She said the company started baking them on the weekends before Easter, and her version was slightly different. Starting with a sweet raised dough, the bakery adds dried fruit, including candied cherries, pineapple. raisins and nuts. In addition to their Herndon store, Grace Pastries has a table at the Alexandria Farmers Market every Saturday morning.