Right now every bakery to big-box superstore that is open has yeasty, doughy Hot Cross Buns for sale. Most feature large swipes of thick white icing that are irresistible, at least to me. Their popular longevity is amazing considering their history dates back to the dawn of civilization! According to a variety of food scholars, early Goddesses such as Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, Hathor, Artemis, Aphrodite and Venus were all offered small round buns marked with a cross during springtime religious festivals. As these were pre-Christian times, these four-quarter markings are believed to be associated with the lunar cycle, which seems plausible as Easter is still set by the lunar calendar, i.e. follows the first full moon after the spring equinox.
In Sumer and Assyria buns crossed with ox-horn symbols (sacred to goddesses everywhere) were offered to the Inanna, the Sumerian Queen of Heaven & Earth, and the Goddess Ishtar in Babylon. The Egyptians continued the tradition of offering cakes crossed with horns to their Mother Goddess Isis and the Goddess Hathor. The Greeks replaced the ox-horn with a cross symbolizing the four quarters of the moon, and they offered these cakes to their Moon-Goddess Artemis. Eaten by worshippers at her temples or shrines, these cakes were called “boun”, which is a form of “bous”, the Greek word for ox. It is from “boun” that the English word “bun” comes. The Romans also ate these crossed cakes, at public sacrifices to their lunar goddess, Diana.
The pagan Anglo-Saxons were also reputed to have baked small crossed cakes in honour of their goddesses of spring. Variously known as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, these names are considered derivatives of the ancient word for spring: Eastre. The Christian scholar The Venerable Bede, writing in his book De Ratione Temporum about 725AD, noted that Easter was named after Eostre — the mother goddess of the Saxons. He wrote” Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.”
I especially love this folkloric tidbit. According to author Joanne Asala Eostre remained not only associated with the lunar cycle – but with the woodlands and wild places (echoes of Artemis and Diana?) Her priestesses were called “wudu-maer” or Wood Mothers and during spring rites it was customary to offer them bread, dumplings and buns. Markings on these Eostre cakes included the cross and the sun wheel which the Saxons believed symbolized the cosmic balance of heavens balance at the Spring Equinox.
It seems pretty clear that Hot Cross Buns are a part of an ancient spring-time tradition of “blessing breads”. Symbolically woven and braided, filled with magical eggs, and blessed with sacred symbols they were offerings to the spring fertility goddesses. And they were the progenitors of modern challahs and babkas still treasured at Easter tables today.
According to culinary historian Bruce Kraig, Professor Emeritus in History and Humanities at Roosevelt University, Chicago, Hot Cross Buns may be first mentioned in the medieval period, but their symbolism is far older. He states “Egg breads are the symbol for mothers and rebirth, and date back at least 7,000 years. Yeast-raised breads symbolize rising and renewed life. Easter baba or babka, traditionally baked in an ancient domed shape, represents the word for ‘mother,’ and the word Easter is derived from the Old English word Eastre, meaning “goddess of the dawn.
Despite the spread of Christianity, the traditions of eating crossed buns remained popular throughout Europe. And so the Roman Catholic Church had no choice but to keep them while overhauling their pagan meanings. Kraig notes “Christians have a cultural and mythological system in which they continually adapt ancient foodways and symbols”. The crossed bun or “boun” became Eucharistic bread made from bread dough consecrated for use in Holy Communion. Only now they symbolized the body of Christ and his suffering and crucifixion on the cross.
Due to their association with Catholic “popery” the 16th century Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, banned their baking for any day except Good Friday, Christmas Day and at funerals upon pain or forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor …” To this day, most English bakeries will only make the buns during Easter week.
Amongst the common folk, hot cross buns were considered magical. Those not eaten would be dried and crumbled—then used as a medicine powder to combat illness. Buns were hung from kitchen ceilings to protect their households from evil and protect boats from shipwreck. That they were associated with good fortune is illustrated by old English rhyme which goes “Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be.”
The hot cross buns of the past were likely much plainer than today, sugar and spices were expensive and hard to come by. Today, mildly sweet, made from a yeast-risen wheat dough crossed or glazed with icing, their tradition lives on. Most contain allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and sometimes saffron and raisins, sultanas, dried currants or candied orange peel.
My aunt (and sometimes my Mom) made them from scratch every Easter, and their delicious doughy goodness filled me with delight. And of course, I was renowned for eating more than my fair share! My mom’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns was clipped from a decades-old women’s magazine but she would also add cardamom, dried currants and orange zest. And this Good Friday (along with colouring eggs) I’ll be baking them for family once again. But only I (and you!) will know I’ll be offering them up to ancient goddesses of old. Spring Blessings to all!
Hot Cross Buns
Makes 1 dozen
- 1 & 1/2 cups raisins, sultanas or dried currants
- 2 & 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 1/4 tsp of quick-rise yeast
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp cardamom
- 1 tbsp orange zest
- 1/3 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 egg, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup water
- 4 tablespoons of icing sugar
- 1 cup icing sugar
- 2 tbsp water
- 1-2 tsp of orange (or lemon zest) depending on your taste
- Begin with putting your raisins with boiling water in a small bowl. Let stand until plump, 10 min. Drain and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
- Next, mix 1 cup flour with granulated sugar, yeast, cinnamon, salt, ginger, nutmeg and raisins and orange zest in bowl. Beat in 1/3 cup warm water, warm milk, butter and egg. Beat in remaining 1 3/4 cups flour until dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides of bowl. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rest until dough is doubled in size, about 1 hour.
- Transfer dough onto a lightly floured surface and separate into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a smooth ball. Transfer to non-stick baking sheet or one lined with parchment and arrange balls in 3 rows of 4. Cover again and let stand until doubled in size, about another hour.
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- For your crosses, stir 1/4 cup flour, 4 tbsp of icing sugar together with 1/4 cup water until smooth. Spoon or pipe a cross over each bun.
- Bake until golden brown, about 25 min.
- For your glaze, stir icing sugar with 2 tbsp water and orange zest until smooth. Brush evenly over hot buns. Eat while WARM! Otherwise transfer to a wire rack and let cool.