2 April: Good Friday



‘Perhaps no cry – though it is only for a morning – is more familiar to the ears of a Londoner, than that of ‘One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns’ on Good Friday.’

Henry Mayhew ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ 1851

Elizabeth David tells us in ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’ that spiced yeast buns became popular in Tudor times. For a long time their sale was restricted by one of the very many rules which affected the baking of bread for sale. Here’s what the London Clerk of the Markets said in 1592 – I’ve paraphrased it a bit.

‘That no bakers at any times make or sell by retail within or without their houses unto any of the Queen’s subjects any spice cakes, buns, biscuits or other spice bread …. except it be for burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor’

That didn’t prevent such breads being made in the home of course. By the time of James I, the law, which in any case had more to do with supressing Popishness than regulating bakers, had been relaxed. It seems to me now that Hot Cross Buns appear immediately after Pancake Day about the same time as a certain delicious but sickly cream egg. Commercial bakeries use a colourless spice essence to flavour hot cross buns which I find it too strong and too homogenous, I like to be able to take a bite and think ‘oooh what’s in that?’ and try and work out the spice mix used.

During the nineteenth century the folk lore researchers found that there was a widespread superstition across England and Wales that yeast products baked on Good Friday never went mouldy and were capable of working miracles. These marvellous breads had to be marked with the sign of the cross and numerous customs were associated with them. The bread might for example be buried in a wheat field to ensure a good harvest or thrown into a river to prevent floods. Good Friday bread was taken by sailors as a charm against shipwreck and kept in the house to protect it against fire. It was also kept and crumbled into the food of sick animals and no doubt people too.

My Dad used to say that you should plant your new potatoes on Good Friday then you could harvest them on Whitsunday (I think that’s a bit optimistic). There are numerous different beliefs about this, with some local traditions saying you mustn’t turn the earth on Good Friday and others suggesting that it’s an auspicious day to plant. It all depends where you come from.

Ron Hutton in ‘Stations of the Sun’ says Hot Cross Buns are a last echo of the practice of extinguishing all the lights in the church on Easter Eve and lighting them afresh from a new source. This was a ritual of renewal practised across many cultures in spring, and in the Christian tradition it is dramatically enhanced by being performed in the dark. Many Churchwardens account books record the purchase of materials for this rite, and parish households used the flames thereby kindled to restart the domestic hearth fires deliberately extinguished the evening before.

Today the hot cross bun market is worth £108m per year and we eat in excess of 30 million commercially made buns in the run up to Easter, so our taste for them is undiminished. I used to make Hot Cross Buns years ago which I spiced with my own spice mix; it made me feel very connected with the generations of women who have gone before me. 'The Times' this week gives a hot cross bun recipe which includes cherries and lime rind- not my sort of thing at all.
I've used Elizabeth David’s ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, my original 1979 paperback is now very yellow and tatty, but here’s the recipe. I’ve adapted it for modern yeasts and changed the fruit balance.

Hot Cross Buns

1lb strong white flour
2 oz currants
1oz sultanas
1oz mixed peel
1tsp salt
½ pint (scant) of milk
2 oz light soft brown sugar
2 teaspoons mixed spice. (see below*)
1½ teaspoons easy bake yeast
2 oz butter
1 egg

2 tablespoons each milk and light brown sugar for the glaze.

Mix together all the dry ingredients including the yeast but not the fruit. Melt the butter until liquid but not hot. Whisk the eggs and add the milk and liquid butter. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix well, then add the fruit. Knead until smooth. Leave to rise in a warm place.

When well risen divide into two, then two again, and again until you have a number of bits of dough about half the size you want your final buns to be. Make dough balls with the palm of your hand on the top of the dough ball rolling it on your floured board. Put on a baking tray. With a very sharp knife make a cross on the top of each bun or prick a cross with the tines of a fork. As Elizabeth David says it’s only a symbolic gesture, it’s the buns that count.


Cover and leave to rise in a warm place. When well risen and puffy bake at 190c for 15-20 minutes until lightly golden.

Make the glaze by boiling the milk and sugar together until bubbly and syrupy. Paint this on the buns whilst they are still hot, I did this twice so they were really shiny.

*Spice Mix
1 cumin seed
1 clove
1 tsp coriander seed
1teaspoon ground cinnamon
1tsp allspice berries
1tsp dried orange peel
¼ nutmeg
Seeds from 1 cardamom pod

Grind together in a coffee grinder or preferably in a pestle and mortar – humming the while.


The house will smell heavenly. Congratulate yourself on your elevation to domestic goddess, make a pot of coffee, put your feet up, enjoy.

5 comments:

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
pebbledash said...

Oh they look good...can smell them from here! Love your pestle and mortar, too. Very stylish!
Happy Easter, Liz!
Diana
xox

Liz said...

Thanks. I bought the p & m for £2 in a charity shop. It's actually very very vulgar, but the photo is primly arranged...

Gerry Snape said...

Who would ever have thought that spice buns would really become one a penny, two a penny when it used to be so precious and nations fought over it!

Liz said...

I suppose so much food was bland and boring you needed a bit of spice to well.. spice things up a bit.