Traditional hot cross buns are a rich and decadent mix of butter, eggs, milk, flour and yeast dotted with dried fruit and fragrant with spice.
The practice of eating cross-topped cakes is said to date back to the ancient Greeks, while the custom of eating bread on Good Friday came into being in Tudor times when a London bylaw forbade the sale of buns with crosses except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at burials. These days, some supermarkets start selling the buns as early as January. If it's quality rather than quantity you want, try our pick of the artisan bakeries and patisseries now frantically producing these Easter treats.
Igor Ivanovic, of Iggy's Bread in Bronte, insists his raisin pecan rolls are nothing like traditional hot cross buns, but that does not stop Iggy's customers from being evangelical about the baked delight that he describes as ''a real out-there alternative'' for Easter. A few years ago, the artisan baker experimented with shaping his normal raisin pecan rolls into a square and then cutting in the cross. He says the trademark cross is what legitimises the bun - which is swirled with spice, fruit and nuts - as an innovative alternative.
''My buns have nothing to do with hot cross buns … It's just my own take … but my customers seem to love it,'' he says.
49 Belgrave Street and 145D Macpherson Street, Bronte, 9369 1650.
The Grumpy Baker
What could be better than hot cross buns made from a recipe passed down by baker Michael Cthurmer's mama? The recipe for the buns, which are the ultimate in nostalgic stickiness, has been tweaked to include a touch more spice and a lot of raisins, which the Israeli-Australian baker says keeps them very moist. While the baker might be grumpy after getting up at dawn each day, there is no tasting that resentment in these creations shaped from challah dough, which is used to make the braided bread served on the Jewish Sabbath.
''The secret to my buns is they are made with a lot of love,'' Cthurmer says.
The Grumpy Baker is in Castle Cove, Marrickville, Vaucluse and Paddington, thegrumpybaker.com.au.
Bowan Island Bakery
When creating this cinnamon-scented raisin-laden Easter staple, the key to perfection is aeration, says head baker Jason McMenamin. The best hot cross buns have nice airy pockets, he says, ''which allows the palate to experience the start, middle and end of the aroma of flavours''. As well as adhering to the cross-topped tradition, he perfumes the buns with spiced sultanas, dried currants and the zing of cardamom.
For something less traditional, Bowan Island Bakery produces a sweeter Belgian chocolate-chip counterpart.
McMenamin says the bakery's buns are best served hot with butter, of course.
Bowan Island Bakery buns are available at its cafes in Drummoyne, Five Dock and Chatswood and also at David Jones, bowanislandbakery.com.au.
Sweetness the Patisserie
Sweetness the Patisserie sells yeasted products only twice a year, producing hot cross buns at Easter and German stollen cake at Christmas. Pastry chef Gena Karpf is an unabashed traditionalist and makes the buns only during the two weeks before Good Friday. The United States-born pastry chef uses a recipe she perfected while studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney and modified it to include more fruit and more spices and her own candied orange peel. ''I love being part of Easter and doing something seasonal. Hot cross buns are at the heart of the nurturing sweet food I love,'' she says.
38 Oxford Street, Epping, 9869 3800, sweetness.com.au.
Bourke Street Bakery
Move over hot cross buns and make way for the hot cross loaf. Bigging up the bun is no gimmick, says head baker Thomas Scott, who adds that supersizing it into a loaf makes it a lot more versatile.
''The hot cross loaf is jam-packed with everything you love about a hot cross bun, but with the option of being able to slice it or toast it and share it around,'' he says.
The loaf is studded with a mixture of sultanas, currants and mixed peel and made aromatic with the usual spice triangle of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The hot cross loaf is made from a brioche dough and best enjoyed with jam and ricotta or spread with butter.
2 Mitchell Street, Marrickville, 9569 3225, bourkestreetbakery.com.au.
The Cook and Baker
The hot cross buns at The Cook and Baker are lifesavers for harried commuters. Baker Tass Tauroa has improved the hot cross bun template by first soaking the fruit in Earl Grey tea, which, he says, infuses the buns with a lovely fragrance and flavour.
''We sell hundreds of hot cross buns. People are always asking us to make them year round, but keeping it seasonal signifies that it's a special-occasion treat,'' he says. Tauroa spruces up his buns with a sugar glaze, which gives them a high-gloss finish.
238 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, 9388 0119, thecookandbaker.com.au.
Flour and Stone
You might have to consider doing penance after indulging in these plump little butter-based pleasures. Head baker Nadine Ingram originally made the buns minus the cross, but there was such an outcry that this year's sequel sticks to the religious-inspired requisite, she says.
Her bespoke buns made from yeasted dough are folded with her signature warming spice mix and come brimming with Italian confit orange and the delicious dense goo of sultanas, raisins, currants and sour cherries.
58 Riley Street, Woolloomooloo, 8068 8818, flourandstone.com.au.
Those with a hot cross bun habit will be happy to hear that Brickfields is taking orders for its signature sourdough buns. Pastry chef Kat Kleu literally has something to prove, with the hot cross buns lightened with the whey from house-made ricotta and then spliced with cranberries, soaked currants and sultanas, which hold up beautifully to the weight of the bun. The sourdough interpretation of this tutti-fruity hybrid is moist and dense: a divine creation indeed.
206 Cleveland Street, Chippendale, 9698 7880.
Black Star Pastry
You can rely on pastry chef Christopher The to tweak with tradition and take his hot cross buns to the next level. His bespoke buns have been given context with a frankincense glaze that, he says, transports him to the church of his childhood, where the incense was burnt as an Easter offering. Pray that The has enough buns in the oven to cater to the community's need for the symbolic bread. Black Star Pastry also produces a vegan-friendly version of the bun, that nails the sweet and savoury feel. ''It's the frankincense that gives my buns an added complexity,'' he says.
277 Australia Street, Newtown, 9557 8656, corner of Dunning Avenue and Hays Road, Rosebery, 9700 7686, blackstarpastry.com.au.