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If you think the controversy over hot cross buns being sold on New Year's Day is bureaucracy gone mad, then consider this: in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I put a ban on selling the delicious sweet buns outside Good Friday and Christmas. That's right: for 363 days a year, hot cross buns were not on the menu. And if you were found making the contraband buns on non-religious days? Your buns were confiscated and given to the poor. Elizabeth I – the Robin Hood of hot cross buns.
These days, you can find hot cross buns in bakeries and supermarkets everywhere – and yes, they're available well before Good Friday. For the past two years, in fact, the Baking Association of Australia and the National Baking Industry Association have teamed up to urge bakeries and supermarkets to start selling hot cross buns a maximum of six weeks out from Easter. Despite this, they've been on shelves in Coles and Woolworths since early January.
There's a reason hot cross buns inspire such reverence – their religious roots date back centuries, even millennia. Archaeologists found early prototypes of hot cross buns in the ruins of Herculaneum, believed to date back to AD79. The Egyptians had their own version, marked with a symbol representing the horns of an ox, and the Saxons ate a bun slashed with a cross to symbolise their goddess, Eostre (which many believe is the etymological root of Easter). For ancient Greeks and Romans, the buns were quartered with a cross to represent the four seasons, and during the Middle Ages, the cross was believed to ward off evil spirits. And of course, nowadays, for Christians, the cross represents, well, the cross.
But it's not simply their trademark cross that's associated with religion. Since hot cross buns are made with eggs and butter – two foods traditionally given up for Lent – devotees believe they shouldn't be eaten until Good Friday itself.
Bread baked on Good Friday was believed to be pretty potent stuff, able to protect against danger and even, when grated and mixed with water, to be used as medicine. Hot cross buns were often hung in kitchens or taken on sea voyages as lucky charms, and legend has it, if they're baked on Good Friday, they'll stay fresh for a whole year (legend has it, not science).
Nowadays, the benchmark of a good hot cross bun is simply one that's delicious. But it's easier said than done.
Anneka Manning, author of BakeClass (Murdoch Books) and owner of baking course program Bake Club Australia, says the mark of a great bun is substance. "You want a bun made with strong bread flour, that's been proved and kneaded for a substantial amount of time. With buns like that, you can feel the weight of it in your hand and it won't disintegrate when you eat it."
Spice, says Manning, is a must – a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger is traditional, though bakers also use cardamom and vanilla – but glaze is optional. "I like a sticky, sweet glaze but for me it's not essential," Manning says. The piped cross? That's a non-negotiable – as is a cup of milky tea on the side.
How do you HCB?
While purists swear by a warm bun topped with melted butter, there's more than one way to top your HCB. Here are a few ideas:
The team at Strawberry Fields are partial to Nutella and peanut butter (not at the same time) on their buns.
Make a compound butter from salted butter and macerated berries.
Spread the bun with a thick slab of butter and a slick of kaya (coconut and pandan-flavoured jam) for a twist on the Singaporean/Malaysian breakfast staple kaya toast.
Add a scoop of ice-cream to the middle and call it a hot cross sandwich.