How to make historic Hot Cross Buns

Paul and co making hot cross buns

We could have gone out to the shops and bought Hot Cross Buns.  But where is the fun in that? As Jane Grigson told us.

“Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow food colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now doughy filler for children.”

Jane Grigson, author of my favourite food history book English Food in 1974. True in 1974 and true now.  Below is the research I carried out to give the Hot Cross Bun course!


I started with Jane Grigson’s recipe in “English Food”, they were delicious. Indeed so delicious that I photographed them to promote the course.

Ingredients for Jane Grigson’s Hot Cross buns

First the basic dough:

  • 500g strong plain flour
  • 1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 level teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 level teaspoon mixed spice
  • ½ teaspoon ground mace
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 30g (1oz) fresh yeast
  • 60g (2oz) caster sugar
  • 150ml (¼ pint) milk
    150ml (¼ pint) boiling water
  • 1 egg lightly beaten
  • 90g (3oz) raisins
  • 60g (2oz) candied chopped peel
  • beaten egg
  • 60g (2oz) sugar
  • 5 tablespoons water

Put flour and salt into a large warmed mixing bowl. Crumble the yeast into a pudding basin, and add 1 heaped spoonful of the sugar and 125g (4oz) of flour from the bowl. Pour the milk into a measuring jug, and make up the 250ml (8oz) of liquid with boiling water straight from the kettle. With a wooden spoon mix this hot liquid into the yeast, flour and sugar – go slowly to make as smooth a batter as possible: leave it in a warm place to rise and froth up – this takes about 15 minutes, or a little longer. Meanwhile, mix the rest of the sugar with the flour, and rub in the butter. Form a well in the centre, and put in the egg and the frothy yeast mixture. Mix to a dough with a wooden spoon. Turn it out onto a floury surface and knead for 10 minutes, adding more flour as required, until the dough is a coherent, slightly rubbery ball, with a moderately tacky, but not sticky texture. Any dough on your fingers should rub off easily.

Wash, dry and grease the large mixing bowl with a piece of butter paper. Place the dough in it. Cover with a damp cloth, or put the whole thing inside an oiled polythene bag. Leave to rise to double its quantity. This can take anything from 1 to 12 hours depending on the temperature.

Break down the risen dough, and knead in the fruit and the peel. Roll the dough into a long sausage shape on a floured surface, and cut it down into 18 discs. Shape them into round buns, and then place them on baking sheets lined with Bakewell paper – leave them plenty of room to rise and spread in the baking. Roll out the almond paste or shortcrust pastry and cut it into thin strips. Brush the buns with beaten egg and lay 2 strips on each bun to form a cross. Leave the buns to prove about 30 minutes; then bake them for 10-15 minutes at mark 8, 230 degrees (450 F).

Boil bun wash sugar and water together until syrupy. Brush this over the hot cross buns as they come out of the oven. Leave to cool.

Go authentic

But this wasn’t enough. I wanted to go authentic. I had been chatting on the Regency Town House’s Facebook page and there was a real demand for a proper authentic recipe. I was, after all, holding the course in a historic kitchen. I decided to go online and find a recipe from a time when the Regency Town House was in its prime as a prestigious family residence.

There is a wonderful resource called the Wellcome Library. I found a reference to it in Mary-Anne Boerman’s book “Great British Bakes”.

The Wellcome Library allows online access to historic cookbooks and here you can discover recipes in their original form. I strongly recommend it.

I discovered this recipe mentioning Hot Cross Buns from 1831.

I worked out that wet sugar was dark brown sugar, and moist sugar was light brown sugar.

I made the recipe in total 3 times. It had to be done, from start to finish in 3,5 hours, the length of the course. Every time I made it the buns didn’t rise enough. I suspected the butter made the dough too dense. I think they needed to be proved for longer, longer than I had calculated for the course.

They were delicious. I knew that the large quantity of spice was a winner. Jane Grigson is not as bold as the cook in this earlier recipe. If you want to make them please try.  I think that the proving times just need to be a lot longer.  I suspect that the relatively large amount of butter slows down the yeast.  If you succeed with this recipe I’d love to know.

Hot cross buns ready to bake

Playing safe

The next place I looked was back to Mary-Anne Boermans. In her book “Great British Bakes” she had a wonderful recipe for Hot Cross Buns. She argued that bakers would often simply adapt a bun recipe to make it into a Hot Cross Bun recipe. After all, buns were not available all year round, as they are now, and it would make sense to adapt a tried and tested bun recipe.

Here is the final recipe.  This is the recipe that I tested and tested.

  • 250g strong white flour
  • 1/2 sachet fast action yeast (7g in a whole packet)
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp allspice powder
  • 30g caster sugar
  • a pinch of pepper (ground)
  • pinch of salt
  • 35g of butter
  • 1/2 egg
  • 75ml boiling water
  • 75ml whole milk
  • 30g of candied peel (lemon or orange)
  • 30g sultanas
  • 30g currants
  • pastry for making the crosses
  • 1 egg (beaten) for the eggwash
  • 4 tbsp water
  • 4 tbsp sugar

Warm your mixing bowl by swirling it with hot water and then drying it.  Add the flour, yeast, spices, sugar, pepper and salt.

Cut butter into tiny cubes and add to the dry ingredients.  Rub with your fingers until the butter is incorporated and the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg.

Put 75ml boiling water into a measuring jug and add milk to make 150ml of liquid.  Add this lukewarm liquid to the bowl.

Using a spoon mix until the mixture comes together.  Sprinkle flour onto your work surface and tip the soft dough out.  Knead for 10 minutes.

Cover the dough with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave for an hour somewhere warm for an hour, it should have doubled in size, if it hasn’t left until it does.

Turn out the dough onto your work surface. Add the fruit and the peel. As you knead in the fruit, the dough will reduce in size, this is normal.

Return to the bowl and let the dough prove again for another hour.

Line your tin with baking paper.

Divide your dough into pieces of about 50-60g.  I tend to do this with scales.  If you don’t mind different shapes and are impatient a quick way is to simply divide the dough into roughly equal pieces.

Put the buns into your tin, leaving space between them to allow them to expand.

Make a simple pastry. Roll out the pastry and cut it into thin strips. Beat up an egg and brush onto the buns with a pastry bush. This will help the pastry stick to the buns and give a dark brown colour when baked.  Form pastry crosses on the buns.

These buns will now have a third rise.  This time for 30 minutes.

This is a good time if you are doing the course at the Town House, to explore the basement and see the small, dark pastry room.  Just imagine having to make your buns there!

After 30 minutes the buns can be baked.  18-20 minutes 180oc/gas 4. When ready lift one of the buns and tap its bottom, close to your ear, it should sound hollow.  If not give it a minute or so longer and test again until ready.

While the buns are baking put the sugar into the water and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved.

Using a pastry brush cover the buns (while still hot) with the bun glaze.

Let the buns rest for 10 minutes then you can eat.

The volunteers upstairs got used to the smell of baking hot cross buns that wafted around the Regency Town House.

We made biscuits on the course while we were waiting for the dough to rise.  In addition, I gave guided tours of the Town House so the participants could see around the Town House, for many it was the first time that they had visited.

Hot cross buns and daffodils