Old-fashioned Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns on plate

Hot Cross Buns are a traditional Easter bread. Historically these sweet, spicy buns with lots of embedded currants (or raisins) were a treat as Lent came to a close, and dietary restrictions ended. Bakers have been making Hot Cross Buns for at least a hundred years, and probably much longer. There’s even an old Mother Goose nursery rhyme about them:

Hot-cross buns!
Hot-cross buns!
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot-cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons;
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot-cross buns!

Hot Cross Buns are obviously a food that has had a special place in the hearts of people for many years. So when I came across a recipe for Hot Cross Buns in a 1920 magazine, I decided to give it a try.

Most modern Hot Cross Bun recipes call for either making the cross on top of the buns with icing after they are baked, or making a cross using a flour and water paste prior to baking. The old recipe instead called for scoring the dough with a knife prior to baking to create the crosses on the balls of dough.

Here’s the original recipe:

Recipe of Hot Cross Buns
Source: American Cookery (March, 1920)

The old recipe called for using a compressed yeast cake; I used an envelope of active dry yeast.

The buns were made by first creating a “sponge” with the milk, yeast, sugar, and a little of the flour. This was allowed to rise; then the additional flour and additional ingredients were added before kneading. The dough was then shaped into balls, and the balls of dough were allowed to rise before baking. When I made this recipe, the sponge rose nicely; the balls of dough, not so well. Perhaps I did not place the dough in a warm enough spot – or maybe the ratio of yeast to flour wasn’t quite right, or maybe there was some other issue.

The verdict: The buns were tasty, but not as light as most modern Hot Cross Buns. This may be because of the problems I had with getting the dough to rise properly. If I made Hot Cross Buns again, I’d probably just go with a more modern recipe.

Here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Hot Cross Buns

  • Servings: 15 - 20 buns
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

1 cup warm milk (108-110° F)

1 envelope active dry yeast

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup flour + 2 cups flour (scant) (Either all-purpose flour or bread flour may be used)

2 teaspoons ground nutmeg (or 1 whole nutmeg, grated)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup currants (raisins may be substituted for currants)

1/8 cup citron (optional) (I didn’t use citron.)

1 egg, beaten (1/4 cup water may be substituted for the egg) (I used an egg.)

1 tablespoon sugar + additional sugar to sprinkle on top

In a large bowl dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm milk; add flour and beat until smooth. Cover, and then let this “sponge” rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

In the meantime, in another bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups flour (scant), nutmeg, and salt. Add butter, and stir to combine. Then add the sponge and stir to combine. Place on a floured surface and knead until smooth (about 5 minutes). Near the end of the kneading process, sprinkle currants on the bread dough- about one-fourth at a time – and knead into the dough.

Break off pieces of the dough, each about half the size of an egg, and roll into balls; flatten to about 1/2 inch thick. Put the balls in a greased baking pan(s) (2 9-inch round pans or 1 9 X 13″ rectangular pan). The flattened balls should be about 1/2-inch apart. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size (about 1 hour). Then use a knife to score a cross on the top of each ball of dough.

In a small bowl stir together the beaten egg and 1 tablespoon sugar; then brush the mixture on top of the unbaked buns. Sprinkle with additional sugar.

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Put the baking pan(s) with the buns in oven, and bake 30 minutes (or until lightly browned).


72 thoughts on “Old-fashioned Hot Cross Buns

    1. I enjoyed making the Hot Cross Buns and they have a nice taste – though I probably would tweak the recipe a bit if I made it again.

    1. It’s makes me feel better to know that I’m not the only person having problems with a Hot Cross Buns recipe. 🙂 I’m done making Hot Cross Buns for this year. Time will tell whether I try again next year.

      1. I hadn’t made Hot Cross Buns for years, but I had a yearning for them this year. Even my chef grandson couldn’t tell me what I had done wrong. I followed the recipe, as you did, with results that were not thrilling.

  1. YUM. I want the buns, I do, and have the ditty running in my mind. But now I want the currents to scarf back, one itty bitty one, after the other – instead of chips. Except, grandgirls will have brave the Covids to get them. I need to make your hot cross buns and currents in my hour of need.

    1. I’m enjoying the currents – both those that I mixed into the Hot Cross Buns, and those that I’ve eaten right out of the bag. 🙂 With the current food shortages, I was pleasantly surprised that I actually was able to find them in the store.

    1. I think that you are probably right. Over the past few years, I’ve had difficulty several times successfully making breads from hundred-year-old recipes.

      1. It’s funny. When I was a really young kid, my mom used yeast cakes once in a while. Even when she switched to the packets of dried yeast, she still referred to them as yeast cakes. I’ve seen the giant blocks of yeast, but not the small cakes.

    1. The original recipe called for grating one nutmeg. I don’t think that I’ve ever even seen a nutmeg so googled it to find the equivalent amount. According to the Cook’s Info site:

      1 whole nutmeg yields 2 teaspoons of grated nutmeg.

      So I used 2 teaspoons in the recipe, and I was pleased with the flavor. The Hot Cross Buns tasted similar to other ones that I’ve had the in the past, so I think that it was an appropriate amount of nutmeg.

  2. Our local Wegmans doesn’t even have – any- kind of yeast. The clerk I asked said they can’t get it. I may go online to look. You know how it is, when you can’t get that one ingredient: that is what you crave ; ) I have been looking at yeasted breads, etc all week, and we got up early today to shop…the store had lots of most things, but I didn’t expect a “run” on yeast! Still we are blessed : )

    1. Whew – hopefully they will have yeast soon. I’ve noticed that both flour and yeast are sometimes sold out when I’ve shopped recently. Fortunately one time when I was at the store, they had both, so I bought some.

    1. That’s a good way to describe these buns. They were tasty, but the texture was not as light as I had anticipated. They were more like a scone (which is also good).

  3. They look like scones to me – dense and not at all frou-frou like a glazed yeast doughnut. I was looking for yeast and the store was all out of every kind too. Of course they are also out of flour. I was thinking of getting out the bread machine and making a couple loaves just for some special grilled cheese sandwiches… that project is on hold for now.

    1. Hopefully you’ll be able to find flour and yeast soon. We’ve been using our bread machine. My husband has really been enjoying making fresh bread.

  4. My guess re yeast cakes and 100 years ago is that this would be a half way point between sourdough and the yeast packages of today. Fleischman developed the instant yeast in the late 1800s and before that every risen dough was via sourdough. It would be interesting to know how yeast cakes were made. They may have required more rising time than modern yeast if they were basically dried sd starter.

    1. Thanks for the information. Based upon my limited experiences with hundred-year-old bread recipes, I think that there is a difference between yeast cakes from the early 1900s and modern active dry yeasts. I’ve seen conversion information which says that 1 yeast cake = 1 envelope of active dry yeast; but it doesn’t seem like the conversion is exactly right. Your comment makes me want to learn more about bread-making a hundred years ago, and how the yeast may have differed from modern active dry yeasts.

      1. Hello Again,
        the April 22 on-line Epicurious has an article “Yes, you can swap one yeast for another” and I thought of you, Sheryl! This isn’t exactly what you are looking to investigate, but it is interesting. I never knew this was ok for most recipes.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cross bun… but I’m sure I’d like it! It’s in the bread family … something I’m very fond of.

    1. I think that you’d like Hot Cross Buns. They are a delightful sweet bread – but go with a modern recipe if you decide to make them. 🙂

  6. No hot cross buns for Easter is a bummer. I do like them and look forward to them. I’ve never tried to make them, preferring to buy ones from a local Italian bakery. Your recipe looks good, though.

  7. I cannot believe I’ve never made Hot Cross Buns! They are on my list of recipes that I must try and perhaps will get to them this week. I love nutmeg and am now anxious to give these traditional buns a try! Happy Easter!

      1. Good to know I’m not the only Hot Cross Bun first timer! Always such a bonus when you enjoy making a new recipe and…double bonus when it is tasty! 🙂

    1. I love citron, too; and would have used some when I made this recipe if I’d been able to find it. Around here, citron is only in the stores around the Christmas holidays.

  8. I also was struck by the amount of nutmeg. I do grate my own and never knew how much one would produce. It is quite a lot it seems. I usually just use a quick dusting.

    1. The flavor of the Hot Cross Buns seemed “right” to be me. They had a similar flavor to Hot Cross Buns that I’ve eaten in the past, so I think that Hot Cross Bun recipes probably typically call for a fair amount of nutmeg. An aside: I’m getting very curious about how much ground/grated nutmeg is actually gotten when a whole nutmeg is grated. I may have to buy one to see. For this post, I just went with what I found on a website for the conversion.

      1. I just love the smell when I grate one. Let me know if you ever do grate a whole one. It would be interesting to see the profit margin for preground nutmeg.

        1. I agree – it would be fun to see the profit margin for ground nutmeg. Now I’m wondering about the cost relationship between pepper corns and ground pepper, whole mustard and ground mustard, whole cloves and ground cloves, and so on.

  9. What temperature was your butter when you added it? I wonder if you could have killed the yeast if it was too warm, causing it not to rise…

    1. hmm. . . I don’t think that the butter was the issue. I let the butter soften on the counter, then added it to the dough. I didn’t melt it. Probably the kitchen just wasn’t warm enough. The milk was heated during Phase 1, so the it rose well. But then in Phase 2, no warm ingredients were added, and the temperature may not have been high enough.

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