We’d be slightly remiss if we didn’t begin any discussion of these most familiar of religious sweet breads with the classic children’s joke: what do you get if you pour boiling water down a rabbit hole? Hot cross bunnies.
Thigh-slapper that it is, the gag belies the more brutal aspects of the hot cross bun’s lineage. There is discussion under the bun’s entry in The Oxford Companion to Food of the hot-cross’ ancient origin as a substitute religious offering made in place of blood.
That, of course, was way back when; today, the association is more typically a secular one of oozing hot butter and rich spice, though Good Friday continues to be the day they’re eaten most. The delightfully curmudgeonly Elizabeth David notes, in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery, that some bakers superimpose strips of peel or little bands of ordinary pastry to emphasize the cross. “Both of these methods involve unnecessary fiddling work,” she writes. “Neither, in my experience, is successful. There is no need to worry overmuch about the exactitude of the cross. You have made the symbolic gesture. That is what counts.” Wise words for all bakers to live by, even if the tradition in this country sees the crosses reinforced with a little flour-and-water paste.