Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Get 'em while you can

Hot cross buns are rollin' out for Easter

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Get 'em while you're able, get 'em while you can. One-a-penny, two-a-penny, Hot cross buns! That's what we used to sing-song back in Edmonton when hot cross bun season rolled around.

Not that the words were right, but the sentiment was what mattered in our half-English/Irish family. The thing was, Easter was hot cross bun heaven, so we gobbled them up even if it meant singing about them with our mouths stuffed full.

I loved hot cross buns then, whether I ate one straight up, starting with the sticky top, or was served one more graciously by my mom Easter morning — piping hot, smeared with butter and toasted to golden perfection under the broiler. I love them even more now. Give me a perfect hot cross bun over a perfect chocolate egg.

Being one of the "pip-pip" colonies and all that, Canadians celebrate the hot cross bun as much — maybe more than? — Brits do, even though England is the geographic epicentre of hot cross buns. As for their history, it goes back since, well, maybe since before recorded history.

The hot cross bun nursery rhyme millions of kids know, some of them tinkling it out on the piano as their first piece, and the one we bastardized above, goes back to the 1700s. The real version goes like this: "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!"

The prices refer to one penny for one big bun or for two smaller ones. This, more or less, was the song of street vendors who sold them out of baskets.

The heyday for hot cross bun street sellers in London was Victorian times. According to recipe.co.uk, a great source for British and Irish recipes and historical backstories of same, Charles Dickens waggishly pondered the economics of hot cross bun vendors this way:

"Who these vendors are, whence they come, and what is their occupation on the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, are questions left somewhat in mystery; for the people are evidently not all connected with the baking trade. That the buns are all hot, that they are crossed, that they are 'one a penny, two a penny,' are facts asserted in a very determined and unanimous way by the vendors. And herein is suggested a speculation — why are hot cross buns always the same price? Do we get an advantage when flour is cheap in the market; and if not, why not?"

An even earlier version of the rhyme goes like this: "Good Friday comes this month — the old woman runs/With one- or two-a-penny hot cross buns/Whose virtue is, if you believe what's said/They'll not grow mouldy like the common bread."

This ditty describes the ancient superstition of making a cross on the tops of baked goods to keep them fresh. According to recipe.co.uk, long before the medieval expansion of religion and ceremony into everyday life, bakers had been making a cross on breads, cakes and buns in the belief it would ward off the evil spirits that made things go mouldy.

Earlier names for the buns were Good Friday buns or, simply, cross buns. Good Friday buns were made and eaten on Good Friday. One might even be hung in the centre of the room to ward off those ubiquitous bad spirits.

Another good source, You Eat what You Are: People, Culture and Food Traditions, says that the idea of a roundish bun made this time of year and divided on top with a cross goes back even further, to pagan times. The round bun represented the sun; the cross divided the bun into four sections representing the four seasons.

So there you go. Like most good things, hot cross buns transcend religious and cultural boundaries. Christians and non-Christians alike can get excited about hot cross buns, however they're made. And recipes do vary.

The Irish at Easter traditionally made Easter biscuits with currants, grated lemon rind and egg yolks. In historic England, you had everything from simple, ale-yeast dough made with eggs and caraway seeds coated in sugar to more complex recipes with currants and cinnamon. One recipe even used saffron.

Today in Sea to Sky corridor you can find many variations, all trying to please us fussy customers with as many varied tastes as there are recipes.

"What people want is what they grew up with," says Paula Lamming, co-owner of Purebread Bakery in Function Junction. (Bet you can't wait for their new location in Olympic Plaza in Whistler Village to open up this summer.)

Paula hates to disappoint, so they do up a more traditional hot cross bun with traditional spices and dried fruits — currants and citrus — interpreted in their own Purebread style, with the bakers even rolling and tediously placing the crosses by hand when they must. But Purebread's also known for breaking out of the box, so they do up a chocolate sour cherry version that combines the best of Easter treats.

Up in Pemberton, Raven Burns, who co-owns Blackbird Bakery, has adapted a simple, traditional recipe from Alton Brown of Food Network fame.

"It had a great sweetness, and it was a soft dough but it wasn't squishy soft, where it felt like you were eating white bread," she says. Spices are traditional — a lovely, fragrant mix, from coriander to cloves — and the cross is made with whipping cream and confectioner's sugar. Another unique touch: the amazing butter from grass-fed cows in New Zealand they have shipped in in 25-pound blocks.

Sunflower Bakery Café in Squamish might offer the best combo of traditional and non- in their delicious buns, using cinnamon, almond flavouring and rum — yes, rum! Their fruits of choice are sultana raisins and that gaily coloured bakers' rainbow mix of candied turnip and citrus peel, with a cross made of custard.

"We make over 300 buns a day — and we started a month ago, they're so popular," says Sunflower owner, Mo Janmohamed. Many of those hundreds of buns go to Whistler, via the IGA, Nesters Market and Whistler Cooks Catering.

As for my own favourite hot cross buns, I can't choose. But I swear the last ones I wolfed down had a hint of cayenne. Happy Easter eating!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's addicted to hot cross buns.