Hot Cross Buns from St John
For reasons that do not merit explanation, I cannot eat chocolate – which means that Easter celebrations revolve instead around baking, Simnel Cakes, Easter biscuits and especially Hot Cross Buns. This weekend, Justin Piers Gellatly at St John Bread & Wine in Commercial St baked the first Hot Cross Buns of the season, but I almost forgot on Saturday morning because I was too preoccupied sitting in bed watching the Blue Tits flying in and out of the birdbox outside my window. Then, in over-affectionate playfulness, Mr Pussy, who is moulting his Winter coat now and getting frisky, succeeded in drawing blood from my fingers with his sharp claws as I was pulling my socks on, before I ran over to St John to get my hands on a couple of the hotly anticipated buns.
The lovely pair of buns fitted snugly inside a small brown paper bag from St John, clenched in my sweaty fist as I made my way home to enjoy them with a cup of tea, before the rain clouds burst upon Spitalfields. I think there is an archetypal perfection to the archaic criss-cross design of Hot Cross Buns that is the bakery equivalent of those Elizabethan half-timbered buildings. Even as I unrolled my crumpled bag to admire them, an aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg greeted me, a scent that drifted through the house as I sliced up my precious buns and put them under the grill.
Purists might expect me to wait until Good Friday for Hot Cross Buns (first recorded under this name in 1733) as symbols of the Christ’s crucifixion, while Pagans enjoy them as mystic illustration of the four quarters of the moon, the symbol of the goddess Eostre. Whichever way you choose to look at it these buns are delicious toasted on one side with a little butter.
There is a chunkiness about these specimens from St John that is especially satisfactory, with the cross applied in sweet chewy dough speckled with nutmeg and the whole thing glazed nicely to catch the Spring sunshine. I have been disappointed sometimes with Hot Cross Buns that are too insubstantial, the ones you buy at the bakery in four or six and they get squashed flat if something gets put on top of them in the shopping basket, before dissolving like Spring clouds into cotton wool upon first bite.
On Saturday, there was no disappointment in the air as I bit into the buns that have real substance. The sweet fluffy texture of the spicy dough is enlivened with raisins and candied fruit, and contained by the thin glazed sugary crust that has just enough bite to be interesting without ever becoming challenging, while the whole thing is offset by delicious thick strips of chewy pastry that make the cross. Sweet but not too sweet, spicy but just spicy enough and substantial without becoming heavy – Justin Piers Gellatly has excelled himself again, demonstrating exemplary judgement in balancing all the qualities of the Alchemical mix that go to make the perfect Hot Cross Bun.
On Sunday afternoon, I returned to St John and left again with another small brown paper bag clenched in my fist containing two more Hot Cross Buns. This time I ate my buns untoasted and with a little Spring Rhubarb jam, providing a refreshing fruity contrast to the chewy dough, perfectly suiting the brief spell of sunshine that accompanied my Sunday tea. Now I have a week of potential ahead of me. A Hot Cross Bun with a slice of cheese is an old favourite and, moving beyond that, I can add Blackcurrant jam to the slice of mature Cheddar on my Hot Cross Bun. You can be reassured, I have accommodated to the lack of chocolate in my Easter celebration magnificently, without any significant gap in the densely woven tapestry of my personal existence in Spitalfields.