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Hot Cross Buns from St John

March 29, 2010
by the gentle author

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.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010

    Oh, how could there be comments yet. This is a gem of a post.
    You’ve got me yearning for real Hot Cross Buns. It’s difficult to find them over here in New York. I am going to go on the hunt.

    I also liked your comparing the decoration of the buns to the half-timbered design of buildings. Well done.

    And every one of your notions of how to serve these buns sounds delicious.

    I so enjoy the variety of subjects about which you write.


  2. JohnB permalink
    March 29, 2010

    Mouthwateringly descriptive food writing. It could possibly be sinful to make people salivate so, but I’m sure that at this time of year forgiveness should be in the air as well as bakery aromas….!

  3. Anne permalink
    March 29, 2010

    They could also be compared to old Morris Minor shooting Brakes ! apologies to non Brits .

    (A model of car that had wood trimmings around the back making them look ‘half timbered’)

  4. Lucy permalink
    March 29, 2010

    Not being able to eat chocolate may be a blessing in disguise, being a chocoholic of the worst kind I’m not sure whether to feel relief or fear at the prospect. You have really sold these buns! I am now wondering whether I should try and visit this shop pre Easter. I hope Bramble will not be overeating in the lead up to her big race…she is going to win it.

  5. March 30, 2010

    Cheese with hot cross buns – my Grandfather liked a slice of mature cheddar with his toast and marmalade, its delicious.

  6. March 31, 2010

    Delicious post! My immediate thought was I must dash out and buy some. Then I remembered that I don’t live in London, let alone Spitalfields. Loving your blog.

  7. January 3, 2011

    We Canadians are, apparently, a barbarous bunch – I’ve never seen a hot-crossed bun where the cross wasn’t made of strips of thick, white icing. Certainly would be easier to toast with the cross made out of pastry strips!


  8. January 10, 2011

    lucky you to not like chocolate, i wish i didnt either
    but then, where i live, i dont have hot cross buns like these to replace it
    so i guess i will have to eat chocolate instead!

  9. April 18, 2011

    Damn – I just went to buy my usual, brown sour dough, loaf and thought I’d try a hot cross bun, after one of the waitresses had enthused so much about them… and they weren’t ready!
    Yours is a fantastic review (better even than the St. John Waitress) – I’ll have to try again on Thursday.

  10. Vicky permalink
    June 2, 2011

    When I was a child (50s/60s) we awoke on Good Friday morning to the smell of hot cross buns for breakfast. They were made with yeast so the smell was an heavenly mix of yeast and spices, the most exotic scent or flavour we ever experienced in those days, and these were from the baker, not home made. I still love them but am still looking for those I associate with my childhood. Think you may have found them, Gentle Author.

  11. April 2, 2012

    Being in the midst of a “I am not going to eat chocolate” stint, I too am happily shopping for Hot Cross Buns. I’m with you, the right ones are too good to wait until Good Friday to indulge in. Managed to buy two from The Little Bread Pedlar on Saturday which were gorgeous (Rough Trade may have some if you want to try them). I will definitely be making a purchase or two from St John B & W this week. Justin is a genius.

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