There used to be a time, not that long ago, when a hot cross bun was a relative mystery or even a practical unknown to Americans. Much like Italian panettone during the winter holidays, the semi-sweet, single-serving bread seemed like something only members of the British Isles and the larger Commonwealth enjoyed during the Easter holidays, if it was acknowledged or recognized at all. This year, though, during the month of April in the U.S., hot cross buns were everywhere, made by bakeries across the country, and celebrated for their divine flavor and unique contribution to Easter celebrations. Finally, after decades of mystery, hot cross buns seemed to have crossed over.
What is a hot cross bun? It’s an enriched yeasted bread made with warming spices, dried fruit, and a little bit of sugar. Slightly sweeter than a dinner roll, the individual buns are mild and great for breakfast, toasted and slathered with butter. They are traditionally eaten on Good Friday following Easter as a way to signify the end of Lent. But the most important detail of all is that hot cross buns must feature a cross on top, made from a paste of flour and water, an approach that was meant to represent the Crucifixion, but is now largely devoid of religious meaning if that’s not your bag. It just looks right, and a hot cross bun would not be a hot cross bun without it. In some places, this cross is made with a confectioners’ sugar mixture, but that may raise some eyebrows among purists.
In the U.K. during Easter, hot cross buns are all over. (And if you’re lucky, you’ll see them everywhere all year round, too.) But in 2022, it felt like something changed, and they were landed triumphantly in America, too. Bakeries and businesses like Frenchette in New York, King Arthur Baking, NYT Cooking, Ravelin Bakery in Denton, Texas, Fork restaurant in Philly, Baddie Nattie Bakes in Fountain View, CA, and many more joined in promoting their approaches to the traditional British baked good.
Carla Finley, the baker and owner of Apt. 2 Bread, sold hot cross buns this year through Prospect Butcher Co. in Brooklyn. “I made them last year for the butcher shop simply because they asked me to and I was like... hm, okay!” Finley says, a little perplexed by the request. “It wasn’t until they asked me to do them in 2022 that I noticed other bakeries were doing them.” It dawned on Finley this spring that hot cross buns had suddenly become a thing; over Easter weekend this year, she quickly sold out of all her 100 percent sourdough, not too sweet, perfectly flaky and spiced spiced buns. “People love them,” she says.
Though the baked goods have taken off in the U.S., some think there may still be a ways to go for some bakeries to replicate the traditional British style — but then the possibilities are endless. “Now I see them in the supermarkets here, I see them in bakeries. A lot of times what I see, at least in the U.S., are buns that feel like brioche,” Genevieve Ko, deputy editor of NYT Cooking, says in a recipe video published in the middle of April on the NYT Cooking channel. “The hot cross buns I remember first having in England were much more like buns. Stretchy dough, chewy buns. They were a little sweet, but they weren’t super sweet.”
Once bakeries in America nail the recipe, the hope is that it’s possible that hot cross buns will not only cross over for Easter — but for holidays all year round. The flavor is mild enough, the potential preparations versatile enough, and the cross element technically applicable all year round (right…) that a hot cross bun is actually a pretty great breakfast option no matter the season or occasion. “[It’s] definitely an Easter trend,” Finley says about her hot cross buns, but with enough demand, “I would consider doing them on other holidays as well.” A pastry case filled year-round with croissants, banana bread slices, and hot cross buns? Now that would be worth believing in.