Like the monarchy, high tea and roundabouts, hot cross buns are a British obsession that registers only mildly this side of the pond. For Brits and others raised in Commonwealth nations like Australia and South Africa, hot cross buns instantly summon memories of the Easter season. The semisweet rolls have initiated an annual debate across these countries similar to the Christmas music argument in the States: The beloved seasonal treats seem to appear earlier and earlier each year. Recently, a London company even launched a hot cross bun-flavored gin.
What gives? Are these Easter specialties worthy of such, as the British might say, foofaraw?
Like many things, when it comes to hot cross buns, the good ones are great, and the mediocre ones may turn you off forever. In Atlanta, luckily, there are some great ones to be had — specifically, the hot cross buns made at Australian Bakery Cafe, which has locations in Marietta and Cumming.
“It’s not a pastry,” said Wendy Beyer, a co-owner of the cafe and an Australian expat. She went on to explain what qualifies a hot cross bun as the real thing. “It’s a bread, so it’s yeast raised and it has sugar in it, then the spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice. Then it’s raised before you bake it.”
Beyer is a strict traditionalist, and that’s the key to her bakery’s hot cross buns. Beneath a light glaze, they have a flaky, bronzed crust. The interior is soft and springy, with the unmistakable flavor of yeast-leavened dough. Sprinkled throughout is a combination of currants and raisins, both dark and golden.
Hot cross buns are steeped in tradition and allegory, yet the origins of hot cross buns are shrouded in mystery. Now associated with Easter, they have likely been eaten in the U.K. since before the Church of England was founded.
Today, each element of the hot cross bun has a meaning associated with the Christian celebration of Easter. The cross represents Jesus’ crucifixion, while the spices represent the elements used to embalm his body. However, some scholars theorize that the cross atop the spiced buns originally had a Celtic meaning: The equal-length bars of the Celtic cross represent the intersection of the Earth and Divinity. Further, the ancient Greeks may have marked their cakes with a cross on top.
Hot cross buns are only semisweet because the sugar in the dough feeds the yeast that causes the dough to rise. The finished bread has hardly any residual sugar, making it an “appropriate” Lenten dessert in its non-decadence. The spices should be the dominant flavor, and the cross on top of the bun is traditionally made of a flour and water paste applied before baking. In the U.S., the cross is often made with icing. Originally meant to be served on Good Friday, they are now sold throughout the Easter season and, in some places, even year-round.
The debate about when hot cross buns should be served has raged for centuries: In 1592, Elizabeth I forbade their sale except on Christmas, Good Friday and at funerals.
In Atlanta, hot cross buns have an ironic level of availability — only a few places make them, and only for a short time, yet they always seem to be sold out. Some bakeries, like Proof Bakeshop and Alon’s, will be baking them only during Holy Week, the week before Easter. (Easter falls on April 1 this year.) If you’re interested in exploring the tradition yourself, here are several Atlanta-area bakeries where hot cross buns are available — until they’re sold out.
Australian Bakery Cafe
This bastion of Australian culture also serves one of the best, most traditional examples of the hot cross bun in Atlanta. In fact, they ship their buns all over the country and even internationally. Exceedingly traditional, these hot cross buns are baked with great care and attention to detail. The traditional preparation makes these buns less sweet than others on this list, but excellent, well-rounded snack breads overall.
Australian Bakery Cafe. 48 S. Park Square, Marietta, 678-797-6222, and 101 Colony Park Drive, Cumming, 678-679-7137, australianbakerycafe.com.
Proof Bakeshop/Bread & Butterfly
Chef Billy Allin will be serving hot cross buns the week leading up to Easter at his bakery, Proof Bakeshop. Miniaturized versions will also be served during Easter brunch at Bread & Butterfly, his Inman Park cafe and bistro. While the Proof version of hot cross buns is Americanized with an icing cross on top, they are made from scratch with yeast-leavened dough.
Proof Bakeshop. 100 Hurt St. NE, Atlanta. 678-705-3905, www.proofbakeshop.com.
Bread & Butterfly. 290 Elizabeth St. NE, Atlanta. 678-515-4536, bread-and-butterfly.com.
Henri’s makes a hot cross bun that straddles the line of history and new-age. Traditionalists will appreciate the pleasing, round shape of these buns and the mild sweetness of the dough, but they might scoff at the sugary glaze and icing cross on top. These buns are flatter and have less of the yeasty flavor than versions that are proofed longer, but they have a pleasant crumbliness that makes them especially tasty when warm. Henri’s adds candied fruit to its hot cross buns, so there are chewy bits of color throughout.
Henri’s Bakery. 2310 Coronet Way, Atlanta, 404-968-9412; 56 E. Andrews Drive NW, Atlanta, 404-237-0202; and 6289 Roswell Road NE, Atlanta, 404-256-7934, henrisbakery.com.
Alon’s Bakery & Market
To get hot cross buns from Alon’s, you’ll have to order from its Easter catering menu. The landmark Atlanta bakery approaches its buns similarly to Henri’s Bakery — with a nod to tradition and some updates for modern American tastes. The Alon’s version of hot cross buns does have added sugar, but eschews a glaze for a more classic egg wash, which gives the buns a nicely browned exterior. Inside, you’ll find currants, raisins and orange peel for an extra kick. The buns are topped with a cross made of icing, so they should appeal to anyone looking for a sweet Easter treat.
Alon’s Bakery & Market. 1394 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta, 404-872-6000, and 4505 Ashford Dunwoody Road NE, Atlanta, 678-397-1781, alons.com.
The omnipresent grocery chain sells hot cross buns as a seasonal bakery item. While the Publix Bakery apparently only read the Cliffs Notes version of hot cross bun history, its buns are still quite enjoyable. A friend noted that Publix’s hot cross buns seem more like King’s Hawaiian rolls with icing crosses added on, which is basically the case. Light on spices and fruit and heavy on sweetness, these hot cross buns are doubtful to transport you to memories of Easter in London. But they’re pretty tasty, and my wife and I ended up eating the whole pan of nine buns in just a few days.
Publix Bakery. Multiple locations,publix.com.
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