Hot Cross Buns
April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

5 Responses to “Hot Cross Buns”

  1. Anne Says:

    Wow…it’s like we’re sisters or something. I almost wrote a post on hot cross buns today. And I’m planning to make them for the FIRST TIME EVER this weekend, thus breaking my cardinal cooking rule: “Don’t screw with yeast.” But I want them to be a part of my yearly tradition too, so I’m breaking down. We’ll have to compare notes…my recipe is coming from Martha, but due to my similar fondness for the PW, I might have to try hers.

    Anyway, I love this story. I remember when you first told me about it, and I teared up. I tell people this story almost every year, because it’s such a beautiful example of hospitality, openness, and the importance of small details that help us feel at home.

  2. Eva Says:

    This is precious. Kind of unbelievable, what a small gesture or token can do when you’re far from home (or feeling isolated in any way). Oddly, Hot Cross Buns have never been a part of my family’s Easter tradition. Not quite sure how we missed out on that – but last year I added them to my baking repertoire.

    Anne, this made me laugh out loud!! “Don’t screw with yeast.” Hilarious!

  3. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I too am laughing at Anne’s comment about yeast. I do dabble with it, but not always with good results! I’ve never made Hot Cross Buns (played the song many times on the flute as a beginning student…), but might have to borrow a page from your playbook this weekend.

    Gale, your intention here might not have been to provoke thought, but I think this is a very rich piece about the meaning of home (and a nice companion to the one you wrote about a week ago, come to think of it). Thanks for a beautiful essay to read this afternoon, and for the chance to stop and think about many happy Easter seasons.

  4. Emily Says:

    Must. Go. To. Bakery. The thought of those hot cross buns has rendered me completely useless for the rest of the day. Yum! Great story — if only it wasnt Passover. You really can’t do much with Matzah and raisins. Sigh.

  5. Laura H. Says:

    I made Hot Cross Buns for the first time the night before Easter this year. They turned out pretty good (except that you can’t really put the cross on them when they are hot, otherwise your icing runs…so really they were cold cross buns!). This was my first cooking experience with yeast and my bread machine that used to be my grandmother’s bread machine. So I’m proud that I’ve started an Easter tradition at my house that also is a salute to my grandmother’s bread making skills! Thanks to your for this post which inspired by cold cross buns! :)