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Hot Cross Buns



Syrniki made and photographed by Ellie Markovitch.


















Just before Easter, my friend Ellie made Ukrainian cheese pancakes Friday night and put this picture of them up on Facebook. I said I wanted some, and within fifteen minutes, a few of them were in my kitchen.

I didn’t even get to see the baker. She was on a quick trip past my house, and my husband went outside when she honked the horn. I ate two sweet ricotta pancakes right away, saving a stray for later. (Take a look at her blog, Story Cooking, and you’ll want her to deliver snacks to you too!)

Later happened the next night, just as I was headed to bed. Putting on my PJs, I realized I hadn’t made hot cross buns yet this year.

The first time I made hot cross buns I was a new mother. I read Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, and got afraid of my son heading to purgatory, as the author feared for his unbaptized twin siblings.

I was raised Catholic, but don’t practice it. My husband was raised agnostic, so there was no chance of baptism. But I was paranoid enough to want to cover some bases, and hungry for traditions, so I made hot cross buns and invited over a bunch of our friends for brunch.

That boy turns 17 tomorrow, and many springs I make hot cross buns. I always use some portion of whole wheat flour, and lots of cardamom. Sometimes I read a few recipes, and pick and choose ingredients and methods. This time I used the recipe from King Arthur flour’s whole grain baking book as a springboard, and the habit of pre-fermenting whole-grain flour I learned from Peter Reinhart and other bakers. Reading about sourdough made me decide to add a pancake.













This was another Facebook phenom. I belong to a group called Bread History and Practice, where a thread on wasting sourdough starter got me thinking about old bread. Growing grains and making flour used to be expensive and labor intensive. Industrialization of farming and baking has made something precious into an anonymous product that’s easy to waste. Modern dumpsters and food pantries full of day-old bread and baked goods would appall people from the mid-1800s or earlier.

Using breadcrumbs and making bread pudding are practical cooking habits that reflect the former value of staple crops. At a baking class last year I met a man who had apprenticed in Germany. One of his jobs was grating day-old bread to use in new dough. A friend of mine makes rye bread from a recipe that includes saving a piece of bread from batch to batch.

These thoughts were in my head as I put together whole-wheat flour and water to pre-ferment for the hot cross buns. Using an overnight or briefer soak of flour, especially whole-grain flour, because of its bran, is common for leavened doughs. Why not add the pancake too?

The move was not just thrifty. It was symbolic. I wanted to gather people together through the buns. I had maple syrup my son Francis had made, and some flour that Andrew Heyn had milled at Elmore Mountain Bread. I was going to bring the bread to Easter dinner at my mother’s house; using ingredients from people I knew would be like drawing them to the table.

I supervise the kitchen at Unity House, where we serve 75 – 150 people lunch seven days a week. We serve breakfast too. Part of what we offer is day-old doughnuts and pastries. Because the ingredients are so cheap, it is more economical for bakeries to make extra rather than run short.

The soup kitchen and food pantry could gather an infinity of bread and baked goods. I wish that we could transform more of this salvage into nutrient dense foods. We make cheese strata sometimes, but I don’t have a herd of apprentices to shred old bread and reuse it.


At home, however, it’s a different story. The pancake Ellie made dissolved into the buns. My family loved them, even those who have no affinity for whole grains, and I have a new way of thinking about baking. Kind of like the end of the week casserole or stew that is made from everything that was dinner all week. Only not as mish-moshy, because of the magic of fermentation working the tastes together. I can try to spin straw into gold.


Beyond Gluten: Understanding Bread’s Bad Rap

Seedlings of my favorite white pastry wheat in the fall.

Seedlings of my favorite white pastry wheat in the fall.


I’ve taken a break from this blog while writing a book about people who are growing and using grain outside of the wheat belts.

I am grateful to all the people who let me see their work and tell their stories of reviving regional grain production. While following flour back to the field, I wrote a lot of articles. Beyond Gluten: Understanding Bread’s Bad Rap, which recently ran on Zester Daily, is a good forecast of what you’ll find in the book. I describe Cornell researcher Lisa Kissing Kucek and her review of the scientific literature published on wheat and gluten.

This fall, Chelsea Green is publishing The New Bread Basket: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf.

In the meantime I’ll keep writing about flour and grains here and on Zester. If you’d like to know when I post stories, please follow this blog.