One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns. Sweet, spice-fragrant, fruit-laced buns have been an essential part of Easter for centuries. In 1592 Elizabeth I decreed that no baker should “make, utter or sell … any spice cakes, buns, biscuits or other spice bread” except at burials, Christmas – and Good Friday. There’s nothing like a ban to sharpen the appetite. 

The cross on the top, originally cut in and now made with a piped-on white paste, is often said to represent the Crucifix. But according to Dr Neil Buttery of The British Food History Podcast, hot cross buns, like eggs, go back much further than Christianity as spring symbols. “The early Christian church slotted itself into festivals and celebrations that already existed.” Spring and the equinox were key pagan festivals which they latched on to as convenient new-life-focussed revels that coincided well with the resurrection theme. 

Likewise, precursors to the hot cross bun have been baked as long as bread, with the loaf marked in four to represent the four seasons of the year or the four phases of the moon – and make it handily easy to break into quarters. Irish soda bread is still made like this, cut with a deep X to let out the devil or protect against evil spirits, depending on the baker. Roman loaves found in Pompeii were scored into eight with a double cross, in much the same way. 

These days, there’s fat chance of bagging a bun for 1p, let alone two a penny. On the upside you won’t have to wait for Good Friday for your bun fix. The bakery aisles are stacked with cellophane packs of HXB – the industry abbreviation – from long before the start of Lent. They come in ever more outlandish variations, but Red Velvet (Tesco) or Banoffee (Marks & Spencer) or the surely sacrilegious Mature Cheddar and Stout (Waitrose) don’t come cheap: you’ll probably be paying 40p or more per bun. Even the cheapest buns I found – a tie between Lidl and Tesco at 99p for six – come in at 16.5p each. 

It’s not all bad, though. In the 1730s, when the one-a-penny, two-a-penny rhyme was first recorded, the old ha’penny you paid for the cheapest bun would be worth around 39p today, according to the Bank of England online inflation calculator. Fast-forward to Easter 1972, when a reader wrote to The Daily Telegraph complaining that they were hot and cross at “being expected to pay 2 1/2p each” for a bun. With the help of the same calculator, I make that at least 27p in today’s money. So you could argue that HXB cost less now than they ever did. 

But how much of a bargain are the cheapo buns? I tasted my way through 14 different classic hot cross buns, comparing sizes and quality to see which ones were worth your money and a lavish layer of butter – not that hot-buttered is the only way to eat them. 

At Gelupo gelato bar in London hot cross buns are stuffed with ice cream, in the style of Italian brioche con gelato – a favourite breakfast food in Sicily, and an idea well worth pinching as it’s the perfect portable Easter pud for us. The gentle sweet spicing is good with savoury food, too – try them sliced crossways into fingers, toasted and spread with chicken liver parfait or cream cheese and herbs.

In my taste test I was looking for a fairly light texture, or at least not stodgy and underbaked, and a proper spice flavour, combined with that gorgeous smell. Good looks scored points too, as most of the buns looked squashed – a telltale sign they’ve been languishing in stacks on the shelves. 

Plenty of fruit is important, well distributed through the bun. All of the producers used soaked fruit, excellent for flavour but a process that makes the raisins, currants and sultanas fragile. When mixed into the dough, probably with an industrial-sized dough hook, they get smashed. 

Only one bun, from northern supermarket chain Booths, seemed to be made with a gently handled dough, making for juicy fruit that pops in your mouth. It’s almost like they’ve been made by a proper baker – and indeed it turns out that family-owned baker Bells of Lazonby in Cumbria is responsible. 

These bonniest of buns aside, all of those I tried tasted good once toasted and buttered, so the cheaper versions are absolutely fine for a weekday tea. 

When you want to up your Easter game, that’s when it’s worth pushing the boat out – absolutely no bans on buns here. 

The value-for-money taste test

Morrisons Hot Cross Buns

£1.15 for six (29p/100g)

Wrinkled looking but not too flat. Tough and chewy with no spice flavour. In date but they taste a bit stale. 

Rating: One out of five stars 

Lidl Rowan Hill Bakery

99p for six (23p/100g) 

Coarse, slightly soapy and bitter spice flavour (I suspect a heavy hand with the clove oil) and a cardboard texture. Not too sweet, though. 

Rating: Two out of five stars 

Co-op Irresistible, Richly Fruited

£1.60 for four (57p/100g)

Very uneven sizing; one bun looks half the size of another. Plenty of fruit but barely any spice smell or flavour. Disappointing.

Rating: Two out of five stars 

The Bakery At Asda Hot Cross Buns

£1.15 for six (27p/100g)

Squarish deep buns with a subtle sheen. They taste doughy and cakey rather than spicy, with fruit congregating on the bottom half. Dull, but would work with some spiced butter.

Rating: Two out of five

Asda Extra Special Extra Fruity Hot Cross Buns

£1.60 for four (48p/100g)

Another doughy-tasting number, which makes them taste underbaked. They taste slightly savoury in a good way; definitely best toasted.

Rating: Two out of five

By Sainsbury’s Hot Cross Buns

£1.40 for six (33p/100g)

These are a bit square, with a wobbly thick cross, but they feel heavy for the size. They are quite chewy and have a gentle hint of spice, but there’s just a suggestion of soapiness.

Rating: Three out of five

Iceland Hot Cross Buns 

£1 for four (31p/100g)

Untidy looking, but generously deep. Sweet with a pleasing clove flavour, and if they are not the most tender they get kudos for being palm oil free. 

Rating: Three out of five stars 

M&S Food Luxury Fruited Hot Cross Buns

£2 for four (64p/100g)

These sticky buns are rather squashed and flat, but there’s lots of fruit in evidence. They have a tender texture and there is a nice spice balance, with cinnamon to the fore.

Rating: Three out of five (they lose a point for being so squashed)

Lidl Deluxe Luxury Hot Cross Buns

£1.39 for four (46p/100g)

I’d like a little more shine on the tops but they have a pleasant springy texture and nice spice. Slightly tough, though.

Rating: Three out of five

Aldi Specially Selected Luxury Fruited Hot Cross Buns

£1.29 for four (43p/100g)

Dark, shiny-but-not-sticky buns with a good depth. They deliver a pleasant orange flavour. The fruit inside is a bit broken up. Just a bit tough for a “luxury” bun.

Rating: Three out of five

Tesco Hot Cross Buns

99p for six (23p/100g)

Dull and a bit wrinkled, but pretty good looking despite being flat. The fruit has clumped at the bottom of the buns but there is a pleasingly marked spiciness. Not the most tender, but for the price they are reasonably value.

Rating: Three out of five

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Fruity Hot Cross Buns

£1.50 for four (53p/100g) 

Plump looking, with a neat narrow cross. Gently spiced and perfumed – ingredients include sandalwood, geranium and bergamot oil.

Rating: Four out of five stars 

Morrisons The Best Extra Fruity Hot Cross Buns

£1.59 for four (51p/100g)

Looks-wise these are wrinkled and wobbly, but they have a great sticky glaze and are spice-scented, citrus-spiked and generous with the fruit. Clove and nutmeg lingers; they’re just slightly tough.

Rating: Four out of five

Booths Hot Cross Buns 

£1.50 for four (52p/100g)

Beautiful-looking buns, nicely domed like you’d find in a good baker. Very tender and light with juicy pops of fruit. Not overly rich and subtly spiced. I’d eat these with cinnamon butter. 

Rating: Five out of five stars 

What's your favourite brand of hot cross buns? Tell us in the comments below

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