Mum has two English cookery books which she has carried with her wherever we have moved and has referred to all these years whenever she makes traditional dishes like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or scones, or cheese straws. The first one dates from the Second World War, when rationing was in effect and essential ingredients like butter and eggs were hard to come by. The second is a battered old edition of The Penguin Cookery Book by Bee Nilson, which was my source when, one Good Friday in my early thirties, I set out to make hot cross buns.
I am a confident cook when working on the stovetop, but baking is a hit-or-miss operation for me, and I always find the prospect of it rather daunting. Still, I copied out the recipe from Mum’s cookery book, gathered all the ingredients together, and found a warm spot in the draughty farm kitchen for the yeast to rise. A few hours later I emerged, covered in flour from head to toe but triumphantly bearing aloft a tray of piping-hot buns, which were almost instantly demolished by my perennially hungry housemates. I promised myself I’d make them again the following year, and that the next time I’d make a double batch while I was going to all that trouble. I can’t remember now whether or not I ever did go to the trouble again, although I like to think that I did.
Soon afterwards we moved to Amherst, where, after a few years, The Henion Bakery opened its doors, featuring—among its many specialities—jam doughnuts beyond compare, which sustained me through the long years of dissertation-writing. One year, as springtime came around, I visited Henion’s to find a large batch of hot cross buns on the counter, fresh from the oven and perfect in every way, and compared to which my painstaking attempts seemed pitiful. Then and there I ordered a batch, and have done so every year since, never looking back.
The eating of the buns must be heralded by the nursery rhyme, which we sing with glee as we pour the tea and prepare to tuck in; and since I have no daughters, my son has come into a goodly number of these doughy delicacies over the years.
I’m not generally a national chauvinist, but I insist on singing the English version of this song. Having lived in the States as long as I have, I’ve become accustomed to the American versions of many songs, even starting to prefer some of them. But to my ear the American version of “Hot Cross Buns” sounds heavy and plodding, while the English one springs up and down like a bouncing ball, full of life and energy in keeping with the season.