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It’s a Good Friday Food Fight: Tasting a seasonal treat at A Friend Who Bakes and Publix.

Happy Easter Weekend! Or, as it’s known in some households: Happy Hot Cross Bun Season!

My household, at least. My husband seeks out hot cross buns as soon as they’re available — which is not for long, if at all, because they are a strictly seasonal item. He grew up eating them at this time of year, so they bring back culinary memories.

Today — Good Friday — is the day on which the buns were originally meant to be consumed, because their symbolism and even their ingredients were representations of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. The significance of the cross on top of the bun — sometimes created with flour paste, sometimes with icing — is self-evident, but the spices are also symbolic, signifying the spices used to embalm Christ’s body.

A tray of hot cross buns from Publix.

Judging by Wikipedia and other sources, hot cross buns seem to have been unusually controversial for a bakery item. Among the edicts and disputes:

• During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth 1 and her successor, James 1, the London Clerk of Markets issued a decree forbidding the sale of hot cross buns and other spiced breads, except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas.

• In 2007, according to London’s Daily Express, a hospital manager in Dorset “banned Easter hot cross buns for patients for fear of offending ethnic minorities.” According to the paper, no Muslims, Jews or Buddhists reported being offended.

• Many superstitions surround hot cross buns. One dubious claim: If you bake and serve them on Good Friday they won’t spoil or grow moldy for a whole year. (I do not suggest trying this at home.)

• Another superstition: A hot cross bun, taken on a sea voyage or hung in the kitchen, will protect against shipwrecks and fires. If only the bakers on the Titanic had known…

All that being said, hot cross buns seemed a timely subject for today’s Friday Food Fight. The contenders: A Friend Who Bakes, the wonderful little bakery in Gulfport, where the buns had to be ordered in advance (a dozen for $25), and Publix, where they are ubiquitous this time of year ($5.69 for 9).

Since this is a holiday weekend, when family gatherings abound, I organized a family-style Friday Food Fight. No, not that kind of fight (there was no hurling of buns). We just tasted them family-style — first, with my Registry Tampa Bay office family, then via the family of RTB office manager Audrey CampBell, who filed their reviews from home, and finally with my husband, the hot cross bun aficionado. I adjusted the format accordingly, to capture the tasters’ comments as they happened.

At the office

Ready for taste-off: Publix.

After each of us had been given a sampling plate, with one bun from Publix and one from A Friend Who Bakes, the discussion began.

Tom duPont, publisher and CEO: “Which is the smaller one with the very white icing?” 

That was the Publix version. As the photos show, the two styles of bun were markedly different. The bakery’s was made in the more traditional style (flour paste to make the crosses, I believe, instead of icing) and the Publix buns, smaller and shinier, used thin strips of icing to make the cross.

Molly duPont, Sales Manager (tasting the Publix bun):  “I like it, it’s sweet.”

Tom (on A Friend Who Bakes): “It doesn’t have as much fruit as the Publix.”

The Publix buns were in fact like little fruitcakes, with bits of cherries, pineapple and raisins. A Friend Who Bakes used only raisins (which again is more traditional, though in the UK they would more likely have been currants).

David (trying to eat the cross on the bakery version): “That’s not very good, is it?”

Tradition may have played a role, but the flour-paste cross had a plasticky consistency and peeled off in pieces (perhaps you’re supposed to remove it?).

Molly on the bun from A Friend Who Bakes: “It’s more savory, has more of a spice taste. If you were having a traditional Easter meal with ham and green bean casserole, the bakery one would work.”

Ready for taste-off: A Friend Who Bakes.

Audrey (who didn’t think she’d ever had a hot cross bun before): “The bakery [version] is more appealing because it doesn’t have as much in it. It has a fall flavor — allspice or maybe nutmeg.” Though she found the bakery version “just a bit drier” than the Publix, she concluded, “Overall I’d pick the bakery.”

The final group verdict was summed up by Tom:

“The Publix one is breakfast, the bakery one is dinner.”

At the CampBells

“My family had the same remarks. Publix was sweeter and good for brunch. The other one was dry but good, and would be better after a meal with coffee.”

And the winner of this Good Friday Food Fight is:

The contenders.

It’s a draw.

Both buns had something to recommend them; both were a bit disappointing. The Publix brand was sweet and moist and yes, a nice breakfast treat, but its list of ingredients — along with wheat flour and fruits – was a roll call of chemicals (sodium benzoate as a preservative, titanium dioxide for the color of the vanilla icing, etc.). While A Friend Who Bakes’ whatever-it-was cross didn’t pass muster, the bun overall had a more subtle taste, with spicy afternotes that lingered pleasantly — with the natural, homemade quality of something from the kitchen of, well, a friend who bakes.

As for the recommendation of my husband, the hot cross bun fan, he summed it up this way:

“Get your hot cross buns at Fresh Market.”

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