One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns. Anonymous Bath buns, spice buns, penny buns, Chelsea buns, London buns, currant buns, hot cross buns. . . .
All of these are ``English institutions,'' says Elizabeth David, one of the foremost writers of British cookery. ``Very stodgy ones, too, if you buy them from bakeries,'' she adds.
``A bun may be defined as a small, soft, plump, sweet, fermented cake,'' according to Ms. David's quotes from John Lockwood's 1927 cookbook, ``The Baker's ABC.''
But L. Patrick Coyle, the author of ``World Encyclopedia of Food'' (Facts on File, 1982), gives a more up-to-date definition. According to the book, a bun is ``a small leavened bread, roll, or cake, either square, round or oblong.
``In the US buns are usually unsweetened and used to encase such traditional sandwiches as the hamburger and hotdog.
``Buns in Britain, however, are usually sweetened and come in many varieties, often named after places such as London, Bath and Chelsea,'' the description continues.
Mrs. David says that ``occasionally it is agreeable to bake some of these delicacies at home,'' emphasizing the difference between those made from scratch and the commercial kind.
``Made at home, Bath buns and spice buns are by no means heavy, and hot cross buns, well spiced and fresh from the oven, are entirely delicious,'' she explains.
According to one theory, hot cross buns started as simple spiced fruit buns popular in Tudor days. Other sources trace the bun back to ancient Egypt and Greece.
On the other hand, the bun's origins may be tied to the Saxons, who honored the name of their goddess Estre in the spring with an offering of heavily spiced buns.
The word bun itself is believed to come from the Greeks, who made a small cake called a bous (ox), whose accusative form boun survived as bun.
The Romans, too, had their sacred buns, with crosslike markings believed to have been used simply for easy dividing.
For years in England, bakers were allowed to sell spice cakes and buns only on special occasions ``except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain or forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor.''
So anyone who wanted spice bread and buns at other times of the year had to make them at home until the era of James I, when the laws were discontinued.
If you happen to be a devotee of spiced fruit buns, you might agree that the situation is not much better today than it was in the l7th century, for hot cross buns still aren't available in bakeries except on Good Friday, at least in the United States.
Mrs. David says in her definitive book ``English Bread and Yeast Cookery'' (Viking Press $17.50) that several years ago, in England, her local bakery had no rolls available on Good Friday because the bakery was closed for the holiday, but they had been baked a week in advance so customers could buy them early to put in the freezer until Easter.
This of course is sacrilege to Ms. David, as it is to many good home cooks. She tells another story about a person who decided the adjectives hot and cross applied more aptly to the customer than to the buns.
The solution is to make your own buns at home, of course, although there's no promise of any saving of either money or time. But they are relatively easy to make and well worth the effort.
Baked in the old days on Good Friday and signed with a cross, hot cross buns were believed by early Britons never to get moldy, and often one was hung from the kitchen rafters for the rest of the year.
Marion Cunningham, an American cook, has an easy recipe for hot cross buns, which she describes as ``small, soft, slightly sweet buns with shiny brown tops and a cross cut on top.''
Although most traditional recipes, especially the English ones, insist that the cross must be cut in the top of each bun, some commercial bakeries omit this step and make a simple cross with white frosting.
Here is Mrs. Cunningham's recipe from her book ``The Fannie Farmer Baking Book'' (Knopf, $16.95). Hot Cross Buns 1 package dry yeast 1/4 cup warm water 3/4 cup milk, warmed 1/3 cup sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick or 1/4 cup) butter, softened 2 eggs About 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 1/2 cup currants or raisins 2 tablespoons chopped candied citron
Stir yeast into water and let stand a few minutes to dissolve. Combine milk, sugar, salt, butter, and eggs in large bowl and beat well. Add dissolved yeast and mix thoroughly.
Beat in 1 1/2 cups of the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Cover bowl and let rise about 1 hour, until batter is bubbly and double in bulk.
Add remaining flour and blend well, adding more flour if necessary to make dough firm enough to handle.
Turn onto floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic; knead in raisins and citron during the last minute or so. Put dough in greased bowl, cover, and let rise until double in bulk.
Punch dough down and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Roll out into a rectangle about 14 by 10 inches and 1/2 inch thick.
Cut buns with a round cutter about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. Place about 1 inch apart on greased baking sheets.
Gather up scraps, reroll, and continue cutting until you have used all the dough. Let rise, uncovered, until double in bulk.
Just before baking, use floured scissors to snip a cross in the top of each bun, cutting about 1/2 inch deep.
Bake in preheated 375 degree F. oven for about 15 minutes until tops are golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer to a rack.
Makes about 20 buns.