Do cheese and onions belong in a hot cross bun?

By Jogai Bhatt of RNZ

If you're a hot cross bun purist who thinks it's wrong to mess with the traditional favourite, you probably shouldn't read this story.

While chocolate-studded or fruit-free sourdough or brioche hot cross buns are becoming common, a Taranaki bakery has found a way to push the boundaries even further by producing a cheese and onion version containing onion powder, onion flakes and "a very nice Dutch cheese".

Philip Yarrow, executive director of Yarrows The Bakers in Manaia, says it's all about exploring new flavours, and what constitutes a hot cross bun is simply "in the eye of the beholder".

"It's not up to us to decide what can and can't be an Easter bun," Yarrow says.

"What we're trying to do is bring a bit of fun to it. Sometimes that ruffles a few feathers, but we probably enjoy that."

It's not the first time the Taranaki bakery has dabbled in unusual hot cross buns - it also makes them flavoured with white chocolate and raspberry, apple and chocolate-cinnamon, sticky date salted caramel, chocolate mud cake, fruit brioche, and Yarrow's personal favourite, rocky road.

"I guess what we're trying to do is, when shoppers are walking past our products, they'll see our different variants and every now and then, a flavour like cheese and onion will stop them in their tracks and they'll be like, 'what the hell is going on here?'

Hot Cross buns now come in cheese and onion flavour
Hot Cross buns now come in cheese and onion flavour. Photo credit: RNZ / Supplied

"It's a skew for a talking point and we're seeing more and more of those requests coming through from the retailers, because they want a variant that's gonna bring in some attention. The purists aren't too happy when these come out but it's turned into a bit of a competition between manufacturers both here and in Australia of who can come up with the craziest Easter bun offering."

Is this a step too far? Sacrilegious to the name of Easter? Alby Hailes, the 2021 winner of The Great Kiwi Bake Off, says it's "tricky" to know just yet.

"I guess it comes down to analysing the history books and what actually makes a hot cross bun, a hot cross bun. Is it the cross, is it the spices thought to symbolise the embalming of Jesus?

"When does edging away from tradition eventually result in a product that really has nothing to do with the original? These cheese and onion fellows appear to be of the opinion that any old bun with a cross on it can be called a hot cross bun."

Hailes says he prefers to keep things "relatively classic" - opting for a traditional hot cross bun with a feijoa glaze. He says ultimately, Easter is more about whānau and connection.

"It's not what's inside the hot cross bun that matters, but the love and symbol behind it. I think breaking bread as a whānau at Easter should be prioritised."

Naomi Toilalo, baker and author of bilingual cookbook Whānaukai, feels far more strongly about the unconventional cheese and onion bun.

"To me, a hot cross bun is not savoury, for one," Toilalo says.

"I think those flavours sound like they should be in a scone or a cheese scroll, personally. The best kind of hot cross bun should have lots of spice in it. I like the idea of it being filled with something - but something that complements spice, not cheese and onion, that's just weird to me."

RNZ Auckland's neighbours Luna Bakehouse have their own version of the hot cross bun, featuring a fluffy, whipped butter filling. Founder Malisa Nguyen says she's wary of altering the traditional recipe too much.

"Even though we have the stuffed hot cross buns, we stay with the core flavours and taste of it. I will generally respect the foundation of a traditional recipe, especially when it's related to a religious celebration."

Nguyen says the only thing Luna Bakehouse has played around with is the shape of the bun - for easier transportation - and the built-in butter filling: "It's always soft and fluffy enough for you to enjoy so you don't have to carry a blob of butter around with you.

"Personally, I wouldn't think of the [cheese and onion] flavour within my palate, but I haven't tried it so I can't say. This is like the 'does pineapple belong on pizza' question. I think as long as it's executed well and the product is still recognisable, that is the bare minimum for me."

However, Nguyen has two non-negotiables: "The use of fruit and spices is essential in a hot cross bun."

Baking New Zealand president Bernie Sugrue is all for innovative flavours.

"It's all about creating interest and sparking debate," Sugrue says.

"If we didn't try new things in life, where would we be? Steak and cheese pies are an example as who thought to put cheese on a pie? How did an eclair get invented? By trying something new.

"The key ingredient is if the store's customers enjoy the product and purchase it... I take my hat off to bakeries or any business that tries something new."

Back in Manaia, Yarrow says the reception to the cheese and onion hot cross bun has been a "mixed bag".

"We haven't had anyone go 'yuck' or 'this is gross' type of feedback. It's actually all been pretty positive. It's just getting the consumer to go down the cheese and onion path on a hot cross bun."