Tag Archives: Easter

Hot Cross Buns

Tomorrow is Good Friday and in England it is traditional to eat hot cross buns, or rather it was, as I reckon the supermarkets and bakeries bring them out just after Christmas; and why not? They are delicious after all. The reason that Good Friday is the day these buns are traditionally baked goes back to Tudor times, when the sale of spiced buns was illegal, except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at funerals.

The cross, people assume, is to denote the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This is in fact nonsense; spiced buns with crosses were being produced throughout much of pagan Europe. Spiced buns have always been symbolic in worship and ones adorned with crosses were made for the goddess Eostre (where Easter get its name).

The Pagan goddess, Eostra

So that is the cross taken care of, but what about the hot? We don’t actually eat them hot that often. They were simply called cross buns, until that famous nursery rhyme was written sometime in the eighteenth century:

Hot cross buns, hot cross buns!

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

If you have no daughters, give them to your sons,

One ha’penny, two ha’penny, hot cross buns!

What if you have neither sons nor daughters? I suppose you eat them all to yourself like the miserable old spinster you are…

I have been on a bread-bake-a-thon recently, so I thought I’d make some and provide you with a recipe. Ever since I started baking my own bread, I have sworn never to buy it again as it is just so delicious. Bought buns – like bread – are just shadow of their former selves, says Jane Grigson: ‘Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular. Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum – no butter, little egg, too much yellow colouring, not enough spice, too few currants and bits of peel, a stodgy texture instead of a rich, light softness. In other words, buns are now a doughy filler for children.’

The recipe below asks for mixed spice, you buy a proprietary blend of course or make your own. I decided to make my own – simply because I didn’t have any. The good thing about making your own is that you can remove spices you don’t like, and enhance the ones you do. Typical spices are the warm ones: cinnamon, mace, allspice (pimento), nutmeg, cloves and ginger. I also think a little black pepper would be good, but I have never tried it.

This is based on Elizabeth David’s 1977 recipe, but all recipes seem essentially the same. There is no piped pastry cross on these buns as that would ‘involve unnecessary fiddly work’. Quite so.

Ingredients

1 lb – 1 lb 2 oz strong bread flour, include a small proportion of wholemeal if you like

around 8 fluid ounces of warm milk

1 oz fresh yeast, or 1 tsp dried

1 tsp salt

2 ounces of sugar – any you like; white, light brown, dark brown or a blend

2 tsp  mixed spice

2 oz of softened butter

2 eggs

4 oz currants, or failing that, raisins

2 oz candied peel

For the glaze:

2 tbs sugar

2 tbs milk

Warm a pound of the flour in a cool oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile cream the yeast with a little of the milk, adding a pinch of sugar if you are using dried yeast. When the flour is warmed and the yeast is foaming, mix into the flour the salt and spices, then a make a well in the centre and add the yeast and the rest of the milk. Mix together with a spoon, then use the rest of the flour to dust your hands and the dough so you can work it together for a few minutes, otherwise you become a big sticky mess. You want a rather soft dough, but one not so soft that it would become shapeless as it rises. Incorporate the currants and peel, then cover and leave around 2 hours to double in size.

Knock back the dough and knead for a few minutes and form into 24 approximately even-sized buns, folding any creases underneath to make a nice, round shape. Place on non-stick pans, cover with plastic or a damp tea towel and leave to double in size again.

When ready to go in the oven, make cross cuts on their tops and bake at 200⁰C (400⁰F) for 15 to 20 minutes.

When they are almost ready, make the glaze: boil the sugar and milk to a syrup and when the buns come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze twice.

Eat, warm or cold with butter. To reheat them, bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150⁰C (300⁰F).

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Lenten fodder

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, so today is the first day of Lent, a forty day fast that takes us right up to Easter. It came about because Jesus fasted for 40 days as he walked the wilderness prior to his death on the crucifix. Foods like meat, eggs, cheese and milk were decadent and therefore they were right out during Lent. In fact there was abstinence from any activity considered decadent, and the further back in time, the stricter were the rules. In the early days of Christian Britain some people ate only bread, whilst others ate herbaceous vegetables too. As time went on to the Middle Ages, the rules became a little slacker and fish were allowed into the diet. Thomas Aquinas was a main instigator of this move.

“By Jove, look at all the tucker Jesus has got, chaps!”

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Fish was chosen for several reasons: It was fare that could be eaten by all classes, so in effect everyone would be eating the same types of food, nor was is associated with power, strength, hotness and richness like meat was; indeed fish were both humble  and meagre. Most importantly, it was strongly associated with Jesus himself. The 40-day long fast also symbolised a cycle of ‘purification and regeneration’ and fish were considered pure. People always find loopholes however – the rich still ate large grand dishes like roast pike. Indeed anything even closely associated with water was considered fair game during Lent: beaver, seal, porpoise, heron, even sheep found drinking from streams were eaten!

Fair game: the beever

By Tudor times, the rules had slackened even further to include fish and game, but not red or white meat (i.e. poultry). This meant one could eat bustard, curlew, pheasant, quail and red deer. Strangley, root vegetables were off the menu because they came from the soil and were a little too close to Hell for comfort for some.

In France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were sometimes no difference between Lenten meals and regular ones, at least for the aristocracy. People would simply find excuses not to fast, complaining, according to the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin “it irritated them, gave them headache, and prevented them from sleeping. All the troubles associated with the spring were put down to the score of the fast, so that one did not fast because he thought he was poorly, another because he had been, and a third because he feared to be.”

The late, great Brillat-Savarin

Most of the time it was enforced, though not for reasons of piety, but for economical ones. For example on a typical day, the French Royal Family in the Palace of Versailles, France, went through 900 pullets, 350 braces of pigeons and 86 goslings!

The Palace at Versailles

These days, people give up one vice for Lent, and although I am an atheist, I do see the spiritual worth in giving up something. Back in the day, when I used to smoke, I would try and forego cigarettes but without much success. These days I don’t bother, so I suppose I’m going straight to Hell; at least there’ll be plenty of parsnips and carrots down there to roast by the fire and brimstone…

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Pancake Day

Happy Shrovetide!

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the 40 day long fast-a-thon that is Lent, so we best have a big-old festival, no?

No.

Where do you think this is? France? America? This is Britain, and whilst the rest of the Christian world is dancing, drinking, feasting and parading, we do not bow to such vulgarities, instead we have some pancakes and a nice cup of tea.

I jest of course; though between you and me, I would happily swap Mardi Gras for Pancake Day any day.

In Britain and Ireland, we make and eat pancakes before Lent because it is a very good way of using up main staple ingredients: flour, fat, eggs and sugar before the onset of Lent. By pancakes, we typically mean crepe-style pancakes, but the UK has a wide variety of different pancakes which are all delicious. I suppose you could add the griddle/girdle cakes to the list too as they typically use the same ingredients, but they are a little hit-and-miss, in my opinion.

These days, of course, we don’t really fast for the run up to Easter, but I do like to follow traditions, at least when it comes to eating food (I happily ignore the abstinence bits). I remember as a child, my family always had pancakes for tea on Shrove Tuesday and I don’t think we ate them any other day, I remember thinking you weren’t allowed to eat them unless it was Pancake Day. I have made up for this as an adult, especially now I am living in America.

It is traditional to take part in a pancake race on Pancake Day, which involves running a course whilst flipping pancakes. I have very hazy memories of doing this when I was little, but I don’t think that I have seen nor heard anything about pancake racing in the last 20 years, maybe more. It’s a shame that these things are dying out, I know many think it’s a little naff or twee, but I love stuff like that. It enriches life. Next year I shall hold a pancake race I think.

Pancake racing in the chemistry lab of

Westfield College, London, 1963

Shrove Tuesday is really the final day of a two-day period known as Shrovetide which was part of an unofficial festival called Carnival that ran from Epiphany. It was essentially a period of time for a lot of gluttony and frivolity in order to prepare for the nightmarish 40 days of misery beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Welsh Light Cakes

I love all types of pancakes, but the best ones come from Wales. This recipe from Jane Grigson for Welsh light cakes is excellent; they are made with soured cream, which gives them a wonderful tang. I have never found a pancake recipe to beat it, so I urge you to give it a go. If you make these with British soured cream, the resulting pancake batter is thin, giving them a frothy frilly texture. If you make them with American soured cream, the batter is much thicker, making them fluffy. Either way results in deliciousness.

Ingredients:

6 rounded tbsp. flour

2 rounded tbsp. sugar

3 tbsp. soured cream

a pinch of salt

3 eggs

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 rounded tbsp. cream of tartar

4 tbsp. water

¼ pint buttermilk or milk

fat or oil

butter

golden syrup

Beat together the flour, sugar, cream, salt and eggs. Next, mix together the bicarbonate and cream of tartar with the water and as it froths, tip it into the batter and stir it in. Add the milk or buttermilk to produce the desired consistency. Less for thick and fluffy, more for thin and lacy.

Heat the fat or oil on a suitable frying pan, swirl it around so the pan is coated and pour out any excess. Add a ladelful of batter and fry until golden brown, then carefully, quickly and confidently flip the pancake and cook the other side.

Stack the pancakes on top of one another and keep them warm in the oven, adding a pat or two of butter to each one.

Cut the stack into quarters and eat with golden syrup and more butter if you like.

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