Friday, 22 March 2013
If you flip to the 'Bun: Hot Cross Bun' entry in the Oxford Companion to Food, you'll find the idea that the Saxons ate buns marked with a cross in honour of Eostre, a goddess of light, and that her name was transplanted to the Christian festival of Easter.
It sounds fascinating. Yet the only vaguely contemporary mention of Eostre is in Bede's eighth century 'De temporum ratione' (a.k.a. The Reckoning of Time). Chapter 15 describes the Anglo-Saxon names for the months of the year - April is called Eosturmonath, after Eostre "in whose honour feasts were celebrated". Bede notes that her name has transferred to Easter, "calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance". (ed. Wallis, 1999). In this - the only mention of Eostre - there's no description of the contents of the feasts or of crossed buns.
As this is part of the time period I studied (though I really focused slightly later), this whole idea started nagging at me, especially when I saw how often it's repeated. Where did it come from?
According to the OED's etymology section for 'Easter', some scholars believe Bede made the goddess and the name connection up. I don't think I agree - it seems odd for Bede, a devout monk, a famous biblical scholar and a historian, to invent a claim that Easter had any association with paganism. We have a small number of surviving manuscripts from the period so it's perfectly feasible that other references were lost or never recorded. The OED's alternative claim for the history of the word sounds convincing - but that doesn't mean Bede made Eostre up.
During the conversion of the English, the Christians tried to adapt the existing structure of worship to the new religion. The idea of the transference or merging of a festival - and, within that, food - therefore seems possible. This concept of adaption and exchange is recorded in Pope Gregory's letter to Abbot Mellitus in 601, which was preserved by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. Pope Gregory writes that they should not destroy the existing temples but clear them, destroy the idols and turn them into churches, so the people can worship at the place they are accustomed to. Instead of sacrificing oxen to their pagan gods, the people should kill the oxen for a Christian feast.
After all, "there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps." (ed. McClure, 2008).
Next, I had a look through my books on medieval food to see if I could find any relevant information. I couldn't find anything, so I sent an email to my beloved-tutor-now-friend asking if she had any ideas about where I could look. She pointed me towards the rest of chapter 15, where Bede mentions that Solmonath (February) "can be called 'month of cakes', which they offered to their gods in that month" (ed. Wallis, 1999). As the cakes were given as offerings to 'their gods' in general, Eostre was probably included. The division between bread and cake would not become clear for centuries, so it's not too much of a stretch to imagine the cakes were what we would call loaves or buns. But where does the cross come from? Did the buns become associated with Good Friday because of their existing cross or were they made to fit the occasion?
I haven't found the answer to the cross questions, but I think I've found the possible origin of the Oxford Companion's claims - an article in the New York Times from 1912, Who were the first to cry 'Hot Cross Buns?'. Along with the Saxon claims, it includes the Greek and Roman versions that the book mentions (that I haven't seen elsewhere), including the amazing note that two small loaves were found plainly marked with a cross in Herculaneum (destroyed and preserved with Pompeii in AD 79). It's worth noting that many people slash their loaves twice before baking them without thinking of the significance of the symbol - the bakers of Herculaneum or the Anglo-Saxons could have done the same.
I want to keep digging to find the answers (though, of course, it could easily be a figment of a long lost imagination), so - as with the recipe - I'll come back with any updates next year. I hope you don't mind me getting geeky about this (though I feel like I'm on slightly shaky ground - I know enough for it to be shameful if I get it wrong, but not enough to be sure of it). I love revisiting the buns every year, moving forward step by step, as Gregory advocates. Here are the other versions: three, two, one.
This year I have:
- Doubled the fruit and added some extra cinnamon.
- Decided to use dried yeast as it's easier to find (though you can adapt it back if you can get fresh yeast).
- Switched the water for milk and added a touch of extra liquid.
- Altered the cross mixture so it's a bit thicker, so they look a little bolder.
- Lowered the oven temperature a bit.
I also tried soaking the fruit in hot water (before I changed to milk) but I discovered that as it kneaded, the softened fruit was smashed into the dough until it basically disappeared. I've found that it can do this even without soaking, so for the buns in the pictures I tried kneading it on the machine until ready, then hand kneading the fruit in. I can't decide if half the charm of the buns is the way some of the fruit becomes part of the dough or not. I think I might try half at the beginning and half at the end next year.
Hot Cross Buns v.4
(heavily adapted from Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course)
For the dough:
50g unsalted butter
450g strong white bread flour
50g caster sugar
7g instant yeast
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
5 whole cloves, ground (optional)
1 egg, beaten
For the candied peel:
100g granulated sugar
For the crosses:
1 tbsp plain flour
2 tsp water
Pour the milk and butter into a small pan and place over medium heat until the butter melts. Turn the heat up until the milk starts steaming (this scalds the milk, which makes the dough softer). Pour into a bowl to cool (I often put it into the fridge to speed it up if I've already made the candied peel).
Use a vegetable peeler to take big strips of peel off the orange and lemon - try to have as little white on the inside of the strip as possible. Chop into 2-3mm little squares, stacking a few strips together for speed. Place them in a medium pan and add 3-4 cm of cold water. Bring up to a strong boil and let bubble for a minute or so until the water is bright yellow. Strain into a bowl, then add more cold water and the peels to the pan and repeat. Repeat for a third and final time, leaving the peel in the strainer. Throw out the bitter yellow water.
Combine the 100ml of water and sugar in the pan and heat on medium until the sugar has dissolved, swirling every now and again. Turn up the heat a little and add the blanched peel. Occasionally brush a little cold water around the sides to stop the sugar crystallizing. Let it bubble away until the peel is translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Let cool for five minutes then drain the peel off from the syrup, reserving both.
Sift the flour, sugar, yeast, cinnamon, ginger, salt, nutmeg and cloves into the bowl of your stand mixer (or a mixing bowl if making by hand). Stir the peel into the milk (this stops the peel clumping). Add the sultanas, currants, peely-milk (it should be around room temperature or less or it'll kill the yeast) and beaten egg into the bowl. Stir with a spoon until the mixture comes together. Attach the dough hook and knead for 6 minutes (if making by hand turn out onto floured surface and hand knead) until smooth and bouncy - it should pass the windowpane test. Place the dough into a big, lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled (usually about 1hr 15 mins in my rather warm kitchen - can be quite a bit longer if it's cold but time develops the flavour so don't worry - you can also leave it to rise in the fridge overnight).
Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Cut the dough with a sharp knife into 16 pieces and place them under a sheet of cling film. Roll into balls one by one, keeping them under the cling film when you're not shaping (see v.5 for a video of the technique). Line a tin with baking parchment then arrange the buns on the sheet. Cover again with cling film and leave to rise for 45 minutes until puffy. Preheat the oven to 200C/390F.
Combine the flour with the water to create a smooth, thick paste (you may need to add a few extra drops of water) then scoop it into a piping bag. Unwrap the buns and pipe the paste over each bun in the cross pattern. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and hollow when tapped. Brush the reserved peel syrup over the buns then remove to a cooling rack.
Serve split, toasted and topped with lots of salted butter. They freeze very well - I usually split them with a serrated knife then toast from frozen but you can defrost them first too.
Edit 27/03/16: This year, I took out the cloves, which was good - less effort for no obvious loss. I've put them as optional above.
Three more recipes that use dried fruit:
Apricot & Fig Tea Loaf
Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars