Yesterday marked the first day of spring, not that you'd have thought it looking at the cold, damp, grey weather. Still a spot of baking always brightens the mood and what better than a couple of Easter inspired classics?
Hot Cross Buns Easter begins with a fast and finishes with a feast. Even if you don’t truly abide by the Lenten fasting it is likely you still mark the onset with pancakes on Shrove Tuesday - the day before Lent or indulge in the feasting afterwards with Easter eggs and hot cross buns aplenty.
Of course Easter is a great time for traditional baking, many recipes for which are types of yeast-risen spiced breads enriched with butter and eggs. They are often laden with luxurious ingredients such as dried fruit, nuts, candied peel and precious spices.
As with most traditional bakes nowadays, these breads can be enjoyed all year round, but they are all the more scrumptious eaten during the Easter period, with the celebrations in full force! The most famous of these bakes surely has to be the hot cross bun.
Traditionally Hot Cross Buns are associated with Good Friday, and they are chockfull of Christian symbolism - you have got the bread, as per the communion, you have got the spices that represent the spices used in Jesus’s entombment, and you have got the cross which of course represents the crucifixion itself.
However, dig a little deeper into the history books and the precise role of hot cross buns in Christianity and even their provenance seems to be more than a little hazy.
Google the term and you'll find a plethora of theories - that they go back to Roman times, that they are a Saxon thing, and even that they are a pagan rather than Christian item. You will very often see a suggestion that a 12th Century monk first incised a cross on a bun. Yet another recent theory tied the tradition of the buns to a monk in 14th Century St Albans.
The idea of marking crosses on baked goods such as bread, cakes and buns in general goes right back to pre-Medieval times and was seen to be a visible sign that the bread was “blessed” and had the power to ward off evil spirits, as well as help with the longevity of the bread by stopping it going mouldy or staling quickly.
Still further references tie them only into the Easter tradition from the Elizabethan era. It is suggested that they were viewed with suspicion by some Protestants and that legal moves were made to restrict their consumption to Easter and some other festival periods. But the Oxford English Dictionary's first reference to hot cross buns is only from 1733. It's in the form of the ditty: "Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns." The fact that the words of the famous song appear in this reference does rather suggest that the term may have been around a while before that, but any history of the bun wanders into conjecture, says food historian Ivan Day, who runs the Historic Food website. "The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no-one tended to write about them in the very early period”.
It is not even absolutely clear when the buns are supposed to be eaten. The Church associates them with Good Friday, that day when the symbolism of the cross is all important. But you can find some references to them being eaten during Lent; though this seems odd, as something containing spices and butter does not seem to sit well with the dietary restrictions of that period. And that was before somebody thought of adding chocolate, caramel and other such non traditional items.
Similar to the hot cross bun is Cornish saffron cake The Cornish Saffron cake is now normally made as an oblong loaf, but can also be made as buns, or as a round loaf.
Whilst always called a cake, the texture is akin to a sweet yeasted spiced fruit bread, and almost always served thickly spread with lots of butter. Although, I prefer to slather mine with clotted cream and lemon or orange curd.
The cake has a deep golden crust and a pronounced yellow crumb which is speckled with fruits. The flavour can be described as mildly sweet with a slightly astringent, earthy saffron tang. You do need to be careful not to use too much saffron though, otherwise it can taste distinctly medicinal.
Recipes for saffron cake vary in combinations of spices and dried fruits, varying from village to village, however, the basic recipe contains flour, sugar, fruit, fat – traditionally lard – yeast and saffron.
Due to the high price of saffron, producers have frequently and deliberately replaced saffron with turmeric and nowadays yellow food colouring, however this has great impact on the flavour of this delicate cake and should be avoided. Saffron comes from the plant Crocus Sativus, which is indigenous to the near East. The Romans brought Saffron to England, and Cornwall was a principle trading point for tin which was traded for Saffron and other goods. Saffron growing became established in Cornwall in both the Bude and Mounts Bay areas of the county, and in the east of England around Cambridgeshire and Essex, where the town Saffron Waldon takes its name.
The spice was widely used in British cookery between 1600 and 1700. However, the emergence of other spices and commercial dyes in 1700 led to the decline in saffron, with the exception of Cornwall.
The use of saffron within Cornish sweet breads and buns is largely responsible for the survival of saffron within Britain. Originally, saffron buns were eaten with clotted cream on Good Friday, and then later adopted more generally by the Methodist church, for which Cornwall was a stronghold, for their “Tea treats” which ensured that this delicious loaf did not die out.
Almost all saffron is now imported, with Iran producing 90-95% of the world's harvest but it is also grown in Spain, Greece, North Africa, India and China, and, on a very small scale in parts of the UK, including Cornwall. The harvesters work through the night to pick the flowers then painstakingly remove two or three stigmas from each flower head, all by hand. It takes more than 1000 flowers to produce just 100g saffron - hardly any wonder it is so expensive, working out more expensive per gram than gold!
Whatever their history, hot cross buns and Cornish saffron cake certainly make perfect tea time treats, so I am entering them into Lavender & Lovage and The Hedgecombers monthly Tea Time Treats event.