Friday, April 22, 2011

Hot Cross Buns are an Easter Tradition

Easter season is upon us, and while many of Easter’s culinary traditions are associated with Christianity, most of them have been around much longer and have simply been adopted by the Christian religion.

Eggs are perhaps the first food that come to mind. Eggs symbolize rebirth and rejuvenation — just like spring. As Christianity spread, the egg was adopted as a symbol of Christ's Resurrection, with the image of him rising beyond the tomb just as a bird breaks through the shell of its egg. In early Christianity, eggs were forbidden during Lent. So on Easter, they became a very special treat. Christians in central European countries have a long tradition of elaborately decorated Easter eggs. Polish, Slavic and Ukrainian people create artistic designs on the eggs. They draw lines with wax, dip the egg in color and repeat the process many times to make amazing works of art. Yugoslavian Easter eggs bear the initials "XV" for "Christ is Risen," a traditional Easter greeting. Before the communists took control, the Russian royal family carried the custom to great lengths, giving exquisitely detailed jeweled eggs made by goldsmith Carl Faberge from the 1880s until 1917.

In Germany, eggs that go into Easter foods are not broken, but emptied out by piercing the shell with a pin. The empty shells are painted and decorated with bits of cloth, then hung with ribbons on a small leafless tree. The eggshell tree is one of several Easter traditions carried to America by German settlers known as Pennsylvania Dutch. They also brought the fable that the Easter bunny delivered colored eggs for good children.

The roast lamb dinner that many eat on Easter Sunday goes back earlier than Easter to the first Passover of the Jewish people. The sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten in hopes that the angel of God would pass over their homes and bring no harm. As Hebrews converted to Christianity, they naturally brought along their traditions with them. Christians often refer to Jesus as The Lamb of God.
In the United States, ham is a traditional Easter food. In the early days, meat was slaughtered in the fall. There was no refrigeration, and the fresh pork that wasn't consumed during the winter months before Lent was cured for spring. The curing process took a long time, and the first hams were ready about the time Easter rolled around. Thus, ham was a natural choice for the celebratory Easter dinner. Also, the pig has long been a symbol of good luck, which everyone hoped for in the coming growing season.

Easter has always had a close association with food. The word comes from the name for the Anglo-Saxon goddess of light and spring, Eostre, and special dishes were cooked for her celebration. Most important of these dishes was a small spiced bun. Through the centuries, the ritual of baking hot cross buns became a standard practice of the Easter celebration in English society. The English custom of eating spiced buns on Good Friday was institutionalized in Tudor times, when a London bylaw was introduced forbidding the sale of such buns except on Good Friday, at Christmas, and at burials. In the Baltic region of Russia, the Easter cake is kulich, a yeast dough of enormous proportions lavishly decorated with crystallized citrus peel. The kulich is based on a baba dough, with more sugar, plus additions of candied peel, almonds, raisins, and saffron. The bulging top is iced and decorated, usually with Cyrillic letters standing for “Christ is risen.” Traditionally, the kulich is taken to be blessed at midnight mass on the eve of Easter Sunday.

One of the Innkeepers here at Adair Country Inn and Restaurant is from Holland and she has shared some of the interesting things the Dutch do for Easter. Dutch Easter (Pasen) usually refers to Easter Sunday (Eerste Paasdag) and Easter Monday (Tweede Paasdag). Good Friday is not a holiday. Traditionally, an Easter brunch is held on Sunday. The table is decorated with freshly painted Easter eggs, candles, spring flowers like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and a vase with decorated willow branches (paastakken). Hanging from this “Easter tree” are chocolate eggs and ornaments like butterflies, bows and bunnies. The brunch consists of a Paasstol (a fruited Easter loaf with a center of soft almond paste), butter shaped like a lamb or bunny, bread rolls, hard boiled eggs, smoked salmon, smoked eel, and other typical Dutch breakfast items.
Prettige paasdagen (Happy Easter)!
Hot Cross Buns

Makes approximately 12
1 envelope (1/4-ounce) dry yeast
3/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups warm milk (about 110 degrees F.)
1 stick of butter, melted
1 egg
1/2 cup of raisins
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
3-1/2 cups bleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk

Combine the yeast, sugar and milk in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Beat on low speed for 1 minute. Add the butter, egg and raisins. Mix for 1 minute. Add the salt, cardamom and flour. Beat on low speed until all of the flour is incorporated, about 1 minute. Then, beat at medium speed until the mixture forms a ball, leaves the sides of the bowl, and climbs up the dough hook. Remove the dough from the bowl. Using your hands, form the dough into a smooth ball. Lightly oil a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl and turn it to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the dough from the bowl and invert it onto a lightly floured surface. Pat the dough into a rectangle about 3/4-inch thick. Roll up the dough, beginning with the long side and stopping after each full turn to press the edge of the roll firmly into the flat sheet of the dough to seal. Press with your fingertips. Tuck and roll so that any seams disappear into the dough. Cut the dough into 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a smooth, round ball. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Place the rolls on the baking sheet, 1/2-inch apart. With a pastry brush, brush the beaten egg evenly over the bread. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until it doubles in size, about 1 hour. Bake until lightly brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool slightly on a rack. In a mixing bowl, combine the powdered sugar and milk. Mix until smooth. Ice each bun with the frosting in the shape of a cross. Serve warm.

— Orlo Coots is Head Chef at Adair Country Inn and Restaurant. Enjoy his cooking Thursdays through Mondays by making a reservation at 603-444-2600. Orlo can be reached at for questions about this recipe or any other food-related questions. Remember — whether cooking for one or for a crowd, make every bite count.

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