Crossed Bread

T’is the season for hot cross buns. I’ve been seeing a lot of recipes for them in the blogosphere – gluten free ones, ones with grated carrots, more conventional ones mum used to make. No chocolate ones yet, but I’m sure someone, somewhere has posted on them, since I understand the chocolate versions are popular in Australia and New Zealand.

There are also an equal variety of hot cross buns in my supermarket at the moment, including celebrity chef designer ones made with Earl Grey tea and Mandarin oranges. All of these choices simply point to the popularity of the hot cross bun. They’re even mentioned in nursery rhymes and songs.

But why this time of year? The cross, of course, is the most obvious answer – a Christian symbol of resurrection. They are traditionally eaten on Good Friday here in Britain and have a whole host of folklore superstitions attached to them, representing gook luck, health and prosperity. It is good luck to kiss the bun (that is, the cross) before eating. If made on Good Friday, it is thought that the buns will not perish, have an incredibly long shelf life and, by extension, are believed to have curative powers. Last, but not least, is my favorite – pierce with a string and hang it in the kitchen for the year. It will provide protection from harm – a belief suspiciously like the lore surrounding my kitchen witch.

All of this puts me in mind of cross(!)-cultural comparisons. I have in my kitchen a crudely carved wooden bread stamp I bought many years ago in an Athenian hardware store, still marked with its penciled price tag of 450 drachmas. It’s for stamping a stylized square cross onto breads intended for use in Orthodox ritual, called Prosforo (“offering”) bread and the stamp imbues it with all sorts of symbolism.

greek_bread_stampGreek-style prosforo seal. In this image: the center represents the Lamb (the letters ICXCNIKA, an abbreviated form for “Jesus Christ conquers”), below that is the Panagia (Virgin Mary), on top are the Nine Ranks of saints (the angelic world is thought to be divided into nine hierarchical ranks), and right and left are extra Lambs.

Diana Kochilas, Greek food journalist, TV presenter and cookbook author extraordinaire, wrote an interesting article on Christopsomo, the bread usually made for Christmas decorated with an elaborate cross – Christopsomo, Bread Full of Hope. Kochilas’ discussion covers all decorated, crossed breads, tracing the symbolism of celebration breads in Greece back to pagan times. She further discusses their use in Greek culture, for holidays and to mark rites of passage from birth to death, symbolizing good luck, hope, prosperity – the very same properties attributed to hot cross buns.

Like those Greek crossed breads, the cross should be baked into the sweet, fruit studded hot cross bun. Originally, the cross was made with shortcrust pastry prior to baking, but more commonly now, the cross is made with a simple flour paste. A cheat method and definitely not traditional, paints the cross on after baking with icing.

hot_cross_buns

These crossed breads are not to be confused with the braided tsoureki, the traditional Greek Easter bread, but that’s another story.

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13 comments

  1. I think we should get some D.O.C certification for real hot cross buns. The supermarket ones with chocolate are really awful, as are the fruitless ones sold here. Hot Cross buns come out a few days after Christmas, and most people buy them for months, failing to understand the significance of them. Good ones do cost a lot which reminds me of this old rhyme,

    ” Hot Cross buns, Hot cross buns
    one a penny, two a penny,
    Hot Cross buns.
    if you have no daughters,
    Give them to your sons,
    one a penny. two a penny, hot cross buns”

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    • What region would get the D.O.C.? Hotly contested (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun on the bun). I really like understanding the significance of all sorts of traditions, particularly those around food. It seems that people have always celebrated with food – as offerings or consumed in feasts. And, symbolism galore!

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  2. It really annoys me that there are chocolate ones, I’m a traditionalist! You have reminded me I must make a batch for Friday. BTW your crosses look great, mine are usually messier

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    • I guess I’m glad that the chocolate, non-fruited ones have not made an appearance here in our markets! I have to confess, the ones in the photo are straight from my supermarket. I won’t be making mine until Good Friday; I’m also a traditionalist! Yes, a good looking cross is difficult to achieve. Good luck with yours!

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  3. We are about to begin experimenting with low fructose and wheat free buns in my kitchen. We like our buns to be dense, spicy and with lots of fruit, real traditional buns. Hopefully spelt flour and dried blueberries will translate. Fingers crossed

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    • Send some my way – if only the internet progressed this far, instantly sending objects across space. They sound delicious! I love dried blueberries – well, any kind of blueberry. Good luck!

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  4. It annoys me so much that hot cross buns are available in the shops in January. Just make spiced buns! Choc chip ones are quite popular in Australia. Most companies seem to have their own variety, even the smaller ones. I was going to try sourdough ones this year. I need to get my starter cranked back up.

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    • Sourdough ones sound good! Hot cross buns are available here just after Christmas, too. And, so many varieties! Kind of dilutes their holiday significance. But, this happens with other holiday items as well like Christmas puddings in August. Marketing not tradition rules, I’m afraid. 😦

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  5. Great post, love the historical info. I am personally cross (couldn’t resist) about the buns with chocolate in them they are selling here. They are an abomination! (Ummm, strong words perhaps but I have to take a stand somewhere.)

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  6. I’ve seen double chocolate hot cross buns in the shops, which didn’t appeal at all, but then I saw a pear & chocolate chunk version on my reader which looked delicious (though not, I’m sure, to the traditionalists)

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