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