Hot Cross Buns

One of the things I love about food is the way that different foods mark out the year, its changing seasons and its various festivals.  I particularly love cooking at Christmas and Easter,  partly because many of the things i make on these occasions are once a year treats: the rarity of mince pies, Christmas cake and simnel cake makes both the making and eating of them all the more exciting.

At Easter Hot Cross Buns are top of my baking list.  This year, with it being an early Easter, school only broke up yesterday.  And what could be a better way to start my Easter holidays than by rolling my sleeves up and throwing flour all around the kitchen. Whilst supermarkets stock very tasty Hot Cross Buns, I love the satisfaction of making them myself, even if it means that with the rising and baking time I don’t get to eat them until half-way through Good Friday.  Today’s batch only came out of the oven just before lunchtime!


The origins of Hot Cross Buns are not clear.  Marking a cross on bread dates back to early Christianity when this sign replaced earlier pagan signs, and it is known that spiced buns were eaten in Tudor England since a bylaw was passed forbidding the sale of these foodstuffs except on Good Friday, at Christmas and at burials.  However, whether these were marked with a cross is not known.

The first documented reference to Hot Cross Buns appears in 1733, in Poor Robin’s Almanack, an annual satirical publication.  The reference is to a London street cry:  “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs. With one or two a penny hot cross buns“.  This seems to be a forerunner of the well known children’s nursery rhyme which was first published in 1798:

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!

I haven’t been able to find any references to Hot Cross Buns in literature, though Charles Dickens did write about them in an 1870 issue of All The Year Round, a weekly literary journal that he founded in 1859 and continued to edit until his death in 1870 (after which the journal continued to be published until 1895).

In his short entry on Hot Cross Buns, Dickens comments satirically on their vendors – who are only ever seen one day a year – and the unchanging price of a Hot Cross Bun (one penny):

The Hot Cross Bun. Who these vendors are, whence they come, and what is their occupation on the other three hundred and sixtyfour days of the year, are questions left somewhat in mystery; for the people are evidently not all connected with the baking trade. That the buns are all hot, that they are crossed, that they are “one a penny, two a penny,” are facts asserted in a very determined and unanimous way by the vendors. And herein is suggested a speculation—why are hot cross buns always the same price? Do we get an advantage when flour is cheap in the market; and if not, why not?

I think I’ve left this post too late for anyone to be inspired to make their own Hot Cross Buns this year, so I’ll omit the recipe and just show you my finished version.  I’ll aim to be more organised and get a post out earlier next year!

Don’t blame the cook!

Everyone who cooks knows that cooking is an unpredictable business.  A faithful recipe we have cooked time and time again to perfection doesn’t come out as we expected it to.  You take your eye off the clock for one minute and a burning smell begins to emanate from the oven.  You take a beautifully-risen cake out of the oven, and when your back is turned it sinks.

But just sometimes it is not the cook’s fault!

In Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House (1852-1853), a searing indictment of the English judicial system, the cook at the Sol’s Arms, a tavern in the vicinity of the London courts, is unfairly maligned.


Two characters, Mr Snagsby, a stationer, and Mr Weevle, who lodges with Krook, a rag and bone man, bump into one another one evening as they are wandering the streets near the courts.  Both men notice a strange greasy smell in the air:  

‘… I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place tonight,’ Mr Weevle rejoins.  ‘I suppose it’s chops at the Sol’s Arms.’  
‘Chops, do you think? Oh! – Chops, eh?’ Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again.  ‘Well, sir, I suppose it.  But I should say their cook at the Sol wanted a little looking after.  She has been burning ’em, sir!  And I don’t think;’ Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again, and then spits and wipes his mouth; ‘I don’t think – not to put too fine a point upon it – that they were quite fresh, when they were shown the gridiron’. 

That poor cook.  As becomes clear later in the chapter, the smell and grease are nothing to do with her lack of culinary expertise.  No, they are instead the products of a rather bizarre incident: the spontaneous combustion of Krook!

So, in honour of the Sol’s Arms cook, here are her pork chops – cooked to perfection!

THE SOL’S ARMS PORK CHOPS
Ingredients (per person):
1 pork loin chop (at room temperature)
2 handfuls of mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped or crushed
1 teaspoon grain mustard
1 generous tablespoon creme fraiche
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 knob butter
Salt and pepper

Method: 
Place a griddle pan – unoiled – on a moderate to high heat for a couple of minutes to heat up.  In the meantime rub the pork chop on both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Place the pork chop on the griddle pan and griddle it for at least 10 minutes on each side until it is thoroughly cooked.   (If you don’t have a griddle pan you can use an ordinary frying pan; in that case, oil the pan rather than the chop.)
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and a knob of butter in a separate frying pan over a moderate heat.  When the butter has melted and the oil has started to sizzle, add the mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes until they start to plump up and soften.  Then add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes.  Stir in the grain mustard and creme fraiche and heat through.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Add the pork chop and all its juices to the pan, stir through and serve with your choice of accompaniments (I chose crushed roasted potatoes and a green salad).  

Agincourt

With everyone blogging or tweeting today about the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to ‘revive’ my Henry V recipe.  The Battle of Agincourt is the dramatic high-point of Shakespeare’s history play, a battle in which, against all the odds, the vastly outnumbered English won a definitive victory against the French.

Like all Shakespeare plays, Henry V contains shifting moods and contrasting scenes.  In a play that celebrates an amazing military victory, there are unsurprisingly rousing and patriotic speeches, the best known of which is the “Crispin’s day” one delivered by Henry to motivate his dispirited troops immediately before the battle (Act IV, Scene 3).  But there are also moments of sorrow and difficult decisions: Henry has to abide by the rules of military engagement and order the execution of his former drinking companion, Bardolph, for “robbing a church”.  And, of course, there are moments of humour, which is where the food comes in.

For symbolic purposes, Henry’s winning army contains officers from all regions of the British Isles, including Fluellen from Wales.  Fluellen cannot cease boasting of his Welsh heritage, and of that of Henry himself, who was born in Monmouth in 1386.  When Henry admits his pride in being a Welshman and in wearing the leek, Fluellen expresses his delight in his Welsh accent:

All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s Welsh plood out of your pody, I can tell you 
that: God pless it and preserve it, as long as it pleases his grace, and his majesty too.  
                                                                                                                             (Act IV, Scene 7)

For more on this – and the leek tart it inspired – read here