A TASTE OF EASTER:
Hot Cross Buns, Simnel Cake, and Easter Biscuits
by Dawn Copeman
"Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns,
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot Cross Buns."
The Hot Cross Bun is a wonderful, rich, spiced tea cake that tastes so delicious hot or cold that it seems a shame it's only available at Easter. The recipe has been with us since time immemorial, and there are two schools of thought as to the origins of this seasonal treat.
One version claims that it was originally made by the Anglo-Saxons as part of their spring festival honoring the goddess Eostre. This pagan version of the bun had the symbol of an ox horn on top, to represent Eostre. When the Christians adapted the festival, they replaced the horn with the cross, so as to make it a more acceptable part of the Christian Easter.
The other theory is that Hot Cross Buns were first baked in England in the 17th Century by a widowed mother, whose only son went away to sea. Legend has it that she promised to bake him a bun every Good Friday until he came home. She would hang the bun in her window and pray for her son's safe return. The son never returned home, but the woman continued to bake her buns in faith. When she died, the rest of her unnamed village continued the tradition.
Interestingly, no individual county claims Hot Cross Buns as its own recipe, so it is hard to say which version of the tale, if either, is true.
As a lighter, easier, quicker alternative to Hot Cross Bun, many counties developed recipes for Easter Biscuits. These biscuits differ from biscuits available at other times of the year only in that they were originally made with allspice, which was also used in the Hot Cross Bun. Nowadays mixed spice is more commonly used in both. As Shropshire is one of the counties claiming to be the originator of Easter Biscuits, I've included their recipe below.
The Simnel cake is associated with Easter today, but was originally made for Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. Originally Mothering Sunday was the day when the congregations of the daughter churches of a parish went to the mother church, usually an abbey, to give their offerings.
In the 17th century, Mothering Sunday became the day when girls and boys in service were allowed a day off to go and visit their mothers. This was their one and only holiday. The girls would bake their mothers a Simnel cake as a gift.
Simnel cakes have been baked since the middle ages and it is believed that the word Simnel comes from the Latin 'Simila,' which meant very fine flour made from wheat. Simnel cakes were difficult to make, but if made properly they would keep for a few weeks. Thus the baking of a Simnel cake for Mothering Sunday was not only a gift from a girl to her mother, but also a test of the girl's cooking skills. The cake would not be eaten until Easter Sunday, and the whole family would be anxious to see if the cake was still moist.
With the demise of service after the First World War, the Simnel cake began to be treated as an Easter cake in its own right. The cake is decorated with eleven marzipan balls, representing Jesus' disciples minus Judas the traitor. Originally it was also decorated with fresh flowers, but sugar flowers are often used today.
There are a variety of recipes for Simnel cake. Some of the more modern ones take a lot less time to make and are less fiddly than the one I've provided below, but this one will produce an authentic Simnel Cake that any 18th century servant girl and her mother would be proud of. If you don't feel like baking a Simnel Cake, then you can purchase one online at http://www.fitzbillies.com.
Whether you intend to celebrate Easter with traditional English recipes or with the relatively modern tradition of chocolate Easter Eggs, Happy Easter to you!
Hot Cross Buns (Makes 12)
4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon allspice or mixed spice
0.5 stick butter
0.5 cup currants (or raisins or sultanas -- your personal preference)
1 oz yeast
0.5 cup sugar
1 cup milk
- Sift the flour, salt and spice into a large bowl. Rub in the butter and then add the currants (or substitutes).
- Warm the milk.
- Cream the yeast and sugar together and add to the warm milk. Leave to rest for about ten minutes until batter is of spongelike consistency.
- Add the milk mixture to the ingredients in the bowl and mix to form a dough.
- Leave to rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in size.
- Turn out onto a floured surface and knead well, then cut into twelve pieces.
- Flatten each piece into a circle. using a knife, mark each piece deeply with a cross.
- Allow to rest again for about ten minutes.
- Bake in the oven at 400°F, 200°C or Gas Mark 6 for twenty minutes.
- Glaze with sugar dissolved in water.
2 cups all purpose flour
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
Grated rind of half a lemon
A quarter teaspoon of allspice or mixed spice
A half teaspoon of baking powder
1 quarter cup of currants
- Rub the butter into the flour and add the sugar, lemon rind, allspice, baking powder and currants. Make into a dough with a little of the beaten egg.
- Roll out the dough to a thickness of a quarter of an inch and cut into biscuits.
- Bake on a baking tray for twenty minutes at 350°F, 180°C or Gas Mark 4.
- As soon as you remove them from the oven, dust with sugar and leave to cool.
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
A pinch of salt
2 cups currants
1.5 cups sultanas
Half a cup of mixed peel
Half a cup of chopped, blanched almonds
1 cup cherries (optional)
A teaspoon of mixed spice
Grated rind of half a lemon
Half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2/3 cup of milk
Almond paste for the inside of the cake (using recipe below or ready-made)
Half a cup of sugar
Half a cup of sieved icing sugar
One and a quarter cups of ground almonds
1 large egg
A 10-inch round cake tin (greased and lined with a double layer of greaseproof paper)
Almond paste for the outside of the cake
4 cups icing sugar
1 cup sugar
2.5 cups of ground almonds
1 tablespoon of rum
This is a complicated cake, so we do it in stages.
Stage one: Make the almond paste.
- Mix together the sugars with the ground almonds; add a few drops of almond essence and enough egg to make the mixture into a soft paste.
- Remove a small portion to make the balls later.
- Roll the remaining paste into a round the size of the cake tin.
Stage two: Make the cake
- In a large bowl, add the sugar to the butter and beat to a cream.
- Add the eggs one at a time with a little of the flour and mix until the mixture is stiff and of uniform consistency.
- Stir in the remainder of the flour, a pinch of salt, the fruit, the almond essence, bicarbonate of soda and the milk. Mix well.
- Place half the mixture into the cake tin, level, and then add a layer of the almond paste on top of the mix.
- Pour the rest of the cake mix on top of the almond paste.
- Bake in the oven at 300°F, 150°C or Gas Mark 2, for approximately four hours - it varies from oven to oven so check regularly. It is cooked if a metal skewer can be inserted in the cake and removed without a trace of stickiness.
- Remove cake from oven and allow to completely cool.
Stage Three: Decorate the cake
While the cake is cooling, make the almond paste for the outside of the cake.
- Mix together the sugars and the almonds, then slowly add the beaten eggs, beating them well in, until you have a pliable paste.
- When the cake is cold, add the almond paste, and decorate with eleven almond paste balls.
- Brush the top of the cake with a little beaten egg and place under the grill until the almond paste turns brown.
- Allow to cool and decorate with flowers or sugar flowers.
For more great recipes, see Dawn Copeman's Taste of Britain series.
- Simnel Cakes
Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is
working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance
writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2005 Dawn Copeman