Hot cross buns, Easter eggs, Simnel cake and more
Walk into any top end confectionary or five star bakery around Easter and you’ll be forgiven for thinking you were in Hansel and Gretel’s candy house, what with the elaborate cakes, chocolate bunnies, candy canes, marzipan and milk lollipops.
It’s easy to forget that Easter goodies—Hot Cross Buns and Simnel cakes for instance—are specific Easter foods specifically related to Christ (also called the ‘lamb of God’ in the Bible). Some popular goodies like Easter eggs are symbolic of rebirth and renewal (when Christ was resurrected), ham signifies luck and cake or bread denote prosperity and fertility.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that traditional breads are laden with symbolism in their shapes and ingredients. During Lent, eggs are forbidden, making them more bountiful and exciting forty days later. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “eggs were colored, blessed, exchanged and eaten as part of the rites of spring long before Christian times. Even the earliest civilizations held springtime festivals to welcome the sun’s rising from its long winter sleep. The sun’s return from darkness was considered a miracle after months of dark, dreary weather as were eggs, a symbolic remarkable renewal of life.
European egg decorations
Central European countries have a rich tradition of decorating Easter eggs. Polish, Slavic and Ukrainian communities created intricate designs on eggs, drawing lines with a pencil, dipping eggs in color and repeating the process countless times to create works of art. Yugoslavic eggs bear the initials ‘XV’ for ‘Christ is Risen,’ a traditional Easter greeting. In Russia during the reign of the Czars, Easter was celebrated more elaborately than Christmas, with Easter breads and other special foods and decorated eggs given as gifts.
Hot cross buns
The hot cross bun is as symbolic of Easter as the humble egg. The warm yeasty bread, fruity taste and sticky golden exterior with its ubiquitous cross is an inseparable component of afternoon tea not just at Easter but all year around. However, the Christian tradition is to eat them on Good Friday alone. So how did this comforting treat become part of a religious ritual?
Remains of these cakes marked with crosses have been found among ancient ruins near Pompeii, suggesting that the Romans were eating confectionery similar to hot cross buns. The crosses were crudely indented into the bread with a knife rather than piped on with pastry.
A food with mystical powers
The term “hot cross bun” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1733. In the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I passed a law decreeing that the sale of buns, spiced cakes, bread and biscuits in London was limited to funerals and the Friday before Easter and Christmas, and thus the tradition to eat them on Good Friday was born. There was a superstition that these buns had medicinal or magical properties and the Church was concerned that these powers would be abused.
Hot cross buns were definitely credited with more powers than they possessed. Some people preserved them all year believing that these confections could protect their home from fire and bad luck. In fact, sailors carried them on their travels to ward off shipwrecks.
Simnel cakes for Christ
Another popular Easter confectionary is Simnel cake, a fruit-filled dessert with a flat layer of marzipan (sugar almond paste) on top and decorated with eleven marzipan balls representing the twelve apostles minus Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ.