An embarrassing intro to Easter eggs

Easter eggs by Werner Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons

Easter eggs by Werner Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons

Even though I was raised as a completely non-observant Jew–the only holiday we celebrated at home was Chanukah–that doesn’t mean I knew anything about the surrounding Christian culture.

Christmas and Easter simply weren’t on my radar until I got to first grade. And then the learning curve was a little steep.

In the spring of my first-grade year, the students were told to bring in a hard-boiled egg to be dyed.

Brown eggs don’t dye!

My mother must have been as clueless as I was about Easter eggs, because she sent me to school with a hard-boiled brown egg. Which turned an even muddier brown after being immersed in the dye pot, unlike the pretty pastel greens, pink, blues and purple hues on everyone else’s formerly white eggs. My classmates had a good laugh at my expense.

When I was in first grade it didn’t occur to me to wonder what eggs have to do with a holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. But the connection is actually stronger than it may at first seem.

Of course eggs are a symbol of spring, fertility and rebirth used in many religions. We Jews include an egg on our Passover seder plates.

Pysanki, Ukrainian decorated Easter eggs, by Karen Larsen via Flickr Creative Commons

Pysanki, Ukrainian decorated Easter eggs, by Karen Larsen via Flickr Creative Commons

Ancient cultures often decorated eggs,  so early Christians were probably repurposing existing pagan customs when they used the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb – it looks like a stone, but gives birth to new life, as Jesus’ tomb gave way to the resurrection. Early Christians also began staining eggs red as a symbol of Jesus’ shed blood. The Ukrainians made egg decorating into a highly developed folk art, called pysanki.

Eggs soon became a traditional Easter food. An early Christian blessing, recorded in the 1700s, mentions eggs: “Lord, let the grace of your blessing come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you forever and ever.”

Easter meant candy

As a child I had little interest in the spiritual aspects of Easter but I loved the fact that the most widely observed custom seemed to be eating chocolate eggs and jellybeans.

A one-pound coconut cream egg from Scott's Cakes. The ones we enjoyed as kids were decorated with colored icing flowers and squiggles.

A one-pound coconut cream egg from Scott’s Cakes. The ones we enjoyed as kids were decorated with colored icing flowers and squiggles.

Every spring the TV shows we watched on weekend mornings had numerous ads for Plantation Dainties chocolate coconut cream Easter eggs, a Philadelphia tradition. (The Plantation Candies company still exists in suburban Philadelphia, selling mainly to groups holding fundraisers.)

Some years my father would bring home a large coconut cream Easter egg, covered with chocolate and gaudily decorated with colored sugar icing. The egg weighed at least a pound, and we sliced off small hunks to eat. Gourmet chocolate it was not, but to us kids, anything sweet was delicious.

At school we made Easter baskets out of construction paper, filling them with cellophane grass on which we would place our dyed hard-boiled eggs along with chocolate eggs and jellybeans.

Jellybeans – my fave!

I still love jellybeans – probably the only thing I ever had in common with Ronald Reagan.

Photo by Jocelyn Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Jocelyn Stewart via Flickr Creative Commons

Jellybeans can trace their lineage back to Turkish delight, a sticky, jellied confection, but the earliest mention of the term may be in 1861, when Boston candymaker William Schrafft urged customers to send his jellybeans to soldiers fighting in the Civil War.

Jellybeans – sometimes called jelly eggs – weren’t linked with Easter until the 1930s, probably because of their somewhat egg-like shape.

Now there’s even a Naitonal Jellybean Day, April 22.

For today’s recipe, I wanted to find something using hardboiled eggs that’s a little more imaginative than egg salad. This recipe, for vegetarian chopped liver (paté), is a good dish for Passover as well as Easter, or any other time. It works well as an appetizer course, served on a bed of lettuce, or as a party dish, served with crackers.

I had seen this recipe, or variations of it, many times and was always grossed out by the combination of ingredients: green beans, walnuts, onions and eggs – really? Then I tasted it at a cooking demo by Annabel Cohen, a wonderful cook and Detroit-area caterer, and became a devotee. I think I like this spread even more than actual chopped liver.

You can substitute a similar amount of canned peas, roasted eggplant or sautéed mushrooms for the green beans.

 

 

Hot cross buns are a Good Friday treat

Hot cross buns, photo by Shannon Hobbs via Wikimedia Commons.

Hot cross buns, photo by Shannon Hobbs via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns!
One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny,
Hot cross buns!
If you have no daughters,
Give them to your sons
One ha’ penny,
Two ha’ penny,
Hot Cross Buns

These buns go back a long way, but for much of their history they were known simply as “cross buns.”

The earliest record of the familiar nursery rhyme is in Christmas Box, published in London in 1798. However, there are earlier references to it as a street cry. The earliest written record of the term “hot cross buns” was in Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1733, which noted:

Good Friday come this month, the old woman runs
With one or two a penny hot cross buns.

The fruit-studded sweet buns have become connected to Good Friday – more on this later – but it wasn’t always so.

An ancient custom?

Many scholars think the custom of baking buns and decorating them with a cross is much older. Archeologists found two small, burned loaves marked with crosses in the ruins of the Roman city of Herculaneum, destroyed by the same volcano that destroyed Pompei.

Pagan Saxons honored Eostre, the goddess of spring (and source of the word Easter) with loaves marked with crosses. They may have symbolized the four stages of the moon or the four seasons.

But as food historian Ivan Day says in a long article about hot cross buns, “The trouble with any folk food, any traditional food, is that no-one tended to write about them in the very early period.”

A symbol of the crucifixion

Christianity naturally adopted hot cross buns to symobolize the crucifixion of Jesus, along with numerous superstitions. In days of yore, people believed a bun baked on Good Friday would never go moldy. A bun hung in the kitchen would maintain safety in the home, and maybe even improve the quality of the baking done in it. Burying a hot cross bun in a pile of corn would keep away vermin.

An early Christian myth deals with St. Clare of Assisi and Pope Gregory IX.  The pope had come to Assisi for the canonization of St. Francis in 1228. Sister Clare invited him to share her humble meal of stale bread, and when she blessed it, a cross miraculously appeared on the loaf.

Hot cross buns for sale in an English supermarket; photo by Soin via Flickr Creative Commons.

Hot cross buns for sale in an English supermarket; photo by Soin via Flickr Creative Commons.

The world’s oldest bun

In 2010, the website World Amazing Records published the story of Nancy Titman, then 91, who claimed to have the world’s oldest hot cross bun. The bun, which has March 1821 on its base, was made in the London bakery of Nancy’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Skinner.

Nancy, from in northern England, said, “It’s a relic which has been passed down through the family. My mum said our ancestors worked in a baker’s shop and they believed buns baked on Good Friday didn’t go mouldy.

“It is rock hard and the currants have disintegrated but you can tell it’s a hot cross bun and you can still see the shape of the cross.”

A pub in London’s East End called The Widow’s Son has a connection to hot cross buns. The story is that a widow once lived on the site. Her only son a sailor who was due to return on Good Friday and asked his mother to bake him some hot cross buns.

He never returned, but every Good Friday, his mother had a new bun waiting, which she added to her collection from previous years. When she died, the buns were found hanging from a beam in her cottage. This story has been preserved by the landlords of the pub that replaced the cottage in 1848. Every year British sailors gather at the pub to eat hot cross buns, drink beer and have a good time.

An Elizabethan connection

In her book on English baking, Elizabeth David says Queen Elizabeth I cemented the connection between hot cross buns and Good Friday by forbidding bakeries to make any spiced bread “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas.”

In the old days, the cross was marked with knife slashes in the dough before it was baked. Today it’s common for the cross to be made of icing.

Although their popularity peaks before Easter, fruit-studded hot cross buns are sold in Britain year-round – in a variety of flavors, no less – and have become one of the country’s most popular baked goods.

This recipe comes from the Fleischmann’sYeast Best-Ever Breads cookbook. The buns are lightly spiced, tender and full of dried fruits.

The recipe calls for a cup of chopped dates. I thought I had enough dates on hand, but I discovered someone else in the household had gotten to them and I only had a quarter-cup. I made up the difference with golden raisins and dried cranberries, and the buns were terrific!

This was my first time making this recipe, and as you can see from the photo, I wasn’t very adept at making the sign of the cross. (I don’t think that has anything to do with my being Jewish!)

You need to make the icing thicker than you would if making a glaze – and wait till the buns are completely cool before making the crosses. If you have a pastry bag or another method of piping it on, that will give you better results. It also might help to cut a cross into each bun before you bake them.

This recipe makes 18 buns.