For many people Easter has simply become a time to gorge on a large amount of chocolate – perhaps to make up for forgoing such treats during Lent. While for others it represents the most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whatever it means to you I’m sure you’ll be indulging in many of the Easter treats such as hot cross buns, roast lamb, chocolate eggs and simnel cake. But ever stopped to wonder where these culinary traditions came from …
Simnel cakes aren’t a new invention and have been around since Medieval times when they were most likely to have been served up on Mothering Sunday (not the same thing as Mother’s Day) also known as Simnel Sunday . At this time it resembled a kind of yeast-leavened bread made extra special by the use of very high quality flour. In fact the meaning of the word simnel is thought to be derived from the latin simila meaning fine flour.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the bread morphed into a kind of spotted dick type pudding and was boiled and then wrapped in pastry and baked. There’s a lovely story about an old couple – Simon and Nelly – who, one Easter, found they had a bit of dough left over from Lent. They argued over what to do with it : Simon wanted to boil it and Nelly wanted to bake it. After a rather violent exchange they decided to do both – and their invention became known as the Simon and Nelly cake or SimNel cake! It was around the nineteenth century that simnel cake started to look like the cake we now know and was thought of as an Easter treat to celebrate the 40 days of Lent. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the marzipan was incorporated and used as decorative balls on top.
My own version of simnel cake changes each year depending on what dried fruit I have in my cupboard but is always based on a rather dogeared recipe card obtained from Waitrose many moons ago. We used to have a tradition in our house that the male half of any visiting couples at Easter should bring a simnel cake with them. Competition was fierce over the years but after Russ trumped everyone with his creation of a marzipan Stonehenge atop a simnel cake this tradition seemed to peter out !! This year I went all modern with golden mini eggs on top …
The most controversial thing about a simnel cake seems to be how many marzipan balls you put on top. Some go for 11 – representing the 11 Apostles (minus Judas) and some plump for 12 (representing Jesus and his 11 Apostles – again minus Judas). Now I always feel a bit sorry for Judas as without his betrayal Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified and risen from the dead and would probably just have been thought of as any other teacher or rabbi of the time. So I put 12 on my cake representing all 12 of the Apostles … yes I know I’ll never go to heaven …
Most of us probably know that the cross on hot cross buns represents the crucifixion of Jesus but did you know that the spices inside signify the spices used to embalm him at his funeral? The origin of the buns is a little more sketchy. Some say that during the 14th century a monk in St Albans created Alban Buns which were marked with a cross and distributed among the poor on Good Friday. However, crossed buns were also eaten during Saxon times to honour Eostre (Goddess of Fertility and the Dawn) and the cross was then thought to symbolise the 4 quarters of the moon. Whatever their origin it’s fair to say that a vast number will be eaten this coming weekend. A leading supermarket reckons they’ll sell about 70 million over the Easter period.
Now here’s a thing. A recent poll online was asking whether people ate their hot cross buns toasted or untoasted. UNTOASTED ! I’ve ever heard of such a thing … how else can you successfully achieve the requisite amount of butter designed to give your arteries a wake up call after 40 days of slumber without toasting the bun first!! Nonsense. And then … browsing through a CO-OP magazine I saw a feature highlighting the different toppings you can put on hot cross buns. Has the world gone mad I thought to myself … you don’t need anything other than the afore-mentioned butter. But in the interests of science … well ok greed … I thought I would try a few out so you my dear friends don’t have to. Yes I’m all heart….
So here are the results : Mascarpone & raspberries (too sweet) : Whipped rum butter (bit too boozy for breakfast) : Goats cheese & honey (OK) : Comte cheese (too weird I didn’t even try) : Banana & peanut butter (the best of the bunch). And if you check out Instagram there’s even more bizarre suggestions – bacon butty hot cross buns anyone? No didn’t think so. My advice is just to stick to what your granny did, slice it in half, toast and then slather in really good butter.
Happy Easter everyone xx