It’s The Small Things: Hot Cross Buns

Easter has long passed, and I managed to avoid the overly abundant marketing and consumerism found back home. Japan has failed to join the Easter train. And for a nation that loves it’s gimmicks, sweet treats and cute imagery, it’s surprising that the material side of the festival hasn’t become a hit over here. This year saw Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu release her single entitled “Easter”. This bizarre acid trip of a music video, complete with dancing eggs and UFO’s doesn’t really clarify the religious holiday, instead opting to further confuse the Japanese masses and everyone else for that matter.

As a kid, I fondly remember gathering a substantial collection of chocolate eggs from relatives and friends. But the one thing I really crave around Easter are hot cross buns. The sweet smell of cinnamon and orange zest, the butter slowly melting and the iconic cross decoration are a quintessential part of England’s baking heritage. That being said, the exact origins of the hot cross bun aren’t well defined. Some have linked it back to the Roman period, others to the Saxons, with many connecting them with 14th Century monks of St Albans Abbey. In fact, Elizabeth I is believed to have banned the sale of hot cross buns and spiced breads during Good Friday and Christmas due to its Catholic connotations. But the first real, documented record of the baked good can be found in the Poor Robin’s Almanak back in 1733.

Similarly, the hot cross buns connection to Easter, both in terms of its recipe and general existence are shrouded in historiographical and religious mystery. With the Church of England’s incessant need to relate every baked good to a Christian context, the bread seems to represent communion, the spice related to those used to wrap Jesus’ body, and the cross obvious represents his crucifixion. But the atheist in me simply sees them as a seasonal treat with a cute design. Though I’ll admit that I rarely ponder the significance of my afternoon treat.

Unlike baking pies or cakes, I lack the patience, methodical thinking and precision that’s required in crafting a beautiful sourdough or crusty whole-wheat loaf. So I usually buy hot cross buns from the supermarket. My particular favourite have been Marks and Spencer’s Apple-Cinnamon variety. They might be more expensive than those from Tesco or Sainsbury, but they’re worth it.

God damn it, I wish I had some now.

Baking Mince Pies in Japan

I’ve already explained my fondness for Christmas Mince Pies, and its seems that I’ve unfortunately inflicted my girlfriend and her family with this seasonal, baked addiction. My wonderful mother has been sending M&S pies in her care packages, but they’ve always been gobbled up in a couple of days. And it seems that Christmas Stollen has stolen

Continue reading “Baking Mince Pies in Japan”

It’s The Small Things: Mince Pies

The Christmas banners are already up in shop windows and in department stores, much to my frustration. Meanwhile the smell of artificial pumpkin spice and over-sweetened cream hangs in the air of shopping arcades and offices. I have to say, Japan really goes full-on with the decorations for every festival and season. Pumpkins in October, Cherry Blossom in Spring and Santa in December. Yet many don’t understand or know the “Nativity Story” behind it all. And if they do, they ask me how Santa Claus fits into the birth of Jesus. Anyway I digress, back home in England the smell of brandy, dry fruits and baked pasty is a delightful one that conjures up one image;  the humble mince pie.

Mince Pies are a staple of Christmas in Great Britain, and have been since its origins in the European Crusades during the thirteenth century. The trading/ pillaging of exotic spices, fruits and foreign cooking were brought back home. To which, in true British culinary style, we baked them into pies. Originally, mince pies actually had meat in them. Whether it was a leg of lamb, or a cow tongue, the combinations of spices and fruit have remained the same. Interestingly, during the English Civil War and the rise of the Puritans, they were banned along with the celebration of Christmas for being too Catholic and fun.

Nowadays the meat has been dropped and mince pies have firmly become sweet, baked goods. The filling of “mincemeat” is a combination of dry fruits, brandy, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg). During my second year of secondary school (junior high), we made our own in Design Technology/ Home Economics class. Unfortunately some students hadn’t understood the difference between minced meat (ground beef) and mincemeat, which caused some problems during the lesson. Meanwhile the pastry is a basic shortcrust variety using flour, plenty of butter, sugar and eggs. It’s all rather simple, which perfectly highlights British baking in general. Brandy Cream (brandy, cream and sugar) is the traditional condiment to a mince pie, but I’ve never been a big fan of the combination. Instead a cup of hot tea will suffice.

Finding mince pies in Japan has been an impossible feat. I’ve checked import stores, foreign-run bakeries, and “English cafes” with little success. It seems that Japan has adopted Christmas Stollen (from Germany) as the foreign, seasonal sweet of choice during Christmas. Therefore, I’ve been reduced to asking my mum to send a box of them from homeThey’ll usually tide me over for a week. Then the cravings kick in. However my girlfriend and I are going to attempt to make them this Christmas. It’ll be interesting to see how they turn out. Fingers crossed.