Saturday, March 05, 2005

Hot Cross Buns and other matters

One Hot Cross Bun To Go
Originally uploaded by ajkinik.

Inspired by our friend Geoff, who posted an extremely tantalizing piece on Sweden’s Semlor pastries earlier this week, I started thinking about Lenten and Passover-season pastries. Semlor are quite clearly pre-Lenten delicacies (their combination of cardamom, whipped cream, and almond paste seems both too heady and too rich to meet Lent’s asceticism), but somehow over time they became seasonal specialties—ones that can now be found in some bakeries from January all the way to Easter. This shift must have something to do with the relative importance of Easter within Swedish culture, but that's another subject altogether. The bottom line, here, is that Semlor got me thinking about everything from Hot Cross Buns to Oma’s “Gremchiles.”

I’ve been an aficionado of the Hot Cross Bun since I was quite young, and they're actually one of the many ways I rate a city (along with bagels, dim sum, rotis and Jamaican patties, delicatessens, and a number of other culinary criteria)--Vancouver rated highly in this department, for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who's ever lived there. However, my knowledge of the Hot Cross Bun's history was foggy at best, so looking for a better understanding, I turned to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food. Hot Cross Buns have generally become sweeter and much less Lenten over the course of time, with their trademark cross now commonly made out of icing sugar and not out of pastry or a simple cross-cut in the dough, as they had been earlier. As it turns out, these icing sugar crosses really belie the pastry’s somewhat somber origins. This cross-bearing pastry dates back to ancient times, the mark being a symbol connected “with religious offerings of bread, which replaced earlier, less civilized offerings of blood,” as Davidson puts it so delicately. Previous to the Christian era, the Egyptians had made offerings of small, round cakes that bore a representation of ox horns to their goddess of the moon. Later, the Greeks and pre-Christian Romans carried on similar traditions, and the Roman Empire eventually brought this custom to the Saxon world. The Saxons ate buns bearing the image of a cross as a tribute to their goddess of light, Eostre, and it is this name that became the root of the word Easter, indicating just how central Hot Cross Buns are to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Easter.

Oma’s “Gremchiles” are another matter altogether. Not long after I met my friend Mark, we bonded over the subject of pastries. We both had a serious taste for pastries of the Eastern, Central, and Northern European variety—Mark has Dutch and Eastern European roots, while half my family is Slovak—and Montreal at the time was a haven for those with tastes such as ours. We had a number favorite bakeries and we visited them regularly—pastries were the subjects of countless discussions, and the inspirations behind countless of other non-food-related conversations. I remember that the Modern Lovers' masterpiece of the morose, “Hospital,” where Jonathan Richman sang-spoke so plaintively, “I go to bakeries / All day long / ‘Cause there’s a lack of sweetness in my life,” resonated particularly strongly with me at the time. Mark eventually became known as the “Pastry King” within our circle of friends, and one of the things that secured this reputation, in my mind at least, was his devotion to his Oma’s “Gremchiles.” Every year, at Passover, his Oma would make her version of this Dutch-Jewish matzoh-based pastry by the dozens, and every year Mark would wax poetic about them for weeks in advance of his annual Passover trip to Toronto. Eventually, some of us couldn't take it any longer and we started placing orders for them, and Mark would come back with a couple of “Gremchiles” each. I haven’t had them in some 15 years or so, but I still remember them vividly. Finding myself daydreaming about them a few days ago, I got in contact with Mark in an attempt to obtain the recipe. Within 24 hours I’d heard back from both Mark and his mother, Claire, and not only was I now the proud owner of a recipe for them, but I’d finally found out their real name: Gremselich.

Stay tuned, I’ll have more on Gremselich in a few weeks, closer to Passover.

You can find Geoff’s piece on Semlor at Bits and Bytes From Elsewhere under the title “Stockholm Syndrome II.” Don’t miss it.



Iso G said...

My mother does the hot-cross bun thing as well, but mainly the store-bought variety (not having access, in suburbia, to a proper bakery which respects non-Xmas baking traditions).

If I had a proper oven, I'd be making voisilmapulla right about now.

Thanks for the plug, by the way.

aj kinik said...

Hi Geoff,
We never baked them at home--they were typically an after-school snack picked up from a local bakery. Some made them too sweet, others made them a bit too ascetic, if you get my drift (apparently some recipes, back in the day, contained sawdust, just to make sure you didn't enjoy yourself too much), but then there were always one or two bakeries that had just the right balance.


Anonymous said...

Good Morning Anthony!

Do you remember those delicious "Hot Cross Buns" that I used to get during Lent in Sunnyvale? They were from that 'Health Food Restaurant' and they were not too sweet just the perfect breakfast buns with a cup of 'cafe au lait' - Amazing enough I can get some pretty good ones at the 'Panda' in Khobar but of course the manager is British!


aj kinik said...

Hi y'all,
since some of you have asked...
The HCB featured in the photo came from Gascogne on Laurier. I'm still compiling notes on the best HCBs in town. If the good Lord's willing, I'll send along my tips before Easter comes around.