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Recipes for celebrating Christian festivals

Lent, Holy Week and Easter

Simnel (or Easter) cake Unleavened bread Haroseth Hot Cross Buns Easter Bread Easter Eggs   
Why is food so important in Christian celebration? Quoting from the commentary in our version of the Passover Supper

"Among people everywhere, sharing of bread forms a bond of fellowship.
The Jews called it 'Yahatz', the bond formed by sharing."
Our own traditional welcome to visitors is to begin by putting the kettle on!

It is very rare to have any celebration without food and drink whether it's a happy occasion or a sad one. When Jesus instituted the 'eucharist' or thanksgiving with his disciples in Jerusalem on the final night of his life on earth he said to them,
"Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine
until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."
Doesn't this suggest celebrations in heaven?

Food is more than mere sustenance. It is also symbolic, both of welcome and of the season. These days when we are largely losing touch with foods in season we can still mark the liturgical calendar with special foods for special seasons, and why not also borrow ideas from other traditions or try out new ways of using food and drink as symbol.

In the Middle Ages people ate Simnel cake, a rich fruit cake topped with marzipan on the 4th Sunday of Lent. The word 'Simnel' comes from the Latin through Old French 'simenel' meaning 'finest flour'. Nowadays this Sunday is referred to as Mothering Sunday and has become a celebration of mothers and children in general, but the cake is also suitable for Easter. An ordinary sponge or Madeira cake could be substituted and for those who do not like marzipan a suitable icing could be used, but keep to the style to maintain the traditional appearance!

Recipe for Simnel cake

6 oz margarine (or butter)
6 oz sugar (preferably caster)
3 large eggs
8 oz plain flour 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1-2 tablespoons milk
12 oz currants
4 oz sultanas
3 oz chopped mixed peel
1 lb marzipan *
apricot jam to bind the marzipan to the cake
1 egg, beaten, for glazing

*The easiest method is to buy ready-made packets of marzipan. Put in a warm place before rolling out

Cream the butter and sugar ; beat in the eggs gradually, adding a little flour with each to prevent curdling. Sift the flour with the spices; fold it into the mixture; add the fruit. Stir in a little milk till the mixture will just drop off the spoon.
Put the mixture into a prepared (lined) 7 or 8 in. cake tin. (Make a 'sandwich with a layer of marzipan in the middle if desired). Level off the top. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 170 C or 325 F (Gas Mark 3) for one hour. Reduce the heat a little for two more hours or until the cake is firm.
Let the cake cool in the tin so that it just shrinks away from the sides, before turning it out. If left in the lining paper and wrapped in foil it will keep well for two weeks. To decorate: Brush the top with apricot jam. Roll out a thick round of marzipan to size, press and cut if necessary, to fit. The edge of the marzipan can be pinched with the finger and thumb to make a fluted pattern. Roll the remainder into12 little balls and place round the edge. These represent the 12 Apostles.
The whole cake, complete with marzipan top, could be slightly coloured by baking for five minutes near the top of a hot oven, or browned under a hot grill. (Don't do this with ordinary icing!)
For Easter make a marzipan 'nest' and fill it with tiny Easter eggs. Small fluffy yellow Easter chickens could also be added.

Mulled ale
In Lancashire the tradition was to accompany the simnel cake with ale which was heated by having a red-hot poker plunged into it.


Unleavened Bread

The Lord said, "For seven days you must not eat any bread made with yeast - eat only unleavened bread. On the first day you are to get rid of all the yeast in your houses....Keep this festival because it was on this day that I brought your tribes out of Egypt.."

That night the king sent for Moses and Aaron and told them to lead their people out of Egypt
"...the people filled their baking-pans with unleavened dough, wrapped them in clothing, and carried them on their shoulders."

[from Exodus 12]

Traditionally unleavened bread was made with matzos flour. It is not easy to use and for the parish Passover Supper we compromise and make small flat biscuits with plain wholemeal flour and water, mixed and rolled out like pastry. As we are not being Jews but only trying to represent what happened at the Last Supper we add a touch of oil and honey (about 1 dessertspoon of each to 1 lb of flour) to make them palatable. Grease the pans well and bake the biscuits in a moderately hot oven for about ten minutes or more, turning once. Don't let them go brown - they should still be soft when cooked and can often be quite puffy in spite of having no raising agent. Test one or two if unsure - they should be chewy but not hard or brittle.



The quantities here are according to taste and involve a little guesswork. These quantities were for about 30-40 people so begin with smaller quantities and taste as you go! Stir together a mix of chopped nuts (approx.1/4 lb), ground almonds (a fairly large packet), sultanas (8ozs to 1lb), cinnamon (a teaspoon or two to taste), apples (about 4) and mayonnaise (enough to bind). If not sweet enough add more sultanas, not sugar.

Haroseth is eaten as a sandwich filling with bitter herbs (e.g. watercress) between two pieces of unleavened bread.

The herbs, 'maror', are bitter because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our people, as it is written: "With hard labour at mortar and brick and in all sorts of work in the field, with all the tasks ruthlessly imposed upon them." Today, as well, wherever slavery remains, we taste its bitterness.

In spite of that the mix is actually very popular, even addictive! However, in case anyone present has a serious allergy, don't forget to warn those eating it that the mix contains nuts, especially if there are peanuts present.


Hot Cross Buns

These are made with yeast. They can be made in advance, wrapped in polythene and frozen, or the dough could be made the day before and kept in an oiled polythene bag overnight. The basic mixture is similar to Viennese bread, generally called 'twist' nowadays, but any other rich yeast mix is suitable. The method and handling are more important than exact quantities. The amount of yeast partly determines how fast the dough will rise and the quantity of fat etc determines how rich they will be.
24 ozs strong flour
(plain flour makes tougher buns)
3 ozs butter or margarine
about 15 fluid ozs of warm milk
1 tablespoon of dried yeast
3-4 fluid ozs of hand-hot water
about 1 tsp of spices : cinnamon, nutmeg, &/or mixed - to taste
about 6 ozs fruit - currants & raisins
or mixed fruit and peel
sugar to taste

The water should feel warm or very slightly hot on the back of the hand. None of the ingredients should be very cold as this makes the yeast slow to work, but if too hot the yeast will be killed.

Stir the yeast with a half teaspoon of sugar (or more) into the water. Leave in a warm place to rise until doubled - about 15 minutes.
Sift the flour with the spices. Rub the fat into the flour or melt it gently and add with the yeast mixture. Stir in sugar to taste. If using a food processor all these can be added at once.
The next stage is the most crucial! You can make a well in the flour and pour the yeast mixture into it, stirring all the time, then add the milk. Start kneading when unable to stir, aiming for a smooth and pliable dough. If still sticky add a little flour, or if it feels tough wet your hands slightly and punch, pummel, roll or stretch for about ten minutes till it feels soft and doesn't stick! (Good penance for the end of Lent)
Alternative method! Put all the dry ingredients and the fat into a food processor, half at a time if it is small. The ordinary (metal) mixing blade will do. Add the yeast mixture all at once. It can be safely left for several minutes while you warm the milk. Put the top of the food processor on firmly and begin mixing. Pour the milk through the top steadily, but not too fast. When finished the mixture should look very slightly wet and will have left the sides of the processor fairly clean. Once you stop the process you can't restart and if it is too wet it will stop itself! All is not lost if the mixture seems 'wrong'. Tip it into a suitable bowl and continue as for the hand method - it's a good idea to 'feel' the mixture in any case and knead out lumps if there are any. This method can cut out the hard work but may need a little practice.
You can add the fruit while the mixture is still dry if mixing by hand. If using a food processor the fruit could be added after the first rising; don't add it in the processor or it will be mashed! Make the dough into a bowl shape, fill the hollow with fruit and knead it in. Add more if you like dried fruit but don't overdo it or it will be too heavy to rise!
The dough should double in bulk in 45 mins to 1 hour (sometimes less in a warm kitchen or airing cupboard). Knock back after the first rising and make into about 20 buns, placing them well-spaced out on a well-greased tray (or trays). A mixture with sugar and dried fruit burns more easily so don't leave any loose fruit on the baking tray. Bake in a moderately hot oven - Gas Mark 6 or 400 F for about 15 minutes. Turn them after some 8 minutes if the oven is not fan-assisted oven. A second tray will take longer - they could be cooked separately or changed over to even up the baking, but add a few extra minutes to allow for this. When finished they should be brown and not feel soggy.
Place the cooked buns on a wire tray or in a basket to dry out. Make a small amount of ordinary pastry, roll out and cut into strips to make the most effective crosses, though some children don't like pastry strips. Fix in place by slightly damping the underside of the strips. An alternative if there isn't time for pastry is to score the buns before baking with a sharp knife, being careful not to collapse them too much. The cuts open out when cooking and are paler. (If the buns have over-risen or collapsed for any reason, all is not lost as you can knock them back and allow them to rise again.)
Make a glaze with a spoonful of sugar and about twice as much water and boil to dissolve. (Not for too long or it will be toffee!) With a clean pastry brush paint each bun quickly and sprinkle with a little brown sugar. (It helps to have an assistant for this!) This glaze can be a little sticky but is especially popular with children. Warm for a few minutes in the oven before serving and eat with butter.

Jesus warned his disciples to avoid the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their stubborn attitudes permeated their whole way of thinking so that they were quite unable to hear or understand his message. But the idea of yeast - which needs the right conditions to grow and and hard work and determination to work it through the whole mixture - can be positive too. Making bread can be a meditative experience!


Easter Bread

Versions of Easter bread are traditional throughout Europe. In Finland it is sometimes made with yoghurt and honey. In Castille it is flat bread filled with spicy sausage, cheese and hard-boiled eggs. The Greeks flavour theirs with orange and set red-dyed hard-boiled eggs into the top.

The following is based on the recipe for Hot Cross Buns above, and is similar to the Russian version. Add slightly more fat and replace some of the liquid with one or two (pre-whisked) eggs. Add 2 ozs or more of glace cherries chopped into halves along with a similar amount of mixed fruit. Instead of dividing into buns make into two oblong loaf shapes - allow space as before - and bake in a moderate oven for about 25 mins. Or they could be cooked for about ten minutes in a slightly hotter oven and the heat reduced for the rest of the time. They can be turned after ten or 15 mins to even up the browning. The bottom should sound slightly hollow when tapped.

These loaves are usually iced with water icing, decorated with glace cherries and almonds to taste and eaten sliced and buttered. One Greek idea would make an appropriate Easter decoration. Make a cross with the dough, large enough to cover the top and end each arm of it with a circle. The small circle is usually filled with with glace cherries or walnuts but small Easter eggs could be substituted.


Easter Eggs

The custom of eating chocolate eggs is comparatively modern. Eggs are a sign of new life so very appropriate for Christian use. The practice of beginning a meal with a hard-boiled egg flavoured with salt water dates from Roman times. In the Passover Supper we use half an egg as parter of a small starter accompanied by lettuce, a quarter of tomato, a few slices of cucumber and a garnish of mayonnaise, watercress and mustard and cress, plus half a slice of buttered wholemeal bread.

The alternative to eating the egg is to roll it. The ancient practice of 'pace-egging is still as popular as ever in Preston in Lancashire. Large numbers of children go with their parents to Avenham Park on Easter Monday to roll their eggs down a grassy slope. These are called 'pace' eggs from a corruption of both 'pasche', the old Latin name for Easter and 'pax' meaning peace, and the custom is associated with the idea of the stone being rolled away from the tomb when Jesus rose again on Easter morning. The eggs are sometimes intended to crack perhaps originally to reinforce this symbolism. Sometimes the eggs are dyed or elaborately decorated. A simple dye can be achieved by boiling them with, for example, an onion skin in the water (yellow or brown) or a few drops of cochineal (red) or spinach (green). However, it seems that real eggs haven't been seen for a number of years and egg-rolling, as popular as ever, now involves chocolate eggs - in their jazzy foil 'coats' - instead!