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Hot Cross Buns

Around Easter, the supermarkets here stock hot cross buns. I love them. They’re soft fruit buns, subtly flavored with cinnamon and other spices and studded with sultanas or currants and sometimes other fruit. On the top is an icing cross. Some supermarkets have also come up with chocolate buns and other combinations — even fruitless ones! — but for me, the only one is the traditional one. I’m having these ones for breakfast.

They’re best slathered with butter — real butter, not margarine. I left the butter out on the bench last night so it would be soft for my buns this morning, but it was a chilly night and I don’t have the heating on yet, so as you can see, the butter was still pretty firm. But never mind, they’ll still be delicious with my morning coffee.

Some people zap them in the microwave or pop them in the oven to heat them up, and if you’re baking them at home, they’re yummy straight from the oven. (There is a recipe here from a favorite site, which includes a a no-knead version, and another one from the BBC. I haven’t tried them but they’re both reliable sites.) But hot cross buns are still delicious cold. When they get a bit stale I’ll toast mine, though there’s probably no danger of them lasting that long.

I once read a regency novel where the heroine was eating “cross buns” and I blinked when I read it, and then realized that the author must be American, and was being literal because the buns were not hot. I chuckled, because hot or cold, we still call them hot cross buns, and I’ve never heard them called “cross buns” which conjures up an image of a seriously grumpy fruit buns. I suppose we call them that because of the old nursery rhyme — “Hot cross buns, hot cross buns, one a penny two a penny hot cross buns.”

When I was growing up, Mum was very strict about not eating hot cross buns until Good Friday morning, and they were a real treat. There are still people who wax furiously about them becoming available weeks before Easter. Not me. The moment I spot them in the supermarket  I snap them up. (They usually bake them in-house at my local supermarket and the smell is irresistible.) After Easter, they’ll disappear again, and though the supermarkets still sell fruit buns they are not the same — the taste is quite different — so Easter is the only time I get these yummy treats.

Whether or not you celebrate Easter (culturally or otherwise) do you have any special food you eat at this time of year?


Christmas gifts

It’s almost Christmas, and though most of my  Christmas gatherings have been cancelled or postponed, I’m still determined to enjoy it. In fact it might even be more peaceful than usual, because I’m not frantically running around, trying to fit everything in before the big day.

In fact, as I write this, I’m waiting for a friend who is coming past on her way to her family Christmas, and is dropping off a jar of her famous chutney — she makes it every year as a small Christmas gift and it’s delicious.

I’m also making most of my gifts this year, or sending goats or chickens — friends and family get a card, and someone in a third world country gets the chance to improve their self-sufficiency.  I’ve done this for a while now, and it’s very satisfying — my young nephew used to love telling his friends, “my crazy aunt gave me a goat for Christmas!” There’s a great selection for individuals or whole families, and I’ve given water, and supplies for a school and more.

A group of my friends and I were talking one year, and decided that we all had too much “stuff” and we didn’t need more things, and that often Christmas gifts just added to the clutter. I don’t know about you, but I was brought up that it was rude to get rid of a gift, so all kinds of unwanted things cluttered my house. (I have since battled with that obligation and am now manage to give most of the unwanted stuff to charity.)

We (my friends and I) admitted, though, that we still liked getting presents, so we decided to give only things that we could use, or eat or drink. Since I usually make small food gifts to give friends or colleagues, I was all in favor of that. 

My usual gift, and one that people look forward to year after year (and often ask for), is Christmas Crack  — a sweet gift made from salty crackers, toffee, chocolate  and toasted almonds. It’s salty, sweet and very yummy and addictive. You can google the recipe — it’s everywhere. This is mine, and I usually present it packaged elegantly (cough cough)  in cellophane bags.

I sometimes make white chocolate nougat — it’s a “cheat’s nougat” and very easy to make — and very pretty. See the photo below) Other small gifts I often make are spiced nuts (sometimes chocolate dusted almonds) and  mendiants — small disks of chocolate, studded with dried fruit and nuts. They’re traditional French sweets, and very simple to make — just a blob of melted chocolate and pop the fruits and nuts on top. I also made limoncello one year and it was a big hit.

Speaking of simple gifts made with melted chocolate, a couple of years ago a friend gave me some pretzels half dipped in chocolate, and they were delicious — that salty-sweet combination — and would be very easy to make.

Christmas in Australia comes in summer, and the shops and markets are full of fruit. At the moment in my fridge and my big blue fruit bowl I have mangoes, peaches, cherries, grapes, lemons, raspberries and blackberries and pears. That photo at the top of the post is my Chinese bowl that my mother gave me many years ago when my parents were living in Malaysia, and it’s been on my Christmas table every year since, always filled with cherries.

As well, the fruit trees people have in their back yard are madly fruiting and I love getting the call: “Our peach tree is loaded. Want to come and pick some?” This photo is of peaches I picked from a friend’s tree. Apart from eating them fresh, I also made jam, and spiced peaches, which makes a delicious dessert.
So as well as my usual Christmas edible gifts, I’m trying a few new things. The pears in my fruit bowl are going to be pickled. Yes, I know that sounds a bit strange, but I found the recipe here and the comments were most enthusiastic, so that’s today’s project. After making, they need to be kept unopened for a month or so, which will be good timing for a couple of my postponed Christmas gatherings — if they taste as good as they sound.

I regularly make bread and butter cucumbers — not for gifts, just for me — but I might try them on some friends who don’t know whether they’d like them or not. They’re very easy to make and not as sweet as the ones in the shops.

Another recipe I’d love to try is chestnuts in Cointreau — sounds yummy doesn’t it? But it’s not chestnut season, and though you can buy vacuum packed chestnuts, I haven’t seen any in the shops yet, so I’ll probably have to wait until it’s chestnut season. But for those of you in parts of the world where chestnuts are ripe and readily available, the recipe is here. If you try it, let me know how it went.

Of course, many Australians are not sitting at home slaving over a hot stove — they’re at the beach, which is also a traditional place to celebrate the holidays. This cartoon recalls the joy of all my childhood Christmases at the beach — we went away every year, sometimes in a caravan, sometimes to stay with my grandparents who lived by the sea. Pop became a fisherman after he retired, and kept us all supplied with fish and lobsters. The cartoon is by my friend Moira, and is one of the illustrations from PageTurners, the little adult literacy books I help produce.

So that’s it for today. Here’s hoping that whatever holidays you celebrate, they’re peaceful and happy and there’s plenty of good food.
Do you make any Christmas gifts? I’d love to know what.