In the blink of an eye Christmas is gone, it’s the New Year and the time of resolutions - eat less, drink less, and yes, now spend less. At some point between Christmas and the New Year the left-over mince pies do their disappearing acts to make way for the definitive mountains of hot cross buns. In Britain we’re a bit thin on the ground as far as the choice of Easter baked goods are concerned, which surely must be a little commercially short-sighted. Why is there less innovation in breads and cakes at Easter than at Christmas?
The culinary development of Christmas products knows no bounds; the metamorphosis of the mince pie alone is nothing short of impressive. This simple pie now comes in a mass of sizes, shapes and different pastry options: slices, lattices, strudels, tarts, mini pies, puff, short, filo - some with subtle tweaks to the filling. Here is a stalwart of Christmas re-invented to boost sales in a commercially viable and innovative way, enticing the consumer to buy essentially the same product, though a different look, for weeks on end leading up to Christmas Day. But what have we really done to bring on the Hot Cross bun or anything else to its level of popularity at Easter?
The practice of eating small cakes at the time of the spring festival certainly dates way back to ancient Greek times and, since then, Bath buns, spice buns, penny buns, Chelsea buns, currant buns, all these sweet fermented cakes have all become British institutions, the most interesting being the simple spiced bun, the origin of our Good Friday Hot Cross Bun. But the only real alternative to the Hot Cross bun is the Simnel cake, a rich fruit cake covered in marzipan (11 balls of it on the top representing the faithful disciples of Jesus). These have never come close to Hot Cross Buns in popularity. Marzipan is - let’s face it - a niche ingredient, often an acquired taste and yes, I’m afraid I’m one of those who always peels it off my slice of Christmas cake, feeding it to the nearest dog, or leaves it on the side of the plate.
Perhaps the time has come to develop an alternative to this solitary bun and come up with a wonderful Easter bread that can be eaten fresh or toasted, dripping with butter and honey for breakfast or with a cup of tea. Something that takes influences from two of my favourite Easter breads.
The first is Kulich, which originates in Russia and is similar to the very delicious brioche, made with white flour, eggs, butter and milk and rich with raisins, candied peel, angelica and chopped almonds. This tall round bread is either glazed or iced and then decorated with glacé cherries or candied fruits.
My second favourite is Tsoureki. This yeasted Easter Greek bread is made from an enriched dough flavoured with orange and spices, often coiled into a round, but also made into a long plait. It is then sprinkled with almonds, sesame or caraway seeds and, perhaps a little misguidedly, often decorated with the characteristic red hard boiled eggs.
The key to successful new product development in whatever area of food, I have always believed, hinges on familiarity, popularity, simplicity and quality, but above all commercial viability. Taking a successful product and giving it a new and exciting edge. So I’ll be looking out for delicious new Easter breads as we get closer to April, in the hope that I have been successful in enthusing a reader or two.
l Nellie Nichols is a food consultant and is contactable on:
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