A topic smoldering in the back of my mind for some months as I’ve seen variations on this theme for months because of numerous holidays. When is bread more than bread? Or perhaps a bit more generally, when do baked goods serve a higher purpose? I’ve unearth a few instances, and I am sure there are more, in fact I know there are. I thought with the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead and the preparation of Pan de Muertos this was the perfect time to consider the possibilities. This glimmer of an idea took hold when I saw several articles on bread shaped like people, or at least various body parts; specifically the post of a baker in Thailand that created some of the most disturbing lifelike creations I’d seen. Around the world bread fashioned to convey something more than calories and nutrition has held cultural significance. The following are a few samples of what I’ve encountered.
On November 2 (Día de los Difuntos, literally Day of the Deceased, or All Soul’s Day) families gather at cemeteries to clean gravesites and feast with their deceased. Blueberry-based colada and bread “babies” (guaguas) are traditionally served. Families remember their deceased loved ones by visiting their grave sites with food and flowers. Roads are often closed as people make their way to the cemeteries to visit the dead and decorate their graves with fresh flowers. Colada morada, a blueberry and blackberry corn-based drink, is paired with guaguas de pan, sweet bread in the shape of babies are two foods often consumed.
Anthropologists believe that this tradition began with the prehispanic indigenous Andean people, who shared food with the deceased. These prehispanic groups viewed death, not as final, but a transition to a different dimension; the living were inextricably linked to the dead. When the Catholic Church dedicated November 2nd as a day for the living to pray for souls in purgatory; the indigenous folks equated this with their customs of sharing food and anecdotes with the dead, and a festival marrying Catholicism and paganism was born. The two foods previously mentioned are a perfect example; Colada morada, the thick, hot drink that characterizes this holiday, takes Andean products such as blueberries, blackberries and corn and unites them with bread (guaguas de pan), the European counterpart. The dark purple-red colada symbolizes blood (death), while the bread, shaped like a baby (guagua), represents the body of the deceased, thus incorporating Catholic ideals (the blood and body of Christ) and a pagan ritual, a practice the missionaries used while recruiting believers in the New World.
Gingerbread men and houses are perhaps the most obvious bread that goes beyond food, at least for someone with a European heritage. A gingerbread man was the first image to jump into my mind when I conceived this post. Ginger became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, probably reintroduced by returning Crusaders (the ancient Romans had used it previously). Originally used as a delicacy, Europeans soon discovered ginger’s preservative properties, and began treating their meat with it. As ginger became more widely used, it became more expensive, and was one of the most precious spices traded in Medieval Europe.
By the 15th century, Europeans relied heavily on ginger and imported it in vast quantities, which also served to drive down the cost as more suppliers took up the demand. They incorporated it as the chief flavoring for baked goods. Most countries developed unique gingerbread recipes, which they showcased at the gingerbread “fairs” popular throughout Europe at the time. Eventually, gingerbread-making became a highly respected profession, distinct from other bakery professions. In Germany, England, and France, gingerbread bakers formed their own guilds.
Gingerbread baked goods became associated with the holidays, and were shaped as appropriate for special celebrations. The Germans became famous for their shaped ginger creations. Nuremberg, in particular, was the unofficial ginger capital of Europe, where artisans from other crafts, such as sculptors, and woodcarvers fashioned elaborate molds used by gingerbread bakers to make beautiful delicacies When the Brothers Grimm published their collections of fairy tales, the witch’s house in “Hansel & Gretel’ was described as a house of candies and cakes, along the lines of the German bakers tradition of crafting “Hexenhaeusle”, or witches’ houses, which morphed into the gingerbread houses of today.
Going back even earlier, gingerbread began as honey-sweetened doughs cut or molded into animal shapes. Why animal shapes? Anthropologists believe that the roots of today’s festive cookies and breads evolved from ancient traditions. Before converting to Christianity, many pagan societies sacrificed both humans and animals. If there was nothing to sacrifice, people baked breads in the appropriate form and offered those to the gods instead. After Christianity became common, people retained their traditions of baking festive sweets in human and animal shapes.
Purim – is essentially the story of Ester who risks death to save the Jews from the clutches of the evil Haman by pleading their case to Ahasuerus, the King of Persia. Ashkenazic Jews celebrate this holiday by making hamentaschen (literally Hama’s pockets). This triangular shaped cookie represents Haman’s three cornered hat, or another version of the story indicates it could be his ears. Blogger, 5 Star Foodie has a delicious recipe for Hamentaschen and the story behind these cookies.
Rosca de Reyes – Three Kings Bread – a holiday wreath with a small Jesus figurine baked in. The “lucky” person who finds the figuring is suppose to provide the tamales for the next party. Not a problem, as everyone apparently pitches in, so no one is left holding the bag, or baby as it were.
Pan de Muerto is Day of the Dead bread, and is made for the feasts to celebrate deceased loved ones at the beginning of November. Note that the bread is sweet, so as to soften the bitterness of death. Other Latin American countries offer up similar versions. In El Salvador, cooks fry up hojuelas, flat crunchy dough drizzled in honey, and in Nicaragua, buñuelos, or doughnuts, made from ground yucca flour are shaped into balls.
Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead bread) — From Rosa Mexicano restaurant
4 c flour
2 ½ T yeast
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp anise seeds
¼ c vegetable oil
2 T butter, room temperature
1 c water
1 T sesame seeds
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and anise seeds until well incorporated. Make a well in the center and add eggs, vegetable oil, butter, water and mix to make a sticky dough. Knead dough for 15 minutes, until it has softened. The dough should not be sticky. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and lightly oil the top of the dough so it does not dry out. Cover with a damp cloth and put in a warm, but not hot, place to rise. Let dough rise until double in size, about 45 minutes to an hour. Punch down dough, knead a few times more and divide dough into two equal balls. Form round loaves and place each loaf on a sheet of parchment paper to allow bread space to increase in size. Wet sesame seeds and drain. Place seeds in a bowl and, using your fingers, spread seeds onto bread lightly. Allow dough to rise for an additional 15 minutes. Cut a slit in the bread and let rise again for 15 minutes more. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake bread for about 45 minutes, or until nicely browned on top. Bread should sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Allow bread to cool completely before cutting.
By now, most of you would have seen the following images (warning, while bread, they are incredibly realistic, and are disturbing). Some of the anthropologists discussing this work speculated it was an extension of Buddhist desire not to kill plants or animals but rather replicate them. This idea is in evidence in many Asian markets where “fake meat” made from tofu to wheat gluten, you name it, is replicated into a realist proximity in terms of taste, odor and texture. I have no ideas if that was this person’s intent, but since seeing the photos was what prompted this overview, so I felt compelled to include it.
December 13 (the longest night according to Sweden’s old calendar) is St. Lucia’s day and is widely celebrated in places such as Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Finland and Italy. She was a 4th century Sicilian who became a Christian and devoted her life to serving the poor. She was tortured and killed in an unsuccessful attempt to get her to renounce her faith.
On this day in Sweden, the oldest daughter in the family dresses in a white robe and wearing a lighted candles in a wreath (representing the fire that refused to take St. Lucia’s life when she was sentenced to burn), or carries a candle in a procession. The daughter treats her parents to breakfast in bed, serving hot coffee and saffron buns (Lussekatter) before dawn. St. Lucia bread (Lussekatter) may be shaped in a variety of ways, including a crown, a cross, simple “S” figures (representing the eyes of St. Lucy), a wreath, or a cat. The lighted crown and saffron color dough symbolize that the sun will soon return in this Scandinavian country, and overcome the darkness of this, the longest night of the year.
An earlier interpretation of this bread, and the use of saffron also exists. It started in 17th century Germany, and “lussekatt” was originally a reference to the lucifer. The devil, Lucifer, was said to visit in cat form and terrorized misbehaving children, while Jesus (in the form of a child) distributed buns to good girls and boys. The yellow coloring, coming from the saffron, was meant to ward off evil. The story of St. Lucia came about later in the 17th century and made use of the bread as part of the celebration, continuing the idea that the color warded off evil or darkness.
Lussekatter (St. Lucia Buns)
¼ tsp saffron threads
1 cup milk
1 T yeast
½ c sugar
4 oz butter
5 c flour
1 tsp salt
½ c sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 beaten egg white for egg wash
Using a mortar and pestle, pound saffron threads to break down strands. In a small saucepan, heat milk to lukewarm. Mix yeast with ¼ cup milk and 1 tablespoon sugar. Set aside.
On low heat, melt butter in saucepan with milk. Add crushed saffron. Let cool. In large bowl, mix together flour salt and remaining sugar. Stir yeast into cooled milk mixture. Mix into dry ingredients, beating to mix well. Add beaten eggs. Knead in bowl for 5 – 7 minutes. Turn onto floured board and knead another 7 – 8 minutes. Put dough in lightly greased bowl, turn to coat all sides, cover and put in warm, draft-free place to rise for about 1 hour. When dough has risen, knead lightly to push out air and divide into small pieces (about 10 – 12). Using the hands, roll each small piece into a strip about 8 – 10 inches long. Shape each strip into an ‘S’ or a figure 8. Place on lightly buttered cookie sheets. Cover with clean cloth and let rise again until double in bulk, about 1 to 1½ hours.
Preheat oven to 375°F. When dough has risen, brush lightly with egg white. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool on wire rack.
Yield: 10 – 12 buns
Animal crackers were a staple in my life as a child, and I confess a go to snack today. I used to take all the crackers out of the box and determine what animals I had in my zoo, eating my way through my duplicates until all that remained was one of each species (apparently the story of Noah and his ark had not fully sunk in yet).
Animal crackers were imported from England when “fancy” baked goods first began to be in demand here. Eventually the New York Biscuit Company took over making “Animals” and they became one of their staples. What made these crackers a success was the redesign of their packaging so that the box looked like a circus wagon. Their name was changed to “Barnum’s Animals Crackers,” named after P. T. Barnum, showman and circus owner who was so famous during this era. Barnum’s Animals Crackers provided the nation with a new type of animal cracker. Soon Animal (the s was dropped) Crackers became part of the Americana. Thirty-seven different shapes of animal crackers have existed since 1902. The current 17 varieties of crackers are tigers, cougars, camels, rhinoceros, kangaroos, hippopotami, bison, lions, hyenas, zebras, elephants, sheep, bears, gorillas, monkeys, seals, and giraffes.
Animal Crackers became such a part of American life that Christopher Morley (1890-1957), American humorist, playwright, poet, essayist, and editor, captured the sentiments of thousands of kids with this poem:
Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,
That is the finest of suppers I think;
When I’m grown up and can have what I please
I think I shall always insist upon these.
What do YOU choose when you’re offered a treat?
When Mother says, “What would you like best to eat?”
Is it waffles and syrup, or cinnamon toast?
It’s cocoa and animals that I love most!
The kitchen’s the coziest place that I know;
The kettle is singing, the stove is aglow,
And there in the twilight, how jolly to see
The cocoa and animals waiting for me.
Daddy and Mother dine later in state,
With Mary to cook for them, Susan to wait;
But they don’t have nearly as much fun as I
Who eat in the kitchen with Nurse standing by;
And Daddy once said, he would like to be me
Having cocoa and animals once more for tea!
New Orlean’s King Cakes eaten during Mardi Gras each year in New Orleans, Louisiana, are a requirement for an Mardi Gras party. The cake is made with a rich dough, baked and covered with a sugar topping in Mardi Gras colors; purple = justice, green = faith, and gold = power. The cakes are easy to make, and every New Orlean’s baker has their special version. The cakes are prepared for the period between the Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday. Many are shipped throughout the United States for those displaced New Orleanians longing for a taste of Mardi Gras.
The Mardi Gras or Carnival season officially begins on January 6th, or the Twelfth Night. Originally objects such as coins, beans, pecans, and peas were hidden inside each King Cake. In the mid-1900s, a small plastic baby became the symbol of this Holy Day, and was inserted in every King Cake. The New Orleans tradition is that each person takes a piece of cake hoping to find the plastic baby inside. The recipient of the plastic baby is “crowned” King or Queen for the day and that person is obligated to host the following year’s party and supply the King Cake, very similar to Mexico’s Rosca de Reyes.
The King Cake tradition came to New Orleans by way of the French settlers around 1870, continuing a custom dating back to twelfth century France. Similar cakes were used then to celebrate the coming of the three wise men calling it the feast of Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or King’s Day. The Irish have something similar with Barnbrack.