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Preparing for an Easter Feast

April 13, 2022

A Gathering with Gladys Suggitt: Back: Jen Stevens, Stan Graham, Helen McIntosh, Mrs. Gynn, Lee Begg, Miss Roper, Irma Gynn, Catherine Townley, ?, Mrs White, Della Stewart, ?, Mrs. Gerrard, Miss Roper, Jno Graham? Front: Gladys Suggitt, Jack Cameron, Mrs. RJ. Junkin, Arnie Junkin, Pearl Cameron.

Until recently, most families of European descent in the Kawarthas were devoted Christians. Denominations differed on the exact practices, but most people would have observed Lent for 40 days leading up to their Easter celebrations. Lent commemorated the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert, resisting Satan’s temptation—and Christians could remember this by fasting or abstaining from a luxury, often meat. Immediately following Lent, came the celebration of the last supper, Maundy Thursday (Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, commanding them to love one another as he had loved them), and Jesus’ passion, crucifixion and resurrection.

The religious rituals reflected the lived experience of the season. By and large, up to the second half of the twentieth century, residents of the Kawarthas survived winter on what they could preserve. Day after day, they ate the same thing, over and over again—meat, potatoes, carrots and onions, perhaps with peas and turnips for variety. Jars of pickles, beets and fruit made for a special treat. By the end of winter, it would have been a long time since these families had seen much in the way of fresh produce—in the early twentieth century having a fresh orange was special indeed. Giving up meat for Lent, would have been a meaningful sacrifice.

Easter celebrated the resurrection, just the signs of spring were appearing. Families would celebrate by going to church. Whenever they attended service, they would of course wear their Sunday best, but for Easter they might make a particular effort to dress up. It was a special thing to dress nicely—back then many bedrooms did not have a closet, because most people only had their work clothes and their Sunday outfit. Some churches had sunrise services to reflect the empty tomb on the third day. Neighbouring farm families might not gather often, except at church, so these services were a special and joyous occasion.

Most often families had their feast on Easter Sunday. While Easter brought the hope of the new growing season, and all of the wonderful things that Summer would bring, a traditional Easter feast was in reality made from what was at hand. The customary ham, potatoes, carrots, peas and turnips, garnished with pickled beets and cucumbers, were just the same things that they had been eating day after day for months on end. But for Easter, families did a particularly nice job of preparing them as a feast, to share the joy of the season.

Easter eggs were often just eggs coloured in a solid shade, and were a symbol of the resurrection. For dessert many families had meringue on a pie—which was to convey the same meaning. If anything was unique to an Easter dinner, it was the buns. Easter Buns were often prepared as hot cross buns—at once both a poignant reminder of the crucifixion and the memorable taste of the season.

Having bread was special, “the comfort of the husband, the pride of the wife” in the words of Gladys Suggitt. To early farm families, flour was precious. People walked miles with bags of wheat on their back to have it ground, and Isaac Watson recalled crossing the river at Rosedale on a fallen log, with this prize produce on his back. Often bread or buns contained potato (in addition to flour), because that was what was readily available.

Preparations to have bread for dinner would have to begin the day before. Most early farm families grew hops, and kept a bag of dried hops hanging from their rafters for making yeast. Gladys Suggitt recalled the method:

“Three handfuls of dried hops were boiled in a gallon of water for twenty minutes. Six large potatoes or their equivalent, pared and either scraped or grated, were needed. When the hops had boiled sufficiently the liquid was strained through a sieve, (if the lady was fortunate enough to own one), if not, through a piece of cloth, (muslin preferred) into the grated potatoes and stirred until the mixture thickened. This was then brought to the boil again; and there was added one cupful of sugar or syrup and one-half cup of salt. The mixture was let cool to blood heat, then the cook added one cupful of the ‘Starter Yeast,’ which was simply a cupful of the last batch of yeast saved for this purpose. This was then let rise in a warm place for five or six hours, or till a thick foam formed on top. When well risen, it was turned into a stone jar, corked tightly and set in a cool place. If because of an emergency, the last cup of yeast was used, or for any reason the starter quit working, someone made a trip to the nearest neighbor, with a pitcher to borrow a cup of ‘starter.’”

The bread dough had to be started the day before, because the yeast took a long time to rise—typically done in a dough box or bread tray, which had a tightly-fitting lid. After each use it had to be scoured with salt. To make buns, the lady would start by making bread dough:

“One pint of flour, and a half pint of good hop yeast were stirred together about five o’clock in the afternoon and left where warm. Before going to bed, three to four quarts of flour were placed in a ‘bread tray’ forming a well in the centre by shoving the flour up the sides. The yeast sponge was placed in this hollow, along with a piece of lard as large as a walnut, two quarts of lukewarm water, and one tablespoon of salt. This was beaten into a thick batter, using only enough of the flour to make it the consistency of a cake batter. Covered, this was let rise till morning. The ‘bread tray’ would be wrapped in an old quilt, coats or the like and placed in the warmest part of the house. In the morning this batter was beaten and the remainder of the flour mixed into it. The dough was kneaded with the hands and flour added until it was no longer sticky.”

To make bread cakes or buns, a Suggitt family favourite, additional ingredients were added to this ordinary bread dough:

To 2 cups of uncooked dough, Gladys added ½ cup butter, 2 eggs, 1 ½ cups brown sugar. This was “worked all together, with the hands, until the sugar, butter and eggs were thoroughly blended into the uncooked dough. She then added 1 teaspoon soda, 2 eggs, 1 cup currants, 1 cup raisins and 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, all-spice and cloves, with enough flour to turn the mixture into a “reasonably stiff batter.”

To allow loaves or buns to rise, they were set aside to rise, then punched down. When it again doubled in size the loaves or buns were formed, and placed in greased tins, often in large pans which could accommodate three or four loaves to one pan. The loaves or buns were pierced with either a fork or a knife and were again set to rise and cooked in a “moderate oven.” To make hot cross buns, before the last rising, a cross was cut on the surface of the buns with a knife. A moderate oven was probably about 350 degrees on a modern electric oven, but the Gladys’ recipes would not specify that, because back then, the lady would be using a cookstove, and would have to be moderate in how she fired it to achieve the desired temperature. There was also not a precise baking time, because she would have to judge by appearance when it was done. It truly was an art, which is why Gladys called it “the pride of the wife.”  How special it was that she went to the trouble to make this for her family.

A more modern North Verulam Recipe for Hot Cross Buns can be accomplished in a single day thanks to packaged yeast, and all the conveniences of shopping at a supermarket:

3 cups of milk

2/3 cup sugar

½ cup shortening or lard

1 teaspoon salt

Scald the above ingredients and cool to lukewarm

Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of sugar and a package of dry yeast into lukewarm water. Allow to stand for 10 minutes.

Add 3 well beaten eggs to the milk mixture.

Add mixed candied fruit and plumped raisins as desired into 9-10 cups of flour.

Mix the liquid ingredients into the dry and knead for 5 minutes.

Allow to rise for 1 ½ hours in a warm area. Then punch it down. Roll it out into a generous ½ inch thickness. Use a cookie cutter or glass to make circles. Then cut a cross on the top of each bun.  

Allow the buns to rise again on a cookie sheet until they have approximately doubled in size. 

Then bake in a 365 degree oven for 20-30 minutes until golden brown. If they are light brown, that means they are underdone, it won’t it be sad if they burnt.

Remove the buns from the oven and use a pastry brush to coat them with a mixture of ½ cup sugar and ¼ cup milk.

And be sure to enjoy your Easter Dinner!

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