Active time:35 mins
Total time:2 hours
I could never have expected that my recipe for Jamaica’s most beloved post-communion snack would be the last indulgence my mother would taste.
In February 2021, as the coronavirus vaccine rollouts went into full swing, my mother made a special request: “Tiff, can you make me a gluten-free bun? That would be so nice. I haven’t had bun and cheese in so long.”
She was referring to the Jamaican spiced bun, a descendant of the British hot cross bun and kin to a moist fruitcake or banana bread. I understood her ask as a deep yearning, a craving pregnant with the memories of gatherings passed, a longing for connection to something familiar that could take her back to Sunday afternoon lines at Charlie’s Pastries in Lauderhill, Fla., where I would tug at her dress hem, nagging her for the treats I had been denied all week. I wanted coconut drops, a spicy beef patty with coco bread, kola champagne, and some bun and cheese for later. She didn’t oblige every ask, but I could count on bun and cheese; it was her favorite.
So, when she made her own request a few months ago, I knew only spiced bun and Tastee cheese, its traditional accompaniment, could provide the consolation she sought.
Toward the end of our phone conversation, she said, “Easter is coming early this year.” Her tone was reminiscent of Ned Stark preparing the north for the dreaded winter games of thrones.
With an irrational sense of urgency and fervor, I sprang into action. I wanted this bun to be full of everything she and so many other covid quarantiners had been missing: the warmth that accompanies human touch, the excitement of a new yet familiar experience. And excitement there was: Later that month, after three long days of FedEx tracking, I received a text message loaded with exclamation marks: “It’s not till March! I got it today! Thanks!” Easter, when spiced buns are particularly popular, was in fact in April.
(Later, I realized that I had made the bun with Guinness as is traditional, not realizing it has gluten, and was relieved when she didn’t have a reaction.)
That evening, she phoned to emphasize her appreciation and stamp of approval; the joy in her tone could have fueled my baking for years on end to come. But time is not promised. It is borrowed.
In the late morning of March 18, 2021, I received a call from a police officer following an ordered welfare check. He was hesitant for a moment, then said, “I am so sorry to have to tell you this, but your mother has passed.” He described the grim scene. I couldn’t hold the phone or speak. My “mummy,” Claudette Leonie Johnson-Parkes, didn’t die of covid or any of its physical complications, but her situation was complicated. For 20 years of my life, she had battled paranoid schizophrenia, and halfway into that battle she was diagnosed with angioedema. Gluten became her biggest enemy, and the list of foods she couldn’t consume seemed to expand with the progression of her mental illness.
It meant so much that for a moment, just weeks before her death, she was able to cast her worries to the margins of her mind and enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures: eating.
From her excessive use of ginger to her love for currants and guava, my mother’s taste buds informed this recipe. The classic Jamaican snack is characterized by the peppery and bold profile of allspice, the acidity and zest of orange peel, the sweetness of honey, the intensity of clove and the depth of muscovado sugar coupled with browning — a Caribbean kitchen staple made primarily of burnt sugar. (In this recipe, the easier-to-find molasses plays the same role.) And it’s never complete without a tin of Tastee cheese, a pasteurized cheddar blend from New Zealand that gets sandwiched between slices.
As I tested each trial, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “You can’t run from your mother’s kitchen.” You see, from adolescence into my early 30s, I spent so much energy measuring my every move, taking careful steps in defiance of her examples of pious and virtuous womanhood. I denied myself indulgence in softness or vulnerability because I was afraid of ever being too much like her. To be like her meant I might take on her illness, which scared me more than anything. In turn, the possibility of our likeness frightened her, too, as it highlighted the potential for a re-embodiment of her traumas. In the aftermath of her death, I haven’t stopped thinking of, discovering and accepting all of the quirks and tastes that distinguish me as her daughter.
Easter is coming late this year because real Jamaicans eat bun and cheese whenever they feel like it. That feeling typically comes when they need comfort after a long sermon, a long lecture, or — in my mother’s case — before an anticipated transition of cosmic proportions. If there is anything that the coronavirus pandemic has unearthed, it is that we all need community. It is not lost on me that the social isolation and widespread hysteria wrought by the pandemic may have been a catalyst for her rapid decline, and my hope is that as you gather in celebration or in remembrance this Mother’s Day, you will do so with abundant appreciation for the gifts of life and temporality. Savor each moment.
In search of my mother’s garden, sifting through the torn photos, patchworks of newspaper clippings, handwritten Bible verses — all the ashes of her earthly life — looking for remnants of the seeds she stored for bearing of fruits she may never see, I am at peace in finding that we had so much more in common than I ever wanted to admit. This recipe is one token of all we shared.
Parkes is a writer, artist, event curator and owner of Pienanny. She lives in Harlem.
Make Ahead: The dark and golden raisins can be soaked in rum at room temperature for 12 to 18 hours, if you like.
Storage Notes: Store tightly wrapped at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Where to Buy: Guava paste can be found at Caribbean markets or well-stocked supermarkets in the Caribbean/Latin American aisle. Tastee cheese can be found at Caribbean markets or online.
NOTES: This recipe was developed using duck eggs, which have larger yolks and unique flavor, resulting in a softer and less chewy bun. You can use a large chicken egg, but if you want to replicate this plusher bun, here’s a trick: Use 1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk.
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Correction: In an earlier version of this recipe, we called for Guinness as the preferred stout. Guinness contains gluten, so, instead, use a gluten-free stout to keep the recipe gluten free. The recipe has been updated.
- 1 (24-ounce/680-gram) box gluten-free flour mix, such as King Arthur Baking brand (may substitute with 5 1/3 cups/663 grams all-purpose flour)
- 1 1/2 cups (346 grams) dark muscovado sugar (may substitute with 1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon/346 grams packed dark brown sugar)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
- 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel (may substitute with 1/4 teaspoon orange extract)
- 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
- 2 1/2 cups (600 milliliters) gluten-free stout, such as Ghostfish Watchstander Stout
- 1 cup (240 milliliters) red wine
- 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons/57 grams) unsalted butter, melted, plus more at room temperature for greasing the pans
- 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons black currant preserves (may substitute with chunky cranberry jelly)
- 1 tablespoon molasses
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 large egg, beaten (see NOTES)
- 1 3/4 ounces (50 grams) candied ginger
- 1/2 cup (80 grams) dark raisins
- 1/2 cup (80 grams) golden raisins
- 1/2 cup (42 grams) 1/2-inch cubes guava paste
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons boiling water
- Tastee cheese, for serving (may substitute with a sharp cheddar cheese)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, lightly whisk together the flour mix, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, xanthan gum, allspice, cloves, orange peel and salt until combined. In another medium bowl, combine the stout, wine, butter, oil, preserves, molasses, vanilla, egg and a pinch of salt.
Dice the ginger into 1/4-inch cubes and add it, as well as the dark and golden raisins to the stout mixture; let hydrate for 15 minutes. While the fruit soaks, add the guava cubes to the flour mixture, tossing them so they are coated in the dry ingredients and don’t stick together; each cube should remain separate.
Add the stout mixture to the dry ingredients, about 1 cup at a time and stirring after each addition, until all of the stout mixture is incorporated and well-combined and it resembles pancake batter. Let the mixture rest about 10 minutes to fully hydrate.
Generously grease two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans with room temperature butter, and fill each three-quarters of the way with the batter.
Bake for about 30 minutes; the buns should rise to the top of the pans. Cover them with foil — this will prevent the tops from drying out — and continue baking for another 30 minutes, or until a sharp paring knife comes out clean when inserted into the center of each bun.
While the buns bake, in a small bowl, stir together the honey and boiling water until combined.
Remove the pans from the oven and carefully remove the buns from the pans. Brush the top and sides of the buns with the glaze, being more generous with the glaze on top. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
Slice the buns into 1/2-inch-thick slices and serve with the cheese to sandwich between two slices of the bun.
Calories: 513; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 26 mg; Sodium: 751 mg; Carbohydrates: 105 g; Dietary Fiber: 8 g; Sugar: 56 g; Protein: 4 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From writer, artist, event curator and owner of Pienanny Tiffany-Anne Parkes.
Tested by Alexis Sargent; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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