It’s coming up to Easter (hence the nifty rabbit-themed header for the next few days)…
…and that means Britain is awash with hot cross buns! We’ve actually been able to tuck into them since, oh, late January, but what with the lighter evenings and warmer weather, now it feels more like the right time to be eating them.
Indeed, some people might even be reciting the nursery rhyme (which is what the title of this post refers to, in case you are wondering). Bet you can’t listen to this one more than twice!
If you don’t know them, these are enriched yeast buns with sultanas, currants, citrus peel and a goodly amount of spice, then finished off with a cross on top. This can range from a simple cross made with a sharp knife to pastry crosses, or for a more luxurious finish, marzipan. Apparently they were originally eaten throughout the year, but were associated with Catholicism, so Queen Elizabeth I, sensing that banning things tends not to work too well, allowed people to keep eating them, but limiting them to Easter and Christmas. The association with this time of year established, hot cross buns have never looked back and are now a firm favourite. While traditionally eaten on Good Friday, I am sure I’ve seen them on sale in the middle of November. Yup, we love them that much!
Now, I thought that this would all be an absolute breeze given the ease with which I made panettone just before Christmas. It’s a fruity, spicy bread, just like hot cross buns, so this should also be easy, right? Well, predictably enough, it was not quite as easy as I imagined.
I started off with Delia Smith’s recipe, which is intended for a breadmaker, but first time round I ended up with overly-hard crosses and not enough fruit. Second time, it was Delia again, but the buns didn’t rise properly, which with hindsight was probably due to me not letting them rise properly in my haste to get to the local park and soak up the sun. C’mon, it was 25 degrees and a clear blue sky!
However, two instances without success put me off Delia’s recipe, and for third time lucky, I checked out what Nigella was proposing. Her recipe was similar, but with a bit less flour and a dash of powdered ginger. So I muddled through, using a composite of Delia and Nigella (Digella? Neelia?) as a bit of a guide, leaning a bit more towards the lovely Miss Lawson, and this time, things were looking up. The resulting dough was soft, silky and puffed up beautifully, and this time they had enough time to actually rise properly. Result!
With the bun mixture sorted out, time to deal with the X.
First time, I did the Delia approach of making a simple pastry with flour and water, rolled it thin and cut out strips to place on the buns. Result? Fussy and a bit like leather. With attempt number two, I made a paste and used a piping bag (or more accurately, a plastic bag with the corner cut out…make do and mend etc), which looked good, but I’d managed to get quantities wrong. Again, the paste cooked to something a little leathery. What was happening? I suspected that I was not using enough water, so when I was mixing the paste, it was developing the gluten in the flour, making it too tough when baked.
Then…third time, I finally got it right – the simple trick is exactly equal volumes of flour and water. Result? Nice and soft!
The buns are finished with a simple hot sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven, which makes them nice and soft and they take on the deep, rich brown colour of new conkers.
And how to eat them? They really are at their best when still warm, as the flavours of all that fruit, spice and citrus is at its best, but if you prefer, they are great split and toasted. Then serve with a large dollop of butter and a generous drizzle of honey. For me, this was the chance to open some Hamptons Honey I picked up when I was last in the US. A perfect little combination!
Seriously – did you click the link for the nursery rhyme? I think I might have 5 second tolerance limit for it…
To make 12-16 Hot Cross Buns:
For the buns:
• 400g bread flour(*)
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 150ml milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon(**)
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice or Lebkuchengewürz
• pinch ground cloves
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g candied peel, chopped
• 100g sultanas and currants (proportions per your taste!)
(*) Make sure you are using proper bread flour – plain flour just won’t work.
(**) If you prefer, just use two teaspoons of ground cinnamon.
For the X:
• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• 3 tablespoons cold water
For the glaze:
• 2 tablespoons caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons water
If using a bread machine: place all the dough ingredients except the sultanas, currants and candied peel into the mixing bowl. Add the sultanas and peel to the raisin dispenser, and run the “dough” cycle.
If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Fold in the spices, salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough. Work in the sultanas, currants and candied peel. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size.
Once the dough is ready, divide it into twelve to sixteen round buns. Place on a well-greased baking sheet, leaving 4-5 cm between buns, and cover with oiled cling film or a damp teacloth. Leave somewhere warm until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).
Prepare the paste for the X by mixing the flour and water until smooth. Next, brush the buns with milk, then use the paste to make an X on each bun – you can use a piping bag, a plastic bag with the corner cut off, or just use a teaspoon and a steady hand. Put the buns into the oven and bake for 15 minutes, until the buns are a rich brown colour. You may need to tun the tray during baking to an even colour.
While the buns are cooking, make the glaze: heat the water and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Once the buns are ready, remove from the oven, and brush right away with the warm syrup.
Worth making? I’ve made this recipe twice now, and it works perfectly. The process is actually quite easy, as long as you can spend a bit of time popping into the kitchen every so often to keep things ticking along. You can also customise them according to taste – cranberries, blueberries, chocolate chips…whatever takes your fancy!