A few months ago I turned my hand to Sally Lunn buns, a rich bread associated with the English city of Bath. When I made them, I promised to have a go at another bun that hails from the same place. Today I present the “other” buns, the unsurprisingly named Bath Buns.
Bath Buns are large, sweet yeasted buns with…well, at this point, it all goes a bit haywire. There are lots of recipes for finishing off these buns – using currants, sultanas or candied peel (or some combination of all three), and flavoured variously with nutmeg, caraway or rosewater. Crushed sugar tends to feature on top of the buns, and often in the buns during baking. So what’s the real deal and how close could I get at home?
Their origins are said to lie with a certain Dr William Oliver who lived in Bath in the 18th century. He developed these buns as a way of providing sustenance to his patients, but discovered that when you feed people warm buns with lots of butter, sugar and spices, they tend to consume them in volume. A a result, patients who had come to Bath to take the waters and obtain relief from rheumatism (and perhaps obtain a slimmer figure?) would end up waddling their way back to London. He soon switched his rich buns for rather less appealing dry biscuits. And the Bath Oliver biscuits is still made today!
If you would like to get an idea of how appealing the Doctor’s famous buns (ooh-err!) were at the time, here is a contemporary description from “Chambers Journal” published by W. Chambers in 1855:
The Bath-bun is a sturdy and gorgeous usurper—a new potentate, whose blandishments have won away a great many children, we regret to say, from their lawful allegiance to the plum-bun. The Bath-bun is not only a toothsome dainty, but showy and alluring withal. It was easier for ancient mariners to resist the temptations of the Sirens, than it is for a modern child to turn away from a Bath-bun. This bun is rich and handsome, yellow with the golden yolk of eggs that mingles with its flour, wealthy in butter and sugar, adorned with milk – white sugar – plums, curiously coloured comfits, and snowy almonds. Large, solid, and imposing, it challenges attention, and fascinates its little purchasers. Take a child into a confectioner’s shop, ask it what it prefers, and, ten to one, its tiny finger will point to where, among tartlets and sausage-rolls, nestles the Bath-bun.
All sounds rather delicious, yes? So when I was making these buns, I needed to start with a rich brioche dough. I livened this up with a good dash of freshly grated nutmeg, lemon zest and – crucially – some lightly crushed caraway seeds. Caraway? Yes. Rather surprising in baking (but delicious in these biscuits), but this is a nod to the comfits that were used in the past. Comfits were simply sugared seeds (various things like aniseed, caraway or fennel) rather like sugared almonds, that would impart sweetness and flavour. As you can see, I also finished the buns with more caraway seeds and some crushed sugar given the, eh, lack of easy access to medieval comfits in the modern city.
These buns also have a little secret. It is traditional to add crushed sugar and put this inside the bun. During baking, this will disappear and leave lovely patches of sticky goodness inside the bun. In addition to the sugar, I also added a handful of currants to vary things a little.
The results are fantastic – the buns are soft and fluffy, the richness coming from rather a lot of eggs, butter and milk, while the sweetness comes only from the crushed sugar (there’s little sugar in the dough itself). Keeping the caraway seeds whole means the flavour of the buns gets little spicy punches as you nibble on them. They certainly make a most pleasing medicine, and you will rather quickly understand why those genteel lords and ladies found it hard to stop at just one.
However…all is perhaps not so rosy with the reputation of the Bath Bun. Their name apparently took a bit of a battering as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the grand fair in London which gave us the now sadly-gone Crystal Palace but also featured Bath Buns. These proved very popular with visitors (like those 18th century visitors to Bath…) with nearly one million of them consumed over five months. However, the inevitable the dash for cash led to cheaper and cheaper ingredients being used to make the buns (for example, the butter was replaced with lard). These less-luxurious buns got the moniker “London Bath Buns” or “London Buns” and today have evolved (minus the lard, and with the butter back in) into simple buns leavened with baking powder, similar to rock buns.
If you’re in the need for some restorative baking, these buns are excellent. I think they are at their best when very fresh – serve while still just warm, or at a push, make the night before and serve the following morning. My recipe includes a sugar glaze – it’s important not to skip this, as it helps to keep the surface of the buns soft and prevents them drying out. Now – try to stop at just one of these tasty treats!
To make Bath Buns (makes 12):
For the dough:
• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 3 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 400g strong white flour
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 45g caster sugar
• 1 lemon, zest only
• 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
• ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
For the filling:
• 100g caster sugar
• cold water
• 50g currants
1. Make the dough.
If using a bread machine: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and run the dough cycle. Reserve the rest of the egg.
If making by hand: throw 2 1/2 eggs and the rest of the ingredients apart from the butter into a large bowl. Reserve the rest of the egg. Mix until you have a soft, elastic dough (around 5 minutes), then work in the softened butter. Cover and leave in a warm place until doubled in size.
2. While the dough is proving, prepare the filling for the buns. Put the sugar and some water into a small saucepan. Boil gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar crystallizes (it should be white, not caramelised). Acting quickly, turn the mass onto a greased baking sheet and spread out using a metal spoon. Leave to cool. Break into pieces, taking 12 pieces the size of a sugar cube (or 3-4 pieces that would add up to a sugar cube) and put to one side. Crush the rest of the sugar roughly, then put into a sieve – you should be left with coarse pearl sugar lumps for the tops of the buns.
3. Next, shape the buns. Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces. Put the lumps of sugar and a small handful of currants into each bun, then seal the base and place seam-side down onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper.
4. Leave the buns to rise again, until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
5. Take the reserved egg and mix with two tablespoons of water. Brush the buns with the egg glaze, then sprinkle immediately with caraway seed and crushed sugar (do them one bun at a time, so the glaze does not dry out – otherwise the sugar and caraway won’t stick). Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes until golden – the should sound hollow when tapped.
6. While the buns are baking, make the sugar syrup – take all the remaining sugar that you didn’t use to make the sugar lumps/pearl sugar (I had 50g), and add three tablespoons water. Heat until all the sugar has dissolved (add a drop more water if needed), then boil for one minute. Brush the buns with the warm sugar syrup while still warm.
Worth making? Definitely. The above recipe can take a while if you’re going to do the sugar yourself, but you can take a short-cut if you buy rough-style sugar cubes and pearl sugar to save time. But cutting down on the butter…don’t you dare!