Monday, March 18, 2013

Traditional English hot cross buns (+ cross experiments)

March already and Tokyo weather is behaving a bit more like spring. It's just the right time of year to make hot cross buns. Hot cross buns are a traditional English enriched, spiced, yeast-based bun usually containing currants and eaten during Easter, particularly on Good Friday. When I was growing up in the UK, they would appear in the shops from around about the end of February until the end of March, though I believe you can get now them from supermarkets at any time of year. They are similar to Chelsea buns in ingredients, or to British teacakes (of the split and toasted, spread with butter variety rather than these), which you can certainly get year-round, the difference being that the seasonal 'hot cross bun' is marked with a cross.

"One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns!"

I knew the nursery rhyme (erm, you might not want to click that link..), but I guess I had never really given much thought before to the cross. When I started looking into the history of hot cross buns I was delighted to find a whole raft of superstition and folksy provenance dating back possibly to before the association was made with the Friday crucifixion of the Christian Easter holidays, starting perhaps with small cakes eaten during the Spring festivals of ancient Greece.

These are *magic* buns, hurrah! Share them with a friend and for that year "Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be" They were banned, outside of specific religious holidays in 1592, and they were kept, stale, to be grated and used as medicine of dubious efficacy, and they were nailed or hooked up in the kitchen to ensure successful bakes throughout the year (that's one I'm going to have to try ;) ). What unexpected fun!

When I made pan di ramerino around this time last year I was wondering if it might be an Italian sister of the hot cross bun, due to the seasonality and the marking with a cross(es). As in Italy today, historically the spiced buns eaten around Easter in the UK used to be marked with a cross simply by slashing the loaves in this way. At some point this was replaced by a pastry cross pressed onto the dough, and now it's usually a white cross made with plain flour and water paste. Recipes tell you variously to slash a cross and then pipe the paste, just pipe the paste onto proofed balls, or to prepare a slightly thicker paste that you can roll thinly and cut in to strips to make the cross.

Ever the experimenter I tried all three, and personally prefer the look of the simply piped line of paste, with no slashing. (In the pics below, the first is the piped cross, the second image the slashed and piped, and the third is the neat strips of rolled dough, affixed with water.)

The winner - I preferred the piped crosses

Since my recent yeast-related baking activities have all been with wild yeast in the form of sourdough, these little fruit-studded buns seemed so fast and simple to make by comparison. With no feeding of a starter the day before or overnight proofings of imprecise duration, it's more or less a case of getting your baker's yeast ready in the usual way, putting all the dry ingredients in a bowl, dumping the yeast and liquids in and kneading for 5 mins.

The cross is just a paste of flour and water which you pipe on once the balls are almost ready to bake, Bob's your uncle! (There is no reason why these can't also be made using sourdough instead of baker's yeast, they might be a little crustier but you could experiment with adding more milk or butter to keep them soft.. Aha, future project.)

Here is the full recipe I used for mine, adapted from Delia's original recipe here.

Hot cross buns, ingredients:
  • 50g sugar, plus 1 level teaspoon
  • 1 level tablespoon dried yeast (about 9g)
  • 150ml warm water (ideally not too much over 40°C, over 50°C and you could start to kill off some of the yeast)
  • 450g plain flour (bread flour not required)
  • 1 level teaspoon salt (about 5g)
  • 1 rounded teaspoon mixed spice (see here for how to make your own mixed spice)
  • 75g currants or raisins
  • 50g cut mixed peel (Nissin supermarket has both lemon and orange, or make your own)
  • 40-55ml milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 50g butter, melted
For the cross:
  • 75g plain flour
  • About 5 tablespoons of water
To glaze: (optional)
  • Either 2 tablespoons of sugar and a splash of hot water or a couple of tablespoons of warmed apricot jam

  1. Stir the teaspoon of sugar into the warm water, sprinkle the yeast in and leave for a few minutes to develop froth.
  2. Melt the butter and cool slightly, beat the egg with 40ml of the milk.
  3. Weigh the flour, sugar, salt, currants, mixed peel into a large bowl.
  4. Tip the yeasty water, eggy milk and melted butter into the dry ingredients and mix together. You want a kneadable consistency and so add any of the remaining milk if necessary (I didn't need it). Tip onto a lightly floured (if necessary) surface and knead until elastic and springy (about 5 minutes).
  5. Return dough to the bowl and cover with cling film. Leave for about an hour until roughly doubled in size.
  6. Tip the risen dough out and knead briefly to knock the air out of it and redestribute the nutrients for the yeast to continue their work.
  7. Divide the dough into 12 - each ball weighed about 78g for me, and form into little round rolls by cupping them one by one against the work surface and moving your hand in a circular motion (video) which should quickly pull the skin of the dough into the center underneath the ball.
  8. Set these on trays or baking parchment and cover with floured or oiled clingfilm to rise again - about 30 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C.
  9. Mix 75g of plain flour with about 5 tablespoons of water to make a thick paste and load it into a small piping bag. When the rolls are proofed, snip the tip of the piping bag and draw the paste across the buns to form the crosses. You could do this one at a time, or having lined your buns up neatly pipe the lines a while row at a time. Be careful of pushing too hard on 100-yen shop piping bags, this is a thick paste and can strain the bag at the seams.. go nice and slow.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes, draping foil over them part way through cooking if they start to brown too quickly.
  11. When they come out of the oven, if you want them to be shiny you can brush them with sugar syrup made with a splash of hot water and 2 tablespoons of sugar (as in these photos), or if you want them shinier and sticky then brush them instead with warmed apricot jam.

The taste of the candied peel is lovely in these, I imagine that fresh zest would also be quite nice. The flavour is a bit like a lighter and moister version of a stollen, without marzipan.

They are best on the day they are made, but I'm still eating mine 2 days later toasted with butter. If you make more than you can eat or give away then they freeze quite well too if done on the day they are made - wrap in cling-film and foil. Leave to thaw at room temperature for about an hour.

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