Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Selling like hot(cross)cakes

I’ve been feeling guilty (in a blog sense) that I’ve practically ignored Easter’s bountiful traditional grub. Silly really, considering I’m in no way shape or form a Christian, but that’s beside the point. So I’m remedying this right now. As one may be able to guess from past blog entries, I’m very partial to a bit of bread baking, and I’m especially fond of things pungently aromatic with spices, so it is tragically predictable what my Easter offering is.

aren't they pretty?

Traditionally, the hot cross bun should be made on Good Friday, when it is supposed that all bread made on this day will keep for 12 months. I made mine on Easter Monday, but considering that the things are virtually sold all-year round, being three days late can’t count as a sin (at least I hope). Besides, as any sane person will agree, they’re so damn delicious that it’s impossible to keep them for more than their life-expectancy. The notion of sacred mould-free bread therefore has little sway.

Aside from being, subjectively I’ll concede, far more exciting than the Easter Egg (give me that big hulking bar of chocolate, if you please), you’ve got to love the hot cross bun for its controversial nature. We’re not just talking Cromwellian legend either. Call it the burkha of bread, if you will, because much like the Muslim head garment, it too has been banned for its visible display of religiousness. Some schools in Britain are now calling for the buns to have cross-ectomies, or flat-out bun-bans because they are worried they may offend non-Christian pupils. Lord, is nothing sacred? (Yes, as it would seem, things are in fact too sacred). Another point to note is that some believe they are actually of pagan origin and were yet another tradition adopted/robbed by Christianity. The crosses actually represent the four quarters of the moon and were baked to celebrate the goddess Diana. Now that’s more like it.

It may seem a ridiculously lengthy operation to home bake these fine fellows because they are sold tout le annee (pardon my awful French), but take a supermarket’s packet in your hand, flip it over and all manner of horrors will make themselves apparent as you peruse the shockingly long list of ingredients. Hand-making these are the only way to ensure that you’re not going to end up imbibing a whole host of chemo-tastic substances or be wrist-slapped by St. Jamie Oliver this Easter.

I perused the web long and hard for a bun recipe which a) contained most of the ingredients I had in the house, b) could be done during the day and did not require a slow night-time rise c) used a mixture for crosses that was not a watery, drippy consistency. I can only explain why the last point mattered in that I am freakishly obsessed with being in control, so the crosses had to look clearly visible (hard to achieve when you’re dribbling the mixture on with a teaspoon). Yes, I know I’m not a Christian or a Pagan, but we’re making hot cross buns here, not, erm, ‘Hot Buns’ (which would be a whole different creative endeavour).

I digress. Did I find an exact formula which met my unreasonably high criteria? No. So I did what came naturally and concocted a new one from a few different recipes I found. The basic mixture came from the culinary wonders found here (I am a little embarrassed to mention the site by name, but you’ll see for yourself), but I added citrus (lemon in this instance) zest on the advice of several recipes such as Paul Hollywood’s and Nigella Lawson’s (in 'Feast'), and rather than ready mixed spice, mixed my own. I appreciated Nigella’s idea of using cardamom, but it seemed predictable to use it in the dough itself – I decided to give the sticky-icky glaze a fragrant twist and infuse it with some of the crushed pods instead. The method for the crosses came from a Waitrose Food Illustrated recipe which uses the flour and water to form a pliable(ish) dough rather than a paste. Finally, not being a big lover of those retro-fantastic bags of mixed dried fruit, I brought my own combo to the party and used some raisins, dried apple and dried cranberries. Post-consumption I now believe the last fruit would be better substituted for dried (not glacé) cherries because the cranberries punctuated the bread with such acrid (yet mercifully brief) sourness, it made me wince. However, this may just be the particular batch of Holland & Barrett berries I used. Really, you should use whatever dried fruit turns you on. Same with the spice balance – mine was quite, quite arbitrary – just add what suits your tastes and your kitchen cupboard.

There are three excellent reasons to make these:

1) The buns outshine any you could pick up from Mr Sainsbury or dare I say it, Mr Lewis, with their tightly-packed texture and oven-plumped fruit.
2) You get the satisfaction from the bread-making catharsis and also from the knowledge that you know exactly what went into the things.
3) During their baking and subsequent toastings, the whole flat/house becomes aromatically akin to a spice merchant’s chest. This is everyone’s fantasy, obviously, not just mine.

I beseech thee: go forth and bake, my children!

Hot Cross Buns


  • 450g strong plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp mixed spice
  • ¼ of a nutmeg, freshly grated
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ⅓ tsp ground cloves
  • ⅓ tsp ground ginger
  • 1 sachet (7g) easy blend dried yeast
  • 225g mixed dried fruit (I made this up with 75g each of raisins, chopped dried apple rings and cranberries)
  • 110g soft light brown sugar
  • 250ml organic milk
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 1 free range egg, beaten
For crosses:
  • 75g plain flour
  • 4 tbsp water

For glaze:

  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 6 tbsp water
  • 3-4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed

Whilst your butter is melting in a pan, sift your bread flour, salt and spices into a large bowl and mix in the yeast, dried fruit, sugar and some Easter cheer.

Stir the milk into the melted butter heat gently until tepid. Blitz the egg in before pouring the entire lot into flour mixture.

Combine well until it comes together into a sticky dough. Turn it onto a floured work surface and knead heartily for a good 10 minutes until you feel its texture change and become elastic and smooth.

Split the dough into 12 equal pieces and roll into smooth bun-shaped balls. Arrange the doughy babies on a large non-stick baking sheet making sure each one has a little room to breathe. Cover with a clean tea towel or lightly-oiled cling-film and leave to prove in a warm place for about one and a half hours until the buns have swelled. Do not fear if they don’t puff up as much as you expected – mine didn’t and the texture was beautiful. If yours do swell up until they start reaching out and touching each other this doesn’t matter as they are easily split post-baking.
Preheat your oven to 200°C.

To make the crosses mix the flour with the water to make a pliable dough. Roll it out to the thickness of a pound coin and cut it into 24 equal strips. Score each bun with a cross shape using a sharp knife, dampen each strip with a little milk to help them stick and lay them in a cross formation on each bun.

Place the tray on the middle shelf of your oven and bake for 20 mins, until the rolls are tinged baked-bronze. You’ll smell the moment they’re ready.

As the buns are baking, prepare the glaze by heating the sugar and water gently (you are dissolving the sugar – not caramelizing it here) with the crushed cardamom pods in a small pan for
5-10 minutes. When the buns are ready, brush the sticky sugar glaze over them immediately and allow to cool a little before greedily shoving one in yer gob. You don’t even need to split, toast and butter these but I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did.


Happy Easter!


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