Quest for the perfect hot cross bun…

jI’m typically the kind of person who likes things in their seasons. Crème eggs should not be in shops on Boxing Day. Nor should Santa’s face be emblazoned on products in August. But some products leave me with a dilemma…

Take, for example, the hot cross bun. On the one hand I would happily make an exception and allow it a place in our diet all year round. But on the other hand, given how much I love them, it might be wisest to restrict them to Easter, for the good of my waistline! The compromise I’ve come to: I can’t bring myself to wait until Good Friday, so I make them throughout Lent. And the bonus is that many other friends are giving up baked goods over this period, which means more for me!

Whenever and however often I permit myself to eat hot cross buns, one thing I feel strongly about is that they must be homemade. A homemade hot cross bun is vastly superior to the flat, stodgy, grey thing you pick up from a supermarket.

But getting hot cross buns right is surprisingly difficult. The dough has to be soft, but with a bit of firmness to it – and it has to be able to last a couple of days. There must be the right amount of fruit and the correct balance of spice. Then there’s the question of the glaze, and of course the cross (which I would happily remove for taste reasons, not religious ones. Though I can’t bring myself to replace it with icing, which feels horribly un-British!)

So I’ve been on the quest for the perfect hot cross bun recipe, trying out a few candidates along the way.

The ever-helpful Felicity Cloake gives a great overview of some popular recipes, extracting the best bits of each. I didn’t think that her infused milk got enough of the spice in for my liking, and I really dislike the texture that a thin film of egg wash gives to the outside of a bun. But otherwise, it’s a decent recipe.

Paul Hollywood’s tasted of next-to nothing and would need the spice to be at least doubled for it to make any impact.

Richard Bertinet’s were great, and the rum glaze was a nice touch, but I’m not sure it needed the richness of three eggs, to be honest.

Jeffrey Hammelman’s recipe from Bread was a real success – the best texture of any of them, though a little on the sweet side. It could maybe have had a more complex flavour from using different spices – he favours just allspice. Oh, and his recipe is in pounds and ounces, which I find infuriating… so that requires some translation.

Then for something a little left-field, Dan Lepard’s spiced stout buns from the excellent Short and Sweet were amazing. In fact, I’ve made these for the past couple of years. The mixture of stout and tea makes for a rich, flavoursome, malty bun and the texture is so moist. They are well worth trying, but the traditionalist in me feels they’re not quite right for a regular go-to recipe.

There are a couple of others I’m also eager to try, including Justin Gellatly’s. But similar to Lepard’s, the elongated ingredient list makes me think that whilst they may taste amazing, they’re not going to be straightforward enough to be a regular.

So… after all the experimenting, this is the recipe I’ve settled on. Whilst I’m not sure it’s perfect, I’m pretty happy with where I’ve got to, and this will be the base recipe from which I begin the next time I come to re-experiment.

In essence, it consists of Hammelman’s dough (converted into grams!) with increased salt, a different combination of spices and some added orange zest, the aroma of which I find magical. For the glaze, I’ve gone with Bertinet’s rum glaze – though a normal sugar syrup would be just fine. Enjoy!

Ingredients

For the sponge 

35g strong white bread flour
190g milk
7g yeast
8g caster sugar 

For the dough

345g strong white bread flour
57g butter (soft)
57g caster sugar
4g salt
3g allspice
3g mixed spice
zest of 1 orange
1 egg, beaten
120g sultanas
30g mixed peel

For the cross

75g plain flour
100ml water 

For the glaze

50g sugar
50ml water
1 tbsp dark rum (optional)

Method

Begin by making the sponge. Warm the milk to blood temperature and then disperse the yeast in it before adding the flour and sugar and whipping with a whisk until you have a smooth, thin batter. Cover with cling film and leave for 30-40 minutes until tripled in size.

In a large bowl, add the softened butter to the remaining bread flour and mix until the butter is dispersed. Then add the egg, sugar, spices, salt and orange zest and mix them all together.

Add the sponge and mix together. Then knead the dough by hand for approximately 6 minutes. You don’t need to achieve strong gluten development, just enough to support the fruit and hold the shape.

Add the fruit to the dough. I find it best to do this by flattening the dough and pressing the fruit into the surface. Then give it a few light kneads and repeat until all is incorporated.

Shape into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover with cling film or a cloth and leave to prove for 30 mins.

Lightly flour the work surface, then tip out the dough and perform a light fold. Check out this video for an idea how to do it, but bear in mind your dough will be more firm and will need to be handled gently so that the sharp fruits don’t rip it too much.

Return the dough to the bowl and leave for another 30 minutes.

Tip the dough out onto the surface and divide into 12 even pieces, approx. 74g each. Shape each piece into a tight ball and place on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper. Place them approximately a 1.5cm apart.

Cover with plastic to stop a crust developing on the top, and leave for another hour.

Preheat the oven to 220°c. To make the paste for the crosses, simply mix together the water and plain flour until you have a paste you are able to pipe. Depending on your flour you may not need all of the water, or you may need a little more. Then put this paste into a piping bag with a thin nozzle (or a disposable bag with the end snipped off to give you a 3mm hole).

Once the buns have proved for an hour, it’s time to add the crosses. Pipe in a straight line over a whole row of buns at a time, making sure to allow the paste to drop into the dips between the buns.

Bake the buns for 14-16 minutes until they are browning, but still soft to touch.

Meanwhile, make up the glaze. (This can be made in advance and kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple of days). Mix the water and sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat. Bring to the boil and allow to boil for 4 minutes. Then add the rum (if using) and remove from the heat.

As soon as the buns come out of the oven, put them on a wire rack (you can lift the whole paper sheet in one go) and brush them with the glaze. Allow to cool for as long as you can bear, and then enjoy!

These buns are best eaten fresh, but should last a few days, and can be reheated by placing them in the oven, wrapped in foil. They can also be split and toasted.

Hot_Cross_Buns

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