(with apologies for the photos taken on a phone)
I remember the first time I saw home made hot cross buns. A colleague in Canberra had worked as a chef in a former life, and to mark our first Easter in the nation’s capital, he brought enough hot cross buns for everyone in our graduate year.
It seemed a miraculous thing to me, the ability to pull real hot cross buns out of a home oven. I also remember the buns were moist, darkly spiced, laden with plump raisins. But more than anything I remember his assurance “they are easy to make.”
A few years later, I have learned to make things with yeast – croissants, pizza, ciabatta – and this year, I was determined to tackle hot cross buns. After all, Alan said they were easy.
My first attempt was a dismal failure. The recipe called for far too much flour compared to the amount of milk, egg and butter. The dough had the texture of scones (or American biscuit) dough. Even after adding extra milk, what came out of the oven was more like rock cakes than English buns. (this really tested my faith in Australian Gourmet Traveller)
For the second attempt, I turned to my bread bible, the River Cottage Bread Handbook.
And, almost miraculously, the buns came together just like that. And the whole Gander household (including Mr Gander’s mum and grandmother – more brownie points for me) had toasted home made hot cross buns for Easter Friday.
The River Cottage recipe is unbelievably forgiving. The dough was supple, soft, and just wanted to work with you to make those buns happen. The buns rose just enough to have that dense, moist texture I crave in old fashioned English buns. That relatively dense texture was made for toasting, and soaked up as much butter as you wanted to slather onto the buns.
The dough even stood up to the vagaries of my currently haphazard kitchen pantry and schedule. I made the dough the night before and left it to rise in the fridge for 24 hours. I added a bit of wholewheat flour because we ran out of plain (AP) flour. And, I discovered a shortage of raisins at 11pm, so half of the buns were made with a mixture of chopped apricots, dried cranberries and chopped dark chocolate.
Alan was right, hot cross buns are quite easy – once you have the right recipe. Hurrah for the River Cottage!
Real Hot Cross Buns
(from the River Cottage Handbook: Bread; also available on the River Cottage website)
250g bread flour (strong or high gluten flour)
250g plain white flour
125ml warm water
125ml warm milk
5g dried yeast
10g coarse sea salt
50g caster (granulated) sugar (use up to 80g if you prefer a sweeter bun)
1 medium free-range egg
100g – 150g mixed dried fruit and chocolate*
Finely grated zest of ½ orange
1-2 tsp ground mixed spice (I used a mixture of allspice and cinnamon. If you want to get really out there, try a mixture of allspice and Chinese five spice powder)
* I used 50g of raisins and cranberries for half of the buns, and 100g of dried cranberries, chopped apricots and chopped dark chocolate for the other half.
For the crosses
50g plain (AP) flour
3 tbsp apricot jam, sieved (I used a mixture of honey and raspberry jam)
3 tbsp water
1. Combine the flours, water, milk, yeast, salt and sugar in the bowl and fit the dough hook. Make a well in the centre, add the egg and butter and mix to a sticky dough.
2. Add the dried fruit, chocolate (if using) orange zest and spice. Knead by hand or in a kitchen mixer until the dough becomes silky and smooth. Cover the dough and leave to rise until doubled in size (about an hour in a warm place, maybe two hours in a colder climate).
3. Knock back the risen dough. (At this point, the dough can be kept in the fridge for a day. Just remove the dough from the fridge and let it come back to room temperature, for 1-2 hours)
4. Divide the dough into 8-10 equal pieces (I used the scale to get 100g pieces of dough). Shape into rounds and dust with flour. When shaping the buns, pretend you are making a boule of bread dough: stretch the dough, tuck the edges underneath the ball of dough so that you get a taut, smooth, rounded surface on top (see this tutorial). Cover the balls of dough with plastic or linen (I put the balls of dough on the baking tray, and folded a large food-safe plastic bag over the tray). Leave to prove until roughly doubled in size, from 30 minutes to an hour (the dough seems sturdy enough that I didn’t need to worry about over-proofing).
5. While the dough is proofing, preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F). If you didn’t prove the buns on the baking tray, transfer the buns to a baking tray now.
6. For the crosses, whisk together flour and water, transfer to a piping bag and pipe crosses on the balls of dough (I used a food-grade plastic sandwich bag and snipped off a corner). Pipe a cross on top of each bun. Bake in the oven for 15–20 minutes or until the buns are golden brown on top.
7. While the buns are baking, melt the jam (and honey) with water. Brush over the buns to glaze straight after the buns are removed from the oven. When the buns are just cool enough to handle, transfer them to a cooling rack – remember they are sticky from the glaze.
To serve: the buns are great warm or cold on the first day. From the second day, they are best toasted and served with butter.