Hot Cross Buns

More interesting than toast, not as rich as cake, what’s not to love about a bun?  The buns traditionally served towards then end of Lent are… well now, here’s the thing. They go by many names. Most people might think, as the title above implies, that they’re Hot Cross Buns, but that’s not strictly accurate. “Hot Cross Buns!” was originally the cry of the street vendors who sold Cross Buns – hot. Recipes also appear under the name “Good Friday Buns” and “Easter Buns”.

Interestingly, Cross Buns weren’t originally fruited, only spiced – and thanks to an edict from Queen Elizabeth I, could only be sold on Good Friday, Christmas and for funerals.

“That no baker or other person or persons shall at any time or times hereafter, make,
utter or sell by retail within or without their houses, unto any the queen’s subjects,
any spice cakes, buns, bisket or other spice bread (being bread out of size, and not by
law allowed), except it be at burials, or upon the Friday before Easter, or at Christmas;
upon pain of forfeiture of all such spice bread to the poor.”

John Powell, The Assyse of Breade, 1595

Fruit gradually crept into recipes from about the middle of the 19th century, presumably as industrialization and improved transport links brought foodstuffs from far flung places to the UK cheaper and quicker, all to make for a really indulgent treat after the privations of Lent.

This recipe comes from a very favourite author of mine: Frederick T. Vine. Doyen of numerous professional books for the baker and confectioner. This is his own personal recipe, scaled down from a recipe in which quantities such as pounds and quarts were bandied about, and a full batch of which would produce almost 650 penny buns. The quantities below will make about 12 x 100g buns, more if you drop the weight down to 85 grams. This might seem a large amount, but they can be gifted to friends and family, or easily frozen to enjoy at a later date.

crossbunsrecipe

The buns are enriched with milk, butter and egg and are packed with bags of fruit and spice. The original recipe also includes malt extract, which gives a wonderfully rich flavour, but isn’t usually something you find in the supermarket, so you can improvise by adding some powdered Ovaltine to the mixing liquid if you have difficulty sourcing it. You can omit it altogether if liked.

The original recipe suggested using flavouring essences of lemon and ‘spice’. I happened to have some lemon flavouring, but no ‘spice’, so I used regular ground spices. Reading an inordinately large number of baking books as I do, I’ve noticed that the use of essences is very prevalent in commercial baking mixtures. The reason seems to be that regular ground spices darken the dough, which is assumed to be unappealing to the customer. This opinion contrasts greatly with the fact that, for example, in modern times the appearance of the seeds in vanilla-flavoured items today are celebrated – how things change! Personally, I like the authentic appearance of the dark flecks of spice, not to mention the flavour. Feel free to go with your own blend of spices, but I really like the punchiness of the quantities below. After all, no-one likes a bland spice bun – if you’re promised spice, you want to be able to taste it.

These buns have a sweetened, tinted glaze to be painted on after they are baked. It uses gelatine to give shine without the stickiness. If you’re not keen on using gelatine and don’t mind a little stickiness with your shine, then omit the gelatine, swap the water for milk and warm to dissolve the sugar.

Hot Cross Buns

I’ve gone for a mixture of spices, but it is traditional to only use allspice. If you’d prefer this flavouring, I suggest just 1½tsp ground allspice, as it is quite potent.

I’ve switched around the method a little to make for a more straightforward approach.

180ml water
90g unsalted butter, cubed
15g malt extract OR 2tbs Ovaltine
180ml milk
30ml of beaten egg, from1 large egg
135g soft brown sugar
½tsp salt
1 sachet fast-acting yeast
30g mixed orange/lemon peel, finely sliced/chopped
180g currants
1/2tsp lemon flavouring OR zest of 1 lemon
1tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground mace
½tsp ground allspice
½tsp ground mixed spice
500g strong white flour

Pre-bake Glaze
30ml beaten egg(from above)
30ml milk

Post-Bake Glaze
1 sheet gelatine (or vegetarian equivalent)
100ml cold water
2tbs caster sugar
1tsp treacle

  • Heat the water, butter and malt/Ovaltine until steaming and the butter melted, then add the (cold) milk. This should bring the temperature down to just warm.
  • Whisk in the egg, sugar, salt, lemon flavouring if using, and yeast.
  • Pour the warm mixture into a bowl.
  • Sift together the flour and spices and add to the bowl.
  • Knead into a soft and supple dough, about 10 mins.
  • Knead in the currants, zest if using, and peel, cover with plastic, and set to rise. Because of the enriched nature of this dough, this will take slightly longer than usual, about 1½ hours.
  • When the dough is risen, turn out onto a floured work surface and pat to deflate.
  • Weigh off the dough into 100g pieces, and then roll and shape each into a smooth ball.
  • Line a deep-sided baking tin with parchment.
  • Place the balls of dough into the pan, pressing with the flat of the had as you do so, to flatten them into discs about 2cm thick. Place these ‘cakes’ about 1cm apart from one another. This will mean they touch as they prove, giving a soft ‘kissing crust’ on each side and a rounded sqare shape.
  • Cut a cross into each bun using a dough cutter or similar. NB Take care not to cut all the way through, just deep enough so that the dough will stay apart during baking, preserving the cross.
  • Cover lightly with a cloth to rise for 30 minutes.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan. This is a slightly hotter temperature than usual for buns (180°C, 160°C Fan), because the sides of the tin will block direct heat, and the buns will therefore need cooking a little longer.
  • Pre-bake Glaze: Whisk the remaining egg with the milk and brush over the tops of the buns.
  • Bake for 20 minutes until risen and browned. Turn the tin around after 10 minutes to ensure even baking.
  • While the buns are baking, prepare the gelatine glaze. Soak the gelatine sheet in the water until softened. Heat gently to dissolve the gelatine, then stir in the treacle and sugar. Continue stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
  • When the buns are baked, remove from the oven and brush over with the glaze.
  • Cover lightly with a cloth and allow to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. The cloth will keep the steam close, making for a soft crust.
  • After 15 minutes uncover the buns and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. If you leave them to cool completely in the tin, they’re prone to sogginess.
  • To serve: Cut in half and toast both sides. When toasted, spread with salted butter. For added decadence, add some slices of vintage cheddar cheese. The contrasts between the hot spicy bread, the fruit, the richness of the butter and the sharp, cool and creamy tang of the cheese is sublime.

Soda Bread

I was surprised to read recently that Soda Bread is considered to have migrated from the US, based on a notion that the early settlers used potash to improve their baking. Amelia Simmons (1796) uses potash in some of her gingerbread recipes and Mary Randolph includes a recipe for Soda Cake in her 1824 book The Virginia Housewife.

These notwithstanding, the earliest Soda Bread recipe that I have been able to find in print is a letter published in the Newry Telegraph, dated September 2nd 1836. The correspondant, who signs him/herself “M.D.” gives the following recipe:

Soda Bread recipe

Having tried a fair few soda bread recipes over the years, I was struck by how minimalistic this recipe is – literally four ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda, buttermilk. Over the years, modern recipes have managed to sneak in  a myriad of embellishments – white flour, sugar, honey, egg, butter, cream of tartar…. but this, this appears to be soda bread in its earliest and purest form. I had to try it. And I was not disappointed.

I followed MD’s recipe as written as closely as possible, and the first batch was fine, but not, in my opinion, the best it could be. The mixing of the soda in water was, for the time, an acceptable way to remove lumps, but it meant for an uneven distribution of soda throughout the flour, which resulted in blotches of yellow crumb amongst the wholemeal. Sieving the soda into the flour with the salt was a much better approach. In addition, buttermilk is not as freely available nowadays as it once was, so my solution was to mix equal quantities of whole milk and low-fat, plain yogurt. Lastly, as the recipe stated that the buttermilk should be very sour (which is what reacts with the soda to give the rise), I stirred in two teaspoons of vinegar.

Halving the batch made two mini loaves of dimensions 14cm x 8cm, which took, rather surprisingly, almost an hour to bake. If you wish to make the full batch, or bake in larger tins, you will need to increase the baking time accordingly.

The result is delicious. The crust bakes to a browned, knobbly crispness and the crumb inside is close-textured, but not claggy. Just warm from the oven and lightly spread with, as MD suggests, some fresh, salted butter, it is delicious with no further adornment. If, like me, you have occasionally read accounts of 19th century afternoon teas where guests are served ‘brown bread and butter’ and been rather puzzled at the plainness of the fare, having tasted this bread with butter, it all makes sense now.

If you’re a fan of modern soda bread recipes, this might not be to your tastes, but I would urge you to try it just once to enjoy the simple pleasure of this diamond in the rough, craggy crust.

Soda Bread

These litte loaves will almost double their size during baking, but only if you get them into the oven promptly. The soda will start reacting as soon as the liquids are added, so be sure the oven is at temperature before mixing wet and dry together.

340g stoneground wholemeal flour
1 level teaspoon of salt
1 level teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
150ml whole milk
150ml low-fat, plain yogurt
2tsp white wine vinegar

a little milk (maybe)

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Grease and line two mini loaf tins (14cm x 8cm) with baking parchment. Grease the parchment.
  • Sieve the flour, salt and soda together twice (to spread the soda evenly).
  • Mix the milk, yogurt and vinegar until smooth.
  • When the oven is hot, add the liquids to the flour mixture and mix into a soft dough. You may need a little extra milk.
  • Put half of the dough into each prepared loaf tin and smooth over.
  • Using a sharp knife, cut a deep slit down the centre of each loaf.
  • Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Turn the tins around and bake for another 15 minutes.
  • Remove the loaves from the tins and place them back in the oven on a rack to crisp up the crust – a final 5-10 minutes.
  • Set to cool on a wire rack.
  • Enjoy just warm on the day of baking, or toast the following day for breakfast.