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The Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

The joy of sticky toffee hot cross buns

The joy of sticky toffee hot cross buns
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When it comes to cooking, I make no secret of the fact that I’m something of a traditionalist: I like old-fashioned steamed puddings, I like the classic and the heritage. I like blancmange and rice pudding and suet. I am unashamedly unfashionable. I’m not sure whether I chose the Vintage Chef recipe writing life, or whether the Vintage Chef recipe writing life chose me. I just don’t see the point in reinventing the wheel, or injecting unusual flavours and twists just for the sake of it.

But, as I look back through recipes I’ve written, Easter has always been my exception: hot cross bun ice cream sandwiches, hot cross bun bread and butter pudding, cakes topped with mini eggs. I fell head over heels into the hot cross bun as a bacon sandwich bandwagon a few years ago, and never looked back. Clearly, Easter is my silly season.

I’m not alone: the supermarkets lose their collective mind when it comes to Easter and hot cross buns. Everything conceivable has been stuffed into them over the years: strawberries and cream, mocha, marmite and cheese, tomato and red leicester – and that’s just this year’s offerings. Not to mention all the things that have had hot cross bun flavourings injected into them: cheesecakes, cookies, chocolate, marmalade, caramel spread and – of course – scented candles.

Anyway, that’s how these sticky toffee hot cross buns came about. Gearing up for Easter, I started to think about replacing the traditional dried fruit and zest in a hot cross bun with dried dates, swapping out the caster sugar for something darker, with toffee notes, maybe the nubbly nuts that I love in my sticky toffee pudding. All the scents and flavours of one of my favourite puds, translated into one of my favourite bakes. Yeah, for all my justification, it’s still a bit of a silly bake, but good lord, it’s been a long year, hasn’t it? If we can’t be silly now, and have some fun in the confines of our homes, when can we?

And most importantly, these are such lovely buns. As they prove and then bake, their pert, domed edges soften into gentle curves; the crumb is soft and caramelly from the dark brown sugar – and toasted, they’re maybe the nicest bun I’ve ever had, which is not something I say lightly.

Using ready-to-eat dates (as opposed to dried dates) mean that they don’t need soaking or softening before use, which means they don’t turn to mush when you knead the bejeezus out of them, and their ever-so-slightly-papery stickiness is retained, even in the final bun. Instead of apricot jam on top to glaze, these have a muscovado syrup that is painted onto the buns when they are still hot from the oven, giving them a sheen, a whiff of toffee, and just the right amount of stickiness.

The walnuts aren’t compulsory, but add a welcome rubble to the bun, something I like in my sticky toffee pudding, and that translates well to the bun form – but feel free to leave them out, or sub with a nut of your choice.

I like my buns to bake into one another, so that you can tear them apart, and reveal those soft, wispy pieces of dough in between them. I find they rise taller, and are softer, more yielding than those buns which are baked as perfect rounds, which makes them better for toasting (and therefore as a vehicle for butter: important). If you’re looking for a perfectly round bun, space them a little further apart once they’re shaped, so that they don’t bake into one another.

Sticky toffee hot cross buns

Makes: 12 buns

Takes: 30 minutes, plus proving time

Bakes: 20 minutes

For the buns

300ml milk

75g butter

500g strong bread flour

75g muscovado sugar

7g instant, dried yeast

1 egg, lightly beaten

½ teaspoon fine salt

1 tsp mixed spice

200g ready-to-eat dates, pitted and chopped (about 225g dates, unpitted)

50g walnuts, chopped

For the cross

75g plain flour

50ml water

For the glaze

50g dark brown sugar

50ml water

  1. Heat the milk and butter together, gently, until the butter melts. Set to one side until the mixture is just above blood temperature (if you stick your finger in it, it will just feel warm).
  2. Once the milk mixture has cooled, place it in the bowl of a stand mixer with the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, mixed spice, egg, and chopped dates.
  3. Knead the dough using a dough hook for five minutes on a medium speed until the dough comes together and becomes smooth. You can do this by hand, but it will take longer to achieve that smooth, elastic dough – 10-15 minutes, so pop the radio on.
  4. Once the dough is smooth, thoroughly mix the chopped nuts into the dough. Place in a clean bowl, cover with clingfilm or a tea towel, and leave to prove in a warm place for a couple of hours.
  5. Punch the dough down, to knock out the gas that has accumulated, then divide the dough into 12 pieces, roughly 100g each. Roll each into a tight ball: flatten the piece of dough out with the palm of your hand, then fold the edges into the middle. Turn the piece of dough over, cage your hand over the top of it, with your fingertips touching the counter, and make small, fast circular movements: this will drag the dough under itself, and create a tight, smooth ball. Transfer all 12 shaped buns to a high-sided baking tray, arranging the buns close to one-another, so that their outermost edges are just touching. If you like rounder buns, you can bake them on a lined, shallower tray, but you’ll need to space them apart more generously. Cover lightly with clingfilm and leave to prove for an hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Mix a slurry of flour and water together to form a paste which will hold its shape, but is loose enough to pipe. Transfer to a piping bag, and pipe long vertical and horizontal lines across the buns to create crosses. Bake for 20 minutes.
  7. While the buns are baking, heat the muscovado sugar and water together in a small pan until they start to boil, then remove from the heat. As soon as the buns come from the oven, paint them generously with the syrup. Leave to cool completely before removing from the tray, and enjoy toasted or just as they are.

Written byThe Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Olivia Potts is a former criminal barrister who retrained as a pastry chef. She co-hosts The Spectator’s Table Talk podcast and writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.

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