What makes a hot cross bun a hot cross bun? Is it in the bun: the spice, the dried fruit and citrus peel, or even the type of dough? Is it the way you eat it – hot! – sliced in half, toasted and dripping with butter? Or is it the cross itself? Hot cross bun purists will tell you that it’s all of the above, and that any deviation from the classic is, well, deviant. And more-over, that the buns should be eaten only on Good Friday, never before or after. But if recent examples are anything to go by, the rules are very loose.
Each year, as soon as Christmas is over, unorthodox hot cross buns line our supermarket shelves and cause opprobrium among the sticklers. There’s chocolate chip, chocolate orange, lemon and white chocolate, mocha; rhubarb and custard, strawberries and cream, sticky toffee pudding; cheese, cheese and Marmite, cheese and jalapeño. If the hot cross pedants are to be believed, each new flavour combination takes us one step closer to the end of civilisation.
Are they right, these traditionalists? Well, Easter buns haven’t always taken precisely the same form. The hot cross bun’s name came about in the 18th century, but buns with crosses cut into them were found in the remains of Pompei, and the Saxons ate crossed buns in April to celebrate Eostre, goddess of fertility and the dawn.
In the 14th century, Brother Thomas Rocliffe, a monk from St Albans, distributed a crossed bun to the local poor on Good Friday. This Alban bun contained currants and cardamom, and the cross was cut into it rather than piped. Rocliffe’s bun is considered the precursor to the hot cross bun. Later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the sale of spiced buns was prohibited other than on Good Friday, Christmas and at burials. So, slowly, spiced buns became associated with Good Friday. But it wasn’t until 1773 in Poor Robin’s Almanack that the first reference to ‘hot cross buns’ – one a penny, two a penny – was made, and the pastry crosses on top, said to symbolise the crucifixion, became a defining feature.
This is bad news for purists: if the cross is what makes a hot cross bun, then even the weirdest flavour combinations are legitimised. I try to stick to the live-and-let-live school of baking: if sticking popping candy and smoked ham into a dough and calling it a hot cross bun makes you happy, so be it. But if pushed, I will admit that I think the original really is the best. My platonic bun is sweet but not too sweet, enriched but not too rich. It should be studded with plump sultanas and small nuggets of citrus peel. The spicing should be generous and mixed – cloves and nutmeg joining the cinnamon, which on its own can taste one-dimensional. My cross is made from a simple, unsweetened flour-water dough, which is piped on before the buns go in the oven. As the buns cook and grow, the cross becomes baked in.
But knowing that the bun’s route to today’s form is a little more winding, I feel comfortable playing around when it comes to the dough. In the quest for the perfect bun, I’ve tried a less conventional method. Tangzhong is the Asian technique of using a cooked roux in a yeasted dough. Heating together a small proportion of the milk and flour cooks the starch in the flour, which absorbs some of the liquid into the flour. This creates a structure which supports a larger amount of liquid. What this means is that the buns are significantly fluffier than when using a normal yeasted dough: they will be soft and tender, without requiring brioche-like quantities of butter and eggs. They should also rise more in the oven, baking into one another, creating fluffy wisps of crumb as the buns are pulled apart. This technique also gives a greater shelf life – but these buns are so good, they’ll be gone before Good Friday is over. A victory for the traditionalists.
Makes 9 Bakes 30 mins Takes 30 mins, plus 3 hrs proving
For the buns
– 370g strong white bread flour
– 7.5g dried instant yeast
– 75g plain flour
– 1 egg
– 240ml whole milk
– 80g soft butter
– 40g caster sugar
– 100g sultanas
– 50g mixed peel
– ½ tsp salt
– 1 finely chopped apple
– 1 tsp ground mixed spice
For the glaze
– 50g caster sugar
– 30ml water
– ½ tsp ground mixed spice
First, make the tangzhong. In a small pan heat 90ml milk and 20g strong white bread flour, stirring the whole time, until the mixture thickens and becomes gelatinous. Cook for a couple of minutes, then decant mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer.
Add bread flour, yeast, milk, egg, sugar and salt to the tangzhong and knead with a dough hook for 5-10 minutes until dough is elastic. Knead in butter, followed by sultanas, peel, apple and spice. Cover with cling film and leave to prove until doubled in size, which should take 1-2 hours.
Line a 23cm square cake tin with a long strip of baking paper. Divide the proved dough into 9 equal portions and roll each into a tight ball. Place in the tin in 3 rows of 3, cover with cling film, and leave to prove until, when gently pressed with a finger, they just retain the indent. This will take 1-2 hours.
Preheat oven to 180°C. Just before baking, mix together 75g of plain flour with a splash of water to form a paste about the thickness of toothpaste. Transfer to a piping bag and pipe across the buns to form crosses. Bake for 30 minutes.
While buns are proving, heat 50g caster sugar with 30ml water and ½ teaspoon ground mixed spice. Bring to the boil and, as soon as the buns come out of the oven, paint generously over the buns to form a glaze.
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