Two years ago I baked hot cross buns. I was immersed in the depths of good old Lent and, thanks to my trusty loophole, I was rubbing my hands together in glee – finally, my Easter weakness was within reach and none of that old, miserly Mr Lent and his habit of distributing guilt attached.
My love of hot cross buns is the reason for my deep internal struggle every year when Lent rolls around. Packets of those delicate, moist, fruity buns are piled high on supermarket shelves, toying with me cruelly, now in various flavours simply to tempt me more. A combination of a soft bread and brioche bun studded with currants and citrus peel, the hot cross bun is notorious in the UK during the slow build up to Easter, their delicate and moist crumb light after months of dumplings, suet and Christmas pudding, and they’re here to keep us going until the scenes of chocolate egg massacres hit the news.
The hot cross buns from two years ago were delicious, however, I was disappointed. I strive for food perfection and, although these pert little balls were crusty, spiced and golden, they missed the mark. For one their crosses were all over the place, smudged and spread indefinably, therefore a more appropriate title would be the hot splodge bun, and they remained petite with a tight chewy crumb, instead of soft and light, ready to tear away from it’s neighbour. Paul Hollywood would have despaired about their clearly under-proved dough structure. So, I abandoned the idea for a while, but now it’s time to get back in the game.
And, might I say, I’m so glad I did.
A tray of eight enormous rolls emerged from the oven, having triumphantly ballooned into shape, each cross stretching over to it’s neighbour like an affectionate hand on the shoulder. The temptation of the various flavours in shops, on Instagram and other blogs – particularly Benjamina Ebuehi’s white chocolate and sour cherry concoctions – had me throwing the tried, practised and perfected hot cross bun recipe to the wind and incorporating large lumps of milk chocolate in place of the sultanas and currants. For me at least, a hot cross bun requires those minuscule bursts of citrus as you bite into it, but, as candied peel is expensive, it was replaced with finely grated orange zest. The spices are crucial to a traditional hot cross bun, and a lot of recipes make a right song and dance about crushing cardamom pods, soaking saffron and grating quarter of a nutmeg, but I realised just the scents of mixed spice and cinnamon are immediately associated with these innocent little buns. I stirred in the ground spices and the kitchen instantly filled with warming, heady scent, and my mouth watered with abandon for what was coming.
I kneaded the soft wet dough, adding fistfuls of flour to the work surface, my hands, anything that contacted the gluey dough which stuck fast like Flubber. Slowly, surely, a glossy firm dough appeared, and it was slipped into a greased bowl and carried around the house trying to find the warmest pocket of air to prove – at one point the bath seemed the most appropriate.
Back two years ago those darned crosses got the better of me. They are difficult to execute successfully without a piping bag so either buy a roll of disposable bags or cut the corner off a sandwich bag. This time the paste was a thick dropping consistency which slowly dripped off my spoon, so I plopped it all into a piping bag, sliced off the end and piped away, drawing a long line down the two columns of patiently waiting buns.
Once baked, golden and smelling irresistible, I hurriedly brushed them with melted peach jam, for the want of apricot, ripped one away from his buddies, halved and buttered it and scarpered to the safety of the sofa. There I bit into the soft fluffy bun, the centre still steaming from it’s bake, and chocolate creating little molten pools, ready to surprise me every time, omitting a small moan of pleasure. Now, only two remain, and although no longer fresh they are divine toasted. As the glaze will melt I balance the two cut halves on top, creating golden brown scorch marks across the surface, and softening the chunks of chocolate so they merge when I attack it with a knife and some salty butter. Finally, the perfect Lent treat. We all deserve that second chance.
Chocolate and Orange Hot Cross Buns
Adapted from BBC Good Food’s recipe
400g strong white flour
7g sachet fast action dried yeast
1 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
250ml warm milk
50g butter, melted
100g milk chocolate
50g plain flour
1 tbsp apricot or peach jam
- In a bowl mix together the strong plain flour, the yeast, salt, and sugar, along with the spices. Push the dry mix to the sides of the bowl to make a well.
- Heat the milk in a pan or in the microwave until just warm. Beat in the egg and the cooled melted butter. Pour into the well and gently stir together to combine until you have a sticky wet dough. Scrape out onto a floured surface.
- Start kneading the dough, adding extra flour when it gets too wet and sticks to your hands. Keep kneading for about 10 minutes until it is smooth, glossy and springy. Grease a large bowl with a little oil, pop in the dough and cover with cling film. Leave it in a warm area for an hour until it has doubled in size.
- Once risen and puffed up, tip out onto your floured kitchen surface. Gently knead to squash out any excess air and flatten with your hands. Coarsely chop the chocolate and finely zest the orange. Pile the chocolate shards and the orange zest on top of the flat dough and evenly knead in the filling.
- Divide the dough into eight pieces by chopping it in half, then half again, then half again. Lightly grease a baking tray and roll each piece into a ball before filling the tray with little buns, with an inch of space between each.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/395°F. Cover the buns with cling film and leave to prove for another 20 minutes or so, until they have again doubled in size.
- Meanwhile, mix the paste for the crosses. Combine the flour, a teaspoon of sugar and a couple of dribbles of water to make a thick gloopy paste. Spoon it into a piping bag.
- Once the buns have grown and are just touching each other on the baking tray, pipe long lines down the centre of each column then horizontally creating a cross. Slide the tray into the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
- When the hot cross buns are golden and smelling delicious bring them out of the oven and brush with some warm apricot jam. Then rip away one of the buns, tear it open and eat immediately.