If you’re ever uncertain about what time of year it is – who knows why, maybe you have a nice bunker – I’d advise you to go to the supermarket. They will set you on the right path straight away because as soon as one holiday is shunted out the door, the next is sequinned and bedazzled, not just on the nearest shelf, but across the entire shop. It might make you think that it’s Christmas in the middle of October, but the rough estimate is good enough. However, hot cross buns have been available since January. Yes, I felt a lurching tug to buy a pack. After all, hot cross buns are quite possibly my very favourite seasonal snack.
Here in France, Easter is called Pâques and apart from all the Milka and Kinder brands aggressively displayed in every food shop I visit, there’s not a lot of other foodie goodness available. This is when the conspicuous space left by hot cross buns feels the most heart-breaking. Chocolate is all well and good, and I don’t mean to speak on anyone’s behalf here, dear reader, but there are only so many Easter eggs one can eat. Hot cross buns on the other hand, well, that’s a completely separate matter.
The French just don’t really get the whole spiced-bread-stuffed-with-currants thing. They have pain d’épices which appears every Christmas, and while it’s a delicious take on gingerbread, it’s certainly more (if you’ll excuse my lack of descriptive words) bready than cakey or doughy. You know the drill: here, it’s all about the choux.
Whereas in the UK and I’m sure in other parts of the world where they’re sold, there’s this collective lustful longing for the buns that are hot and cross. This year, more than ever before, the supermarket novelty hot cross buns have overthrown the originals. They’ve even been encroaching into the realms of savoury and all the varieties of cheese pairings – stout, jalapeno, Marmite – are available for us to taste at our leisure. What is it about them? Do we just love the bite and chew of stodge? Do we like that sensation of density in our guts, that extra padding around our middles? Well, I know I do. A good hot cross bun can make me almost hysterical with happiness, so of course, I baked some. The non-cheese variety.
Soft Hot Cross Buns
Normally, you’d find me at the front of the queue demanding a packet of each novelty version – I do love me a bit of intrigue when it comes to flavour. After many years of knowing me, my sister has summarised it down to three ingredients which I’ll seemingly add to anything: rhubarb, ginger and fennel. Luckily for us all, none of those three make an appearance in today’s hot cross buns. They are, surprisingly for me, traditional – lightly spiced, pocketed with juicy sultanas and of course drawn with a nice wobbly cross. You just can’t beat the real thing.
My hot cross buns of yore may have involved some very suggestive pools of melted chocolate, but I also found them to be too firm and taut, rather like skin after Botox (not that I would know… yet). So, this year, I went back to the drawing board, deciding to conquer the traditional versions before any rhubarb, ginger or fennel got involved.
Success was mine and I managed to eat six light, fluffy, squidgy soft hot cross buns on the trot before self-awareness hit. It certainly was a baking journey though as I learnt, for the softest hot cross buns without faces like this, wet, sticky dough is best.
1. Keep the dough wet
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of hot cross bun recipes out there, but I have discovered that the recipe for soft and squidgy success is to resist the urge for extra flour. It will be a strong, powerful urge, one weighed down by the hot cross bun limpet clinging to your fingers. Here, I learnt that resistance is key. Find your inner zen. Add only the merest sprinkling of flour to your kitchen counter before you knead, or better yet, chuck it all in a stand mixer and let it struggle away for you. It will do so valiantly.
2. Squash the buns together in a baking dish
For my previous bakes, I would take a baking tray and line up these cute balls of dough a bit like ballet dancers with space for their tutus. After they’d had a sleepy little proof, I would uncover them to find they were barely touching the other, meaning the friendly arm of the cross would have to stretch right over to reach. Plus, the baking sheet wasn’t a great idea. With all this space and exposure, the hot cross buns were open to the elements, namely the heat and anger of the oven.
For more rounded and crispy buns, this is the ideal cooking method. For pillow-soft hot cross buns, bundle them into a baking dish with high sides. Really squeeze them in together, this is no time for social distancing. Once proofed, they will be puffed up tall, almost climbing on top of each other.
3. Soak your fruit
While this isn’t really related to the softness of the bun itself, soaking the sultanas makes every bite that little bit more supple and juicier. 30 minutes before baking commences, boil the kettle, make a strong batch of Earl Grey tea and drink some yourself if you wish, and immerse all those little sultanas. As you gather together all the other ingredients, the sultanas fatten and plump as they hydrate, and the tea is full of floral, citrussy notes, a softer choice than English breakfast or say rum (although both fatten a raisin beautifully).
Out of the oven came 12 stocky little buns, all of which surprisingly tall and beautifully bouncy, easy to tear away from their fellows, or rip into with a knob of butter. Just the smell of the hot cross buns, the steam brushing your face, is so distinct, all spiced and nutmegy. Varnished with some melted apricot jam gave them a glossy shine and then I couldn’t resist any longer, the first of my consumed six was gone in a few chews.
The other six are now staring at me, waiting for their doom. That will be coming in the form of a hot cross bun bread and butter pudding – sign up to my newsletter for that devilish dessert! It’s one that I certainly don’t need to eat but, what can I say, I get these little guys once a year – ok for four months a year, from January onwards – but I think we can afford to indulge.
Hot Cross Buns
- 200 ml strong Earl grey tea made with 2 tea bags
- 210 g sultanas
- 640 g flour with added gluten strong-plain flour or T55
- 9 g instant yeast
- 100 g sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 1½ tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp mixed spice or similar (a blend that includes cloves, coriander, ginger, as well as cinnamon and nutmeg)
- 1 orange zested
- 50 g melted butter
- 1 egg
- 375 ml warm milk cool enough to put your finger in
For the crosses
- 75 g flour any type of flour
- 70 ml water
For the glaze
- 2 tbsp apricot jam
- 2 tbsp water
- First, soak the fruit. Pour your well-brewed tea into a large bowl and add the sultanas. Set aside to soak for half an hour and gather together the rest of your ingredients.
- Put the flour, yeast, sugar, spices and salt in a mixing bowl and stir briefly to combine. Mix together the milk, melted butter, egg and orange zest then pour into the flour. Add the soaked sultanas. Stir with a wooden spoon to mix together all the ingredients until you have a shaggy wet dough. Tip it out onto a very lightly floured work surface.
- Knead for around 10 minutes until the dough is soft and stretchy. You will need more flour on the surface and your hands, but be stingy with it! Once it is smooth, plop it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to proof in a warm place until doubled in size. Depending how warm it is, this can take 30 minutes or 2 hours!
- Once it's all puffed up and beautiful, tip it back out of the bowl and give it a little knead to squash out the air. Roll it into a long sausage, then cut in half then half again. Cut each quarter into three. Divvy up the dough so that each portion is roughly the same size, I even weighed mine so you could do that if you can be bothered. Flatten each piece then pinch the edges together. Roll on the work surface to smooth its little pinched bottom.
- Once all your buns are nicely round, lightly grease a 31cm x 23cm baking dish (or near enough) and line the buns up 4 by 3. Leave to proof again for another 30 minutes or so until they've risen, but not quite doubled in size.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/350°F.
- Make the cross mixture by combining the flour and water in a bowl and stirring until smooth. Don't add more liquid as it will be very difficult to use and your crosses will splodge everywhere. Fill a piping bag or a sandwich bag and snip off the end at around 1cm in width.
- Once the buns have risen, pipe a line all along each column and then across each row. The flour mixture goes further than you expect so don't be too cautious as it will come out in blobs.
- Now they're ready to go in the oven! Bake for 25-30 minutes. You may need to rotate the dish to ensure they are all evenly golden on top.
- Meanwhile make the glaze by warming the apricot jam and water in a pan and mixing together until smooth. Remove the hot cross buns from the oven and brush on the jammy glaze while they're still warm. Leave to cool in the tray or just rip one off immediately and devour it.
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