Back in the days when you couldn’t get Hot Cross Buns all year round, and before supermarkets made things so hard for the small producer, I remember getting them just before Easter from your local bakers, the spicy smell could literally force you to enter from across the street and buy a bag full, they were beautifully soft and almost bread roll like in consistency, when you would tear into a warm, fresh one and it was moist without having to butter them, you would see the nuggets of candied peel and plump fruit nestled in the spicy roll, and they were slightly domed with their golden tops glazed and sticky, there was nothing artificial about the taste either. Oh, and they had crosses on them! No, they might not keep for days on end(as they weren’t rammed full of preservatives) but when they tasted as good as they did, they were hugely unlikely to be hanging around. Dan Lepard’s website has a blog (it’s a little on the dated side but may still help those needing to buy some) on where to buy some of the best,(I believe Greggs actually do a reasonable one) and his stout version of the HCB looks great, but here in Spain black beer is expensive, so I have been on the trail for the best recipes. I don’t like currants in my Hot Cross Bun so used raisins-feel free to use a mix of dried fruit, I prefer my fruit to be as soft and plump as possible so I really liked his method of soaking the fruit in a good black tea, and it really was great in the final result. Some people adapted his soft roll recipe with success which I am already a fan of, so when I found a recipe I wanted to use I adapted it further using some of the foundations of that recipe.
My holy grail of HCB’s taught me a fair bit, the most important being that yeast doesn’t get on with spice, or fruit, as in it doesn’t do its funky thing and make dough rise much. With this in mind I wanted to find a recipe that gave the yeast as much of a head start as possible before adding it to the all important hindrances! Beginning the process with a yeast starter is a great way of doing this. This is where you give the yeast a little liquid, flour and sugar and let it bubble and froth away for half an hour or so, before adding it to the bulk of the ingredients. And I have to say, there isn’t a trace of heaviness to these, they swell and rise beautifully, although mostly in the oven, and you certainly don’t need to butter them to enjoy fully. I have just eaten one for breakfast from a batch I made two days ago and stored in an airtight container, it was only just starting to need buttering. As I am trying in vain to diet I will be refraining from buttering, but I think the quantity of butter and milk in these will keep that from being a problem.
I have worked this recipe with both fresh and dried yeast, dried yeast seems to work slower (and won’t produce a spongelike consistency, more of a creamy yogurt thickness) during the starter process and it doesn’t rise as much while proving but it catches up in the oven (I now have 24 HCB’s as I did a batch of each yesterday to see how they compare!), and I think the dried version results in a slightly heavier bun. Side by side though you can’t really tell, as you can see here(the fresh yeast is on the left)-
I may have super sensitive taste buds as I can taste the fresh yeast which has never happened in bread I’ve baked, so I may have to reduce the quantity of yeast in the recipe and give it a longer period to prove. I will do another batch before Easter with 10 grams and let you know the result!
The recipe takes several hours from start to finish, but this can be broken up, I have made some notes at the bottom.
For the starter sponge
1 medium egg, beaten
55 g / 2 oz plain strong flour
100 ml / 3 3/4 fl oz warm water
15 g / 2/3 oz fresh yeast OR 2 level teaspoons dried active yeast
1 teaspoon caster sugar
For the dough
454 g / 1 lb plain strong flour, plus extra for kneading
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons mixed spice
zest of one lemon and one orange
85 g / 3 1/2 oz caster sugar
85 g / 3 1/2 oz butter, melted
120 ml / 4 fl oz milk, plus a dash more for brushing
175 g / 6 oz dried fruit – I used raisins *
80 g / 3 oz Candied Peel. Make your own or buy the best you can find – Sundora is a good brand.
a good black tea bag, I used Assam as I didnt have one, just as good.
For the crosses
2 tablespoons plain flour, 1 tablespoon caster sugar, 3 tablespoons water mixed to form a thick paste
Either use a sugar syrup(50g of sugar boiled up with 100ml water for a few minutes) or approximately 2 tablespoons warmed apricot jam.
- First off, boil a kettle, make up about 250ml / half a pint of tea and soak your raisins or mixed dried fruit.
- For the starter, in a medium bowl add an egg and whisk, then add 100 ml warm water, crumble in the yeast, stir well to encorporate it, then add the flour and sugar. Make sure it is well mixed, then cover and leave for about half an hour somewhere warm, but not hot. When you come back to it the starter will look really puffed up and frothy. Give it a little longer if it is being slow! This photo shows the fresh yeast on the left, dried on the right. (the dried version looks really sad in comparison!)
- In a large bowl add the flour for the dough, the salt and spice, and mix. Add the sugar, the zest of the lemon and orange, then pour in the melted butter and milk into the middle. Begin to mix this in before adding the starter. Mix well until you have a slightly sticky dough, then turn out onto a well floured surface.
- Knead well for about ten minutes until the dough is no longer sticking to everything (add more flour to the surface as you go when it sticks) and is elastic and smooth.
- Drain and squeeze the moisture from the fruit. Very finely chop the candied peel.
- Pat the dough out to a thick rectangular shape and place the candied peel and fruit into the middle. Fold the edges over, and then knead until all the fruit is well mixed through the dough. Make sure the mixing bowl is cleaned out (or that you had scraped all the dough out for kneading), pop the dough back in and rest the for an hour covered.
- Bring the dough back out onto a lightly floured surface and knead again for a few minutes, before covering and resting for a further thirty minutes.
- Now for making the rolls. Line a 13 x 9 inch baking tray with a deep lip. Turn out the dough, knock out the air and separate into 12 even pieces. Roll in your hands until they are round, and slightly flattened. Deeply score a cross in them with a very sharp knife(don’t worry if your crosses don’t look perfect), and place into the tray with a little space between them.
- Cover and let them swell up for an hour. Don’t worry if they don’t swell much. Get your oven preheated to gas mark 8 / 240 degC / 475 degF.
- With a pastry brush, dab a little milk onto the buns. Make sure your paste is thick and lump free(add a little more flour/sugar if needed-taste wise it will be floury but sweet). Put the cross paste into a freezer bag, squeeze it into one corner and let any excess air out, twist the bag at the top of the paste and snip a tiny hole in the corner. With a steady hand follow the crosses made when you scored them with a knife.
Be fairly thick in your piping, going over it twice if necessary.
- Pop into the oven for twenty to twenty five minutes. After ten minutes if they are browning too quickly reduce the heat to gas 7 / 220 deg C / 450 degF, mine were and if you brown them too much too quickly you will get too much of a crust and a doughy middle.
- When they are straight out of the oven, get a pastry brush and glaze with your jam or syrup. After much deliberation (and 4 batches!) I have decided I prefer a jam glaze!
- Allow to mostly cool in the tray before removing, tearing them apart and cooling on a rack. Eaten warm out of the oven is by far the best time for these babies though!
Once you have shaped the buns you could wrap the tray in cling film and put them in the fridge, I had to with batch number one for about 4-5 hours as I had run out of time and had to go to work. Give them an hour minimum to come up to room temperature. This leads me to believe they could be left overnight and baked fresh in the morning. I have also left the dough in the fridge for the second prove for a few hours as, again, I had to go to work. Give it half an hour or so to come up to room temperature and then roll into the buns. Oh to be a full time food writer!
*I made a batch with some glace cherries for some children that don’t like dried fruit and they were wonderful, you won’t need as much as the fruit though, 100g is plenty for it.
Spice wise, I like it quite strong, and two teaspoons mentioned in many recipes wasn’t enough, so I use three. If you like it subtle, go with two. Now to make Stollen….