How to make the ultimate hot cross buns for Easter

Date:13-04-2014 07:58:09 read:0

How to make the ultimate hot cross buns for Easter

Maria Fitzpatrick tries her hand at making hot cross buns at Gail’s bakery in London

Hints of spice: Maria with her trays of hot cross bun perfection  Photo: Andrew Crowley

In 1792 hot cross buns almost caused a riot. The Chelsea Bun House in London had them for sale at Easter and so many people queued things got rather out of hand. Thankfully, the residents of Dulwich Village, in south London, are a decorous bunch, because here at Gail’s bakery there are buns worth fighting for. Glossy, pillowy soft and fragrant, they’re the edible equivalent of Disney birdsong, and the bakers can’t put them out fast enough.

“The winter was so grey. Everyone really needed a sign of change, so the moment the hot cross buns went out it went mad,” says Roy Levy, head baker for Gail’s, who is teaching me how to make my own. “A hot cross bun is like an old friend’s face. The familiarity is comforting.”

As is the ritual. They’ve been around a while. “Hot cross buns appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1733, although the street cry was familiar long before,” says the food historian Monica Askay. “Enriched, sweetened bread dough dates back to the Romans, but there are many theories about how the tradition evolved.”

Small, spiced cakes were also baked to honour the Saxon goddess Eoestre, and to celebrate spring, but it was the Tudors who began to link the spiced currant buns we know today with feast days, celebrations and eventually Lent. “Long before Christianity, loaves and buns were baked with symbols on them, one of which was a cross,” Monica says. “Then, right up to the Reformation, cutting a cross into your dough was supposed to ward off evil spirits that would prevent it from rising.”

I only have my limited kneading experience to worry about – although Roy’s recipe, while it takes time (the buns require two sessions of proving), is not as tricky as I expected. “It’s very easy,” he assures me, as I set about rubbing my fresh, crumbled (very cold) yeast into the sieved flour and sugar. With a well in the middle, we add the spices, which bring a rush of Easter memories from childhood as they reach my nose. “Feel free to adjust the spices to your own taste,” Roy says, “but I wouldn’t use too much – it shouldn’t taste richly 'festive’, like Christmas, because it’s nice to keep a distinction. We’re aiming for a clean, light flavour. I think of them as the anti-cupcake. They’re meant to be humble.”

Hard at work: Maria piping the crosses on her hot cross buns (Andrew Crowley)

Roy didn’t know what a hot cross bun was when he arrived in London seven years ago, having grown up in Tel Aviv, where baking at this time of year is unfermented. “It was exciting to work on something that stirs up so much affection,” he says. With no preconceptions of how it “should be”, he aimed to create “the best possible bun that I could”, taking the public’s anticipation seriously.

What’s his secret? “This.” He strokes the packets of French unsalted butter, which always come back in his suitcase from Brittany. “When they hear you’re a chef, they nod you through. They understand,” he giggles. “I’m with Julia Child, When in doubt, more butter.” But first, the egg and milk go into a well in the centre, and I bind the mixture, gradually working the flour in from the sides with my fingers, creating a dough. The butter is then smoothed in, a chunk at a time, in a gliding, kneading motion. The dough now feels silky-smooth. In with the salt and fruit, then more kneading until it’s velvety. “You want to make sure you stretch out the protein, the gluten,” Roy says. But avoid overdoing it, or you end up with buns of steel.

The dough proves, covered, for two hours, doubling in size. We divide it into little buns and “turn the ugly bits underneath” to form a smooth, rounded top, then seal the undersides by gently rolling them on the work surface. In a baking tray, evenly spaced (they join up when properly proved), they are left to puff up again.

For the “crosses”, we whisk together flour, icing sugar, milk and olive oil (butter would solidify). After glazing the buns with egg and letting them dry, it’s show time. I get the honour of piping the crosses on top – a better effort than my bun-shaping. Into the oven they go, and 20 minutes later we’re golden.

The buns need to be glazed before they go in the oven (ANDREW CROWLEY)

Despite Roy’s butter theory, for me it’s his vanilla and spice-infused syrup glaze, brushed on and left to set, that elevates the buns. It creates a delicate shell, a foil for the softness underneath.

Later, as I walk to the bus stop, a box of cinnamony perfume in my hands, I’m aware of bystanders’ noses twitching like bunnies. Yes, folks – that’s spring in the air.

Gail's hot cross buns recipe

*'Gail’s Artisan Bakery Cookbook’ (£20) is out on June 5 (Ebury Press); Monica Askay is working with Stork margarine

More Easter baking recipes

Pistachio madeleines with chocolate sorbet recipe

Ed Kimber’s spiced chocolate and orange hot cross buns recipe

Ed Kimber’s chocolate salted caramel marble cake recipe

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