Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Hot Cross Buns (Trial #1)

"Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! One a penny, Two a penny, Hot cross buns!"

Eversince my success with brioche, I have been encouraged to continue into the vast universe of bread baking and seeing that Easter weekend is just around the corner, I decided I just had to take advantage of this holiday and have a go at hot cross buns. Sure they are meant to be eaten on Good Friday (the cross symbolising the crucifixion) but my excuse for making them this early, is hopefully by then I would have nailed the perfect bun (no religious pun intended) and be able to knock up a batch to share with my family and friends.

My understanding is during Lent (the forty days preceding Easter), one prays, does charity and abstains from food and festivities. It is a time of grief which ends with a great celebration of Easter. Fasting meant abstaining from eggs, meat, dairy, alcohol and sometimes even bread and fruit, and maybe only eating a small meal each day. Traditionally, hot cross buns were made in the absence of eggs, milk and butter so they were OK to eat during Lent.

The buns I attempted today with the inclusion of milk, butter, eggs, sugar, spice and fruit are definately decadent compared to the traditional variety and therefore are not suitable for those seeking penance! Most commercially-made hot cross buns are soft and fluffy, which gives a nice crunch to soft contrast when toasted lightly and spread generously with butter. However, I am partial to a slightly heavy and chewy crumb - like a sourdough, only studded with fruit and spiked with the warm, spicey notes of cinammon, clove and ginger which also imparts a sandy, earthy hue to the crumb.

Speaking of colour, have you ever noticed how some commercially produced buns have a purplish-gray shade? What is going on there??

Anyway, after doing some research on several recipes (as I am so determined to find a recipe that will yield MY favourite hot cross bun!), and doing some calculations, I decided I would begin with a small trial batch - a humble half-dozen buns using only plain flour (I have since decided to try a combination of rye and wholemeal flour for my second trial). Although the dough was slightly soft and sticky, I found it quite manageable after allowing it to further proof in the fridge for a couple of hours after its initial one-hour rise at room temperature. After shaping the dough, I allowed the buns to proof completely before piping the crosses on their tops. This ensures that the crosses do not shift and look a-size-too-small during baking. Oh! I found out (slightly after I pulled the buns out of the oven) it helps to spray the pan you decide to bake the buns in with some oil before you set the shaped dough in it as this will aid the unmoulding.

After having nervously anticipated the moment these little babies would be cooked and sufficiently cooled down for me to split into half for the very necessary crumb inspection, I have to admit I am slightly disappointed with the result. Nonetheless, finished with a syrupy glaze, toasted and offered with a generous spread of slightly salted butter, they look as good as they taste with a texture ever so softly yielding to the bite.

1/2 tsp dried yeast
180ml milk at room temperature
20g sugar
120g plain flour
1 tsp dried yeast
200g plain flour
30g sugar
1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp ginger
1 large egg, lightly beaten
50g salted butter, soft but chill to touch
100g raisins, soaked in water, reserving liquid
(makes 6 large or 9 small buns)
pre-ferment Prepare this the night before you plan to make the buns by combining all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisking to obtain mix that is of thick batter consistency. Cover the bowl with cling film and allow to rest at room temperature for at least an hour (Note: you should see bubbles on the surface of the mix indicating the yeast is alive and activated) before refrigerating overnight.
Note: This recipe yields quite a soft dough which can be very fiddly to work with by hand so I have used a stand-up mixer.
dough Scatter the flour, yeast, spices, egg and sugar on the pre-ferment and mix using a stand-up mixer with a dough-hook attachment at low speed. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time. Continue kneading for 5-7 minutes at medium speed or until a dough is smooth in appearance. Add the softened butter a teaspoon at a time until all is incorporated into the dough (takes about 5 minutes of kneading) which should look soft and satiny by now.
1st rise Cover the bowl with some cling wrap and set at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour after which the dough would have almost doubled in volume.
2nd rise Press/knock/punch the dough to remove the air and place the dough into the fridge to proof for a further 1 - 1 1/2 hours. This process allows the dough to slowly rise but also helps with the amalgamation of the ingredients and setting of the fat rendering the dough more manageable.
shaping After this second rise, remove the dough from the bowl, gently press the dough down with your fingertips, divide into 6-9 equal portions for shaping into buns. Place buns in a greased pan, about 4cm apart if you want the finished bun to look square-ish but otherwise, space them 8cm apart to maintain their round shape after baking.
final proof Cover with a damp towel and allow shaped dough to double in size at room temperature. This will take about 40-45 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the flour paste for the cross (3 tbs plain flour + 2 tbs water + 1/2 tbs veg oil) and glaze (100ml reserved liquid from soaking the raisins + 3 tsp sugar, boil til reduced by half). Pre-heat the oven to 180 C.
baking Pipe the crosses (I made a makeshift piping bag by placing the paste in a plastic sandwich bag and snipping one corner) on top of the buns and bake for 25-30 minutes for large buns or 20-25 minutes for smaller buns. The time may vary - check to make sure the tops brown evenly. When cooked, remove from oven and brush the glaze on the buns while they are still hot.
cool completely (this allows the steam within the bun to redistribute into the crumb and gives you time to admire your work!) before eating them.