Let's Cook with Meg and Ted

Hot cross buns

Elizabeth David. On the one hand, responsible for getting olive oil out of the pharmacies and into the grocery stores of the UK, bless her. On the other hand, lots of her recipes don't work for me, damn her. Her books make great reading - whether it's the longing descriptions in the first Mediterranean cookbooks, or the historical scholarship leavened with ascerbic remarks of the later books on British cooking - but I wouldn't try one of her recipes for the first time if I needed to be sure that it would work perfectly and on time. I think this is partly due to less rigorous testing of published recipes at that time (as Angela said in her comments to her hot cross bun post), but also perhaps just that expectations of recipes have changed.

I know I've been led astray by some recipes of my mother's because of this change. I once made, from her foolproof recipe, a fudge which never set. I phoned her and was set straight about my errors. Firstly, the recipe hadn't specified whether to stir or not, so I had, when I shouldn't have (or the other way around, I don't remember) - that was something which was part of her core knowledge, but not part of mine. Secondly, when it said "boil for 12 minutes", I assumed that meant "boil for about 12 minutes", so didn't keep my eye on the clock, because I'm used to modern, coddling recipes which will tell you "exactly 12 minutes" if it matters, because we've all become slackers who think near enough is good enough (as it is for many recipes, honestly). What a long sentence that was. So anyway, I can't really blame Elizabeth David without compunction for the recipes of hers I've failed to make successfully, but they still make me wary.

Despite this, I was feeling in the mood for tradition with my hot cross buns this year and so decided to make them from the recipe she gives in English bread and yeast cookery, a book which contains a wealth of information about the changing recipes for traditional English breads, buns, crumpets, dumplings and so on. She describes the history of small spiced buns, which originally became popular in Tudor times, when bakers were, by royal decree, only permitted to sell them on special occasions ("except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor"). The recipe she gives for hot cross buns is different from most others I've seen in that there is no kneading before the first rise. This makes them easy to prepare, but means that the dough never becomes smooth and supple, and the finished buns are therefore a bit lumpen looking.

I modified the original recipe by making a paste of flour and water to make the cross with, rather than just slashing the dough after the second rise, which I am not very good at. David says "There is no need to worry overmuch about the exactitude of the cross. You have made the symbolic gesture. That is what counts." Unfortunately, while my crosses were reasonably exact, I wasn't sure whether my buns were going to recover after the hacking I was giving them, so the first four only had cut crosses, and the next 5 had them drizzled on with the edge of a spoon. Finally, I also changed the glaze for the buns. The original recipe called for a mixture of milk and sugar boiled together, which produced something unpleasantly curdy - no idea what happened there - so I quickly made up a syrup of water and sugar to use instead.

250 g strong flour
1 sachet of easy-bake yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
30 g soft light brown sugar
1 heaped teaspoon mixed sweet spice
30 g softened butter
1 egg
110 ml milk
60 g currants
sugar syrup, to glaze

Warm the flour in a large bowl. Add the yeast, salt, sugar and spices, and mix. Make a well in the mixture and add the butter, egg and milk, and stir until all the ingredients are well amalgamated. Finally, add the currants and mix them in carefully so they are well and evenly distributed throughout the dough (I added a little mixed peel here too).

Cover the bowl and leave to rise until doubled in size (this may take 1 to 2 hours, depending on the temperature and the yeast). Now punch down the dough, knead briefly, and then cut into 9 to 12 pieces. Form each piece into a ball and place on a lined tray, a little apart from one another. Cover with a teatowel and leave in a warm place until the buns have doubled in volume.

Cut crosses in the tops of the buns using a knife, or make up a paste of flour and water and draw crosses on with that. Bake in the oven at 190C for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are golden brown. Remove from the oven, and give them two successive coatings of sugar syrup to glaze.

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11 April 2004

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