When I first made hot cross buns as a teenager, they ended up more like hot cross rock cakes. I think maybe I over-proved them, or left too much space between each bun on the baking tray, so they puddled out like strange, beige, fruit-speckled UFOs. They were delicious, but I found myself rather disheartened at their complete lack of resemblance to those perky, burnished, perfectly-crossed specimens you can buy in the supermarket. Every year since then – and, sad to say (or a relief?), many have elapsed between my teenage years and the present – I’ve been trying to create a hot cross bun that rivals those upmarket bought varieties.
The perfect hot cross bun is, of course, a highly subjective concept, but I have several requirements. The inside should be light and fluffy, rich but not too sweet – it needs to work perfectly slathered with lots of salted butter – and there should be the occasional burst of dried fruit to keep the tastebuds interested, but not too much that it feels like you’re eating a fruit cake. Then you need lots of spice – not just cinnamon, please, but a complex medley of sweet, fragrant, warm spices: after all, these are meant to be a celebration of the end of Lent, a paean to flavour and indulgence. There needs to be a glaze on the top, so that the crispy, sugary crust is the absolute best bit of the bun, the part you save until last, the part you set aside an extra-large lick of butter for. I used to make a simple syrup of sugar and water for this, but Paul Hollywood suggests bubbling apricot jam with a little water until sticky and syrupy, and using this instead. It’s a great time-saving trick that uses up that languishing jar of apricot jam in your fridge (you know, the one you only ever use for glazing cakes), and it also adds a little fruity sweetness to the tops of the buns.
After much tweaking, here is – dare I say it – my ultimate hot cross bun recipe. The buns go through three rises, making them extra light and fluffy (a far cry from my sad rock cake attempts of yesteryear). I add cardamom to the spice mix, to give just a hint of those gorgeous Scandinavian enriched dough breads, along with cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. I use the standard sultanas, currants and mixed peel, but I also add some chopped dried apple – I love how moist and gooey this makes the buns.
After their three rises, these blossom beautifully in the heat of the oven. Each one is slightly different in shape and size, and the crosses may be a little wonky (piping a paste of flour and water neatly is not easy), but this is part of the charm of homemade, I think – who wants whole packs of uniformity? Give me golden, rustic buns bursting with fruit and spice any day.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I did, and feel free to tweak the recipe to make your own ultimate hot cross bun. Happy Easter!
Ultimate hot cross buns (makes 15):
- 300ml milk
- 50g unsalted butter
- 500g white bread flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 50g golden caster sugar
- 7g instant yeast
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 6 cardamom pods, seeds ground to a powder
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- 1 egg
- 55g sultanas
- 55g currants
- 50g mixed peel
- 30g dried apple, finely chopped
- 50g plain flour
- 4 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp apricot jam
Put the milk in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the butter, stir until melted, then set aside and leave to cool to body temperature.
Meanwhile, put the flour, salt, sugar, yeast and spices in a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of an electric stand mixer). Make a well in the centre of the mix. When the milk is cool enough, add this to the bowl along with the egg. Use the dough hook attachment of your mixer, or a wooden spoon, to bring the mix together to form a soft, sticky dough. Knead for around 5-10 minutes or until the dough becomes smooth and pliable, and springs back when you press it. Put in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film or a tea towel, and leave for around an hour in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size.
When the dough has risen, knock the air out of it and add the dried fruit. Knead this into the dough (using your hands or the dough hook again), ensuring it is evenly distributed – bits of fruit might fall out of the dough at first but persevere, it will come together eventually. Return it to the bowl, cover and leave again until doubled in size.
Divide the dough into 15 pieces of roughly equal size, then roll each into a ball. Arrange on a baking sheet (or two) covered with baking parchment, leaving around 2 inches between each ball. Leave again until doubled in size.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Mix the flour and water together in a small bowl until you have a thick paste (add a little more/less water if necessary), then pour this into a piping bag (or a freezer bag with a small hole cut in the corner!). Pipe crosses onto each ball of dough (don’t worry if they’re not perfect – that’s part of the charm!) Bake in the pre-heated oven for around 15-20 minutes, or until just golden brown, then transfer to a wire rack to cool. Mix the apricot jam with a little water in a pan then heat until bubbling and sticky. Brush this glaze over the hot buns and leave to cool (if you have the willpower) before eating.