Hot cross buns and happy Easter

It's Easter. Therefore it seems a fitting time to post about the hot cross buns I made a few days ago. I've been quite late with them this year - normally as soon as I return home for the holidays, I get out the flour, yeast, milk, dried fruit and spices. Better late than never, though, and I will be enjoying one of these delicious creations today, split, toasted and spread with lashings of butter. I think hot cross buns incorporate many of my favourite things: a doughy texture, a sweet crust, dried fruit, liberal amounts of spice, and the potential to be toasted and buttered. Rather like a teacake, but somehow better and more interesting. I hate the insipid versions you can buy en masse at supermarkets at this time of year: no more complex than a white bread roll, but with a cross piped on top in order to guarantee it goes in your basket in the run up to Easter. A hot cross bun is not a white roll with a bit of fruit in and a cross on top; its culinary DNA is completely different. The dough is enriched with butter, milk and sometimes an egg in order to give it that rich, glorious density that marries so well with sweet, spicy adornments.

I used to make hot cross buns in the breadmaker, getting it to do all the hard work of mixing, kneading and incorporating the fruit for me. However, now that I have the KitchenAid, this wasn't necessary. I did do some of the work by hand, though: I started off by rubbing butter into flour, as you would for a crumble, and after I had used the dough hook to knead the flour, yeast, butter, spices and milk together I folded the fruit into the dough by hand.

I've been reading articles on hot cross bun recipes over the last few weeks, and the general consensus is that you don't mess with the traditional dried fruit. There seems to be a particular aversion to using cranberries, for some reason. Naturally, I do love a good act of gastronomic rebellion, so I decided to make two batches of buns: one with the classic raisin, currant and mixed peel combination, and another using orange zest and cranberries. They're my hot cross buns and I will do what I like with them. Ever since I made cranberry stollen at Christmas, I can't get enough of these gorgeous, jewel-like dried berries. I also have a version including dried apple in the back of my mind for next year.

For these buns I decided to use fresh yeast, having recently discovered its miraculous qualities. It really does make a much lighter crumb and a dough that somehow feels much more alive. Some of my previous attempts at hot cross buns have been more like rock cakes, so I hoped that the inclusion of fresh yeast would give that delightful moist, spongy texture.

The dough was wonderful to work with: the smell of the spices and the rich texture from the butter and milk had me sitting there just inhaling the scent from the mixer bowl. Eventually I forced myself to start kneading the fruit in: the trick is to scatter it all over the stretched dough, fold it up to make a parcel, and then just keep kneading. Normally it can be quite tricky to keep all the fruit in, but because this is such a sticky dough I had no problems. I especially enjoyed grating the zest of an orange onto one batch of dough; the smell of the essential oils permeating the air as I kneaded was wonderful.

I let both doughs rise until doubled in size, which took a lot less time than I'd expected. I still can't get used to how quickly fresh yeast causes a dough to rise. Then I divided it into little balls, spaced them out on a baking tray, and let them rise again. For the crosses, I used a flour and water paste. I've seen recipes that call for fancy combinations of flour, yeast, water, oil and baking powder, but to be honest I think life's too short to faff around with the cross on a hot cross bun. After all, once it's smeared with butter and toasted, it doesn't really matter whether you used a simple mixture or a complex one.

It's true, you can buy many decent versions of hot cross buns. My favourite are the M&S ones, which have a wonderfully light texture and a really rich flavour. But if there's one incentive guaranteed to make you bake your own, it's the ensuing smell in your kitchen. The aroma of spices, fruit and butter will permeate every corner of your house, meaning that the wait for the buns to cool sufficiently so they can be eaten is agonising. I'm sure there has been many a burnt tongue over the years from eager cooks losing patience and devouring a just-baked bun.

Finally, the all-important sugar glaze. This gives the buns a moist, sweet stickiness. This year I decided to jazz up the glaze a little by adding a couple of strips of lemon peel. It makes it slightly more fresh-tasting, which is a good balance for the sweet fruit and dough. I really enjoy brushing the hot syrup onto the golden buns, hot from the oven, poking it into every nook and cranny on the dough's dimpled surface. They then sit there in their own little pools of syrup until cool enough to eat, which - fortunately - only takes about five minutes.

I am pleased with this recipe, although one thing I still haven't been able to master is getting the buns to rise to a sufficient height. They rose immensely with the fresh yeast, but outwards rather than upwards, resulting in quite a flat bun that isn't really big enough to split in half and toast. Not that they weren't delicious, pulled apart in a rustic, haphazard fashion and smeared with butter, but next time I might let the dough rise first and then cut it into squares before baking, instead of rolling it into little balls. This is, of course, a very minor aesthetic complaint. Otherwise, they're perfect. 

And, despite reports to the contrary, the orange and cranberry version is exceedingly good. In fact, I think I prefer it. Last year I went a bit mad and made a chocolate and orange version, which was incredible. I did feel a bit sacrilegious, introducing chocolate to the mix, but it was unfeasibly good. The chunks of chocolate melt when baked or toasted, giving a gorgeous cocoa stickiness to the bun, which, coupled with orange zest, resulted in a sort of hot cross bun slash jaffa cake taste sensation. Unorthodox, but wonderful. I suggest you try it.

Happy Easter!

Hot cross buns (makes about 20):

400g strong white bread flour
60g light brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp each of ground cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger
45g cold butter, cut into cubes
50g fresh yeast
130ml tepid water
70ml milk
Either 100g currants, 115g sultanas and 50g chopped mixed peel, OR for the orange and cranberry version, zest of 1 orange, 150g dried cranberries, 50g mixed peel and 50g sultanas
Flour and water, for the crosses
100g caster sugar
100ml water
2 strips lemon peel

Place the flour, sugar, salt and spice in a mixing bowl. Rub the butter in with your fingers, as you would a crumble, until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Dissolve the yeast in the tepid water. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture, then add the yeast mixture and the milk. Use an electric mixer with a dough hook to knead for 10 minutes, or do so by hand. It will be a very sticky dough, but avoid the temptation to add much more flour.

Spread the dough out on a work surface and scatter over the dried fruit. Pull the dough up around it to make a parcel, then continue to knead for a few minutes until the fruit is evenly distributed. Place the dough back in the mixing bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size (about an hour).

Knock the air out of the dough, then shape into small balls and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper - allow space for them to spread out. Leave again to rise until doubled in size.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C.

For the crosses, mix a little flour with a little water until you have a thick paste. Spoon into a plastic freezer bag, cut the corner off, and use this to pipe crosses over the top of the buns. Place in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.

While the buns are baking, heat the water and sugar together until boiling, then add the lemon peel. Bubble for 10 minutes until thick and syrupy. When the buns are cooked, remove from the oven and immediately brush over the sugar glaze. Remove to a cooling rack.

Wait, if you can, for the buns to cool, then spread with butter and eat.

(Adapted from Lesley Wild, A Year of Family Recipes)