It’s been a busy, rollercoaster-y kind of a week here.
I’ve done some extra work to help out a colleague who had to go away suddenly; the two boys in the house have both been sick (I have not! Yet! Hurrah!); and there was some disappointing news about a bit of a life-change we’d been quietly hoping for. The life-changing news would have involved a move to a faraway place, so though it’s a bit sad not to have it come off, the up side is we won’t be leaving the lovely life we have here. It’s a pretty good up side.
In general, I’m quite inclined to think the good things about life far outweigh the bad. I’m not an endlessly optimistic happy-freak - I do have moments where I worry about the goodness of humanity (and, today, the stupidity of people who, whilst I do my shopping, park hard up against the side of my car with the child seat in it, rendering me unable to buckle the kid in without playing some kind of inelegant and painful Twister game). Overall, though, I think – often – about the little things I’m thankful for, and remind myself how lucky I am. Beautiful family and friends, lovely place to live, happy work and the freedom to go wherever (and say, dress and do whatever) I like. Not everyone is afforded those things, and certainly not all of them in one charmed life.
Also on the topic of good things about life (and because thinking about the next thing I get to eat is never far from my mind), I often find myself thankful for the freedom and knowledge I have to eat whatever I want.
I am fortunate to exist in a world where, despite the sad direction the majority of our food producers are taking (intensive farming, cheaper production, more chemicals, more processing), I get to choose that most of what I put into my body and my family’s bodies is real, safe and ethically/environmentally minded. That means (mostly) free range and ethically-farmed meats, sustainable seafood, local fruits and vegetables, and food which is minimally processed. I shop that way partly because I feel a responsibility to support the food producers who are doing the right thing by the environment and our health, but primarily I do it because it tastes good – dare I say better, in a lot of cases. And really, if we want to feel happy about eating then taste is pretty important, don’t you think?
The minimally processed argument is especially valid when it comes to cakes, biscuits and baked goods. We love our treats here and are definitely not no-salt, no-sugar, no-fat subscribers (the brownies coming up in my next post will assure you of that). For the most part, though, I make those treats myself because the versions widely available at shops are AWFUL. Full of preservatives, emulsifiers, fake flavourings and hydrogenated fats. Because of those things, they’re not only more difficult for your body to digest, they also taste almost universally bad. I don’t know about you but if I’m going to consume a bunch of empty kilojoules, I at least want them to be as delicious and as satisfying as they can be.
And that, at last, brings us to today’s recipe.
Every year, I see the hot cross buns arrive in the supermarkets just after Christmas. After I get over my initial incredulity at seeing Easter products in DECEMBER, I think, ‘ooh, hot cross buns would be nice’. A couple of weeks later, I give in and buy a pack. We eat them, then complain about how bad they are and how I should just make my own. Occasionally I make a single batch in response to this before forgetting how easy it was and giving up again. Mostly, we buy another supermarket pack a few weeks later and repeat the complaints process.
Not this year, people. This year is different. It’s the year I resolved not to buy a single shop version of the too-lightly-spiced, too sweet, too suspiciously soft (even after three days on the bench), over-fruited or under-fruited Easter buns.
I thought these would work well cooked on combination steam, and they did. Golden, tender and even-textured, and really really delicious. If you haven’t discovered the steam oven’s affinity with yeasted dough already, they’re the perfect thing to start you off and the effort vs reward is firmly in your favour. You, like me, may never feel the need to buy the inferior supermarket variety again.
Hot Cross Buns
We like dried apricots in pretty much everything, but you can substitute the specified fruit below with an equal quantity of whatever you like. Sour cherries are nice - especially with some dark chocolate chips thrown in - currants or raisins work in place of sultanas, and I’ve made a lovely date and apple version too (I finely diced a peeled apple, then steamed it for about 5 minutes to soften before mixing through the dough with a handful of diced dates).
I cooked half of my batch in a perforated tray and the other half in a solid tray (both lined with Glad Bake. I should buy shares for the stuff). The difference in results was minimal but the perforated tray gave a slightly more golden base to the buns.
Because these are not full of preservatives and other delightful supermarket-bread goodies, they’ll go stale a lot quicker. They’re great on the day of baking but if you’re not going to eat them all, freeze the leftovers and defrost when you’re ready to eat them.
4 tsp (14g) instant dry yeast
1/3 cup (75g) caster sugar
1 cup (250ml) full fat milk, warmed to lukewarm
4 cups (600g) bakers flour (you can use plain/all purpose flour in a pinch but the bakers flour has a higher protein content and will give better structure to your finished buns)
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp salt
85g unsalted butter, very soft
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 to 1/2 cup (80-125ml) warm water
1 cup (160g) sultanas
2/3 cup (100g) dried apricots, diced (if they’re quite firm, like mine were, soak them in boiling water for 20 minutes before draining and using)
¼ cup plain flour
2-3 tbs water
2 tbs caster sugar
2 tbs water
1 tsp liquid glucose (if you haven’t got any, don’t buy a whole jar for this – they’ll look and taste fine, the glaze just won’t be as shiny/sticky without it)
Mix the yeast, milk and a teaspoon of the sugar in a small bowl and set aside for 10 minutes so the yeast can activate.
Put the flour, spices, salt, egg, yeast mixture and some of the water in the bowl of an electric stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. Mix on low speed until a dough forms – add a little more of the water if you need it, you’re looking for a fairly wet dough (most of it should be mixing around the hook, but it won’t completely leave the sides of the bowl).
Add a quarter of the butter and keep mixing on low speed until it combines. Repeat with the remaining butter, adding small amounts and waiting for it to be incorporated before adding more. By the time all the butter has been added, you should have a smooth and elastic dough which just comes away from the sides of the bowl.
Lightly oil a large bowl and scrape the dough into it. Prove for 30-45 minutes or until doubled in size – use your oven’s dough proving setting if you have one (I run mine at 38˚C for 30 minutes and it works perfectly). If you don’t have a dough proving setting, just set the oven to 38˚C on the steam function.
Once the dough has proved, scrape it onto a well floured bench and gently press it out into a large rectangle. Sprinkle the fruit over the rectangle, then fold the dough into thirds, pressing it out again. Repeat a few times to make sure the fruit is evenly distributed through the dough.
Cut the dough into 18 portions (I am pedantic and weighed mine – put all the dough on the scales and divided by 18 so they’d be even! I think from memory they were about 82g each). Form each portion into a nice ball. There are lots of ways to do this but I just put the dough on my floured bench and keep turning and pulling the edges ‘in’ until a nice round shape forms. You’re left with a lovely smooth ball when you turn it over and any uneven bits from your working become the bottom. Put the dough balls, evenly spaced, onto two trays (it might look like they’ll all fit on one but you need to give them room to grow!).
Now here’s where you can make your choice about the second prove: If you’re in a hurry, prove the trays immediately for about 30 minutes until the buns double in size. If you’re content to wait until the morning and bake fresh buns for breakfast, cover the trays loosely with lightly oiled Glad Wrap and put in the fridge for 12-18 hours. Take them out half an hour before you want to bake and let them prove/warm up (I put mine on a quick steam oven prove for about 15 minutes). The overnight proving serves two purposes – it lets you do the initial mixing/proving/forming when you like the day before, rather than rushing through the whole process on the day you want to serve them, and the slow rise gives a better flavour to the finished buns.
When your buns are almost done proving, preheat your oven to 200˚C (combination steam). If your oven has variable steam settings, use 60% steam.
Mix the flour and water for the crosses and put into a small piping bag with a round nozzle (a zip-lock sandwich bag with the corner snipped makes a good substitute). Pipe crosses onto the buns, then bake for 15 minutes or until golden.
While the buns cook, put the glaze ingredients into a small pan and bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar and glucose. Brush the glaze over the hot buns when they come out of the oven and serve warm or at room temperature with good butter.
*But I don’t have a steam/combi-steam oven! You can prove your dough, covered with a damp tea towel, in any warm place (my Mum always used to put hers inside the car when I was a kid). Bake them at 200˚C in a regular oven, and if you want to approximate the initial blast of steam which gives the buns a lovely crust, quickly spray eight or ten good bursts of water into the oven (against the floor or walls so the hot surface vaporises the water) from a garden spray bottle as you put them in. Shut the door as quickly as possible after you’ve done it to keep the steam inside!