Working with bread is a tricky business. I have little more than a morning spent at a ‘decorating cupcakes’ class, a mountain of cookbooks, and a lifetime playing around in the kitchen to my name. Generally, that is enough to whip up something worthy of a smile.
But not bread. For bread you need more than a wooden spoon and a jolly hockey sticks attitude. You need science. You need years of training. Standing between me and bread is yeast. With all its temperamental vagaries. And fear. Fear of a rock solid loaf. Fear of an under proven loaf. And fear of not understanding what went wrong.
This spring, something changed. I baked hot cross buns. And a newfound romance with bread – buns, I believe, count as bread – blossomed.
You see, it turns out that to make bread you do need skill. Yes. But, more so, you need patience, and love. Making your own buns, for example, takes time. But it is not difficult. It is a ritual. With a comfortingly primitive quality to the kneading of the dough and the bubbling of the yeast.
Bread might be a tricky business; but I found it also deeply rewarding, hypnotic in how one batch leads to a second, and then to a third.
These buns aren’t your usual shop-bought hot cross buns. The dough is dark, partly made with wholemeal bread flour, to give the sticky bread a rough and grainy flavour. The scent of rosemary – and with it, Spring – is subtly infused in the dough, the glaze, and the fruits. Barely there, yet ever present. And adding much.
Instead of the more traditional raisins, I added chunks of fig and candied orange peel to the dough, an almost Mediterranean twist on an old English classic that I am really quite taken with.
To make the crosses, I experimented widely, consulted cookbooks. I tried piping on a mixture of flour and water but ended up with hot ‘splodge’ buns. I tried topping them with marzipan, but found it too sugary sweet. And then they burned. Annoying.
In the end, I took the advice of Rose Prince (in ‘The Pocket Bakery’), who recommends a cross made from sweet pastry. As the buns proved, I whipped up a sweet dough, enriched with butter and milk, rolled it out until thin and cut crosses to top each bun. Home made bread takes time and patience. But, God, it tastes good. Really, really good.
- 100g chopped candied peel
- 150g dried figs
- 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 350g strong white bread flour
- 150g strong wholemeal bread flour
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 1/2 tbsps dried active yeast
- 150ml milk
- 1 egg
- FOR THE CROSSES
- 90g plain flour
- 25g chilled butter
- 60ml milk
- FOR THE GLAZE
- 4 tbsps milk
- 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 2 tbsps caster sugar
- Pour 150ml boiling hot water into a clean bowl, toss in three sprigs of rosemary and leave to sit for 10-15 mins. Roughly chop the dried figs into quarters, then toss them into the rosemary scented water along with the candied peel. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to soak overnight so that the fruits plump up and are infused with the flavour of rosemary.
- Gently warm the milk on the hob until lukewarm, sprinkle in the yeast and whisk to stop the yeast granules from clumping, then let sit for 10-15 mins until the yeast begins to foam. Meanwhile, in a clean mixing bowl, add the flour, sugar, salt, nutmeg and ginger, stir to combine, then pick the leaves from two stalks of fresh rosemary and mix in. Crack the egg into a jug and beat lightly, add the sugar and beat again, then pour into the dried ingredients along with the yeast culture. Mix with a wooden spoon until well combined, and add the dried fruits. Knead for roughly 10 minutes by hand or 4 minutes if you are using a freestanding mixer with a dough hook. The dough should be elastic and not stick to your hands. If needs be, add a little more white flour. Roll the dough into a large ball, set in a bowl, cover with a tea towel or cling film and put it somewhere warm to prove.
- After 1 hour 1/2 - 2 hours, when the dough has doubled in size, use your fists to knock it back down. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and roll the dough into twelve equally sized balls. Set them on the tray, cover with a tea towel and put them in a warm spot to prove for the second time, roughly 1- 2 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Now make the pastry for the crosses: sift the flour into a mixing bowl and add the sugar. Chop the butter into small squares and and add to the bowl. Use the flat paddle on your freestanding mixer to mix until you have a sand like texture (or, if you are making it by hand, rub the flour and butter), pour in the milk, then use your hands to combine until you have a soft pastry. Roll out until thin, then cut into long, thin slices (roughly 1cm wide) and loosely place over the buns to form a cross.
- Put the buns into the oven and bake for 15-20 mins, until golden brown on top. While the buns are in the oven pour the milk for the glaze into a small saucepan, add the sprigs of rosemary and sprinkle in the sugar. Warm gently, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the milk is infused with the scent of rosemary. When the buns are cooked, take them out of the oven and use a pastry brush to paint the glaze on top. Set on a wire rack to cool. Ideally, eat while still warm.