Seeking refuge in hot cross buns

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It was mid-March, 2021, deep in another lockdown. As a languages student yearning to be on my year abroad, I was stuck at my parents’ home, anxiously waiting for travel restrictions to ease. Baking has always been my haven from stress, especially last year. Creating something tangible with my hands was much more gratifying than staring at the computer screen for my virtual internship. During the last stubborn days of winter, my mind turned to hot cross buns. Their proud little crosses remind us that we’re on the cusp of spring and brighter times. In my desire to mix and knead and shape, I resolved to make my own. I wanted mine to be deeply spiced, to hold up to pools of melted butter, and to not go stale one day later.

Confident in the authority afforded him in the title of first-ever Bake Off winner, I chose Edd Kimber’s simple but sufficiently involved recipe. A few hours later, the aroma of mixed spice embraced the kitchen as I removed 12 little buns from the oven. They were a decent start: whilst the cross was a bit tough and the texture a little too dense, their flavour was balanced and leagues ahead of their shop-bought rivals. However, after one day they had hardened considerably. Not satisfied, l scoured the Internet to find out how to lighten their texture and improve their shelf-life.

When I next sought some baking therapy, I returned to these sweet, spring treats. I had read about a method which promised to keep my buns softer, for longer: 湯種 (tangzhong or yudane). Popularised in Japanese milk bread, it involves cooking a small amount of flour in liquid so that the starch molecules will hold more water, thus making a softer dough. To adapt the original recipe, I used the Baker’s Percentage and calculated the grams of water in an egg. I adjusted the quantity of milk and scribbled some complex calculations; adapting a recipe so meticulously was untrodden territory for me! But, the result was worth it: the buns’ softness lasted for days, as did their comforting flavour. Although delicious toasted, they were best straight out of the oven, the steam escaping as I tore one open and slathered it in butter.

One year later, surrounded by summatives and my dissertation, I reminisce over my hot cross bun quest. I came to appreciate the thrill of experimenting in baking as a way to work away my stress. These golden, sticky, fruity buns are proof that a little bit of time in the kitchen can be a welcome solace from hard times.

Hot cross buns

(Recipe by Edd Kimber, adapted by Nia Kile)

Tangzhong

23g strong bread flour

113ml whole milk

Rest of dough

427g strong bread flour, plus extra for dusting

½ tsp salt

2 tsp mixed spice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

50g caster sugar

7g sachet easy bake yeast

188ml whole milk

30g unsalted butter

1 orange, zest

120g raisins

1 large egg

Olive oil, for greasing

50g plain flour

2 tbsp golden syrup or marmalade

  1. For the tangzhong: combine flour and milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, for 1-3 minutes, until thickened. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool.
  2. Mix bread flour, salt, spices, sugar and yeast in a large bowl. In a small pan, warm the milk and butter over a low heat until butter is melted. Add zest and raisins and leave to cool for 3 – 4 minutes, then beat in the egg. Make a well in the flour mixture, pour in the milk mixture and add cooled tangzhong, stirring to make a soft dough.
  3. Tip dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. It will be quite sticky but a small piece of dough should stretch and be almost translucent (the ‘windowpane’ test!). Form into a ball, put in a lightly oiled bowl and cover
    with a damp tea towel. Leave in a warm place to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
  4. Tip risen dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knock out some of the air. Divide into 12 pieces (around 80g each) and shape into balls. Turn each ball over and gather/pinch the underside so that the top is smooth. Remove any raisins poking out on the top or they will burn. Place 2cm apart on a baking tray lined with parchment; cover with a damp tea towel. Leave to rise for 40 minutes. Preheat oven to 200˚C.
  5. For the crosses, mix the plain flour and 6 tbsp water into a paste. It’s okay if it is relatively runny. Spoon into a piping bag (or go freestyle!) and pipe on the crosses. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes. Heat the golden syrup (or marmalade) in a pan and brush over the warm buns. Enjoy toasted or au naturel, with lashings of butter!

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