Saturday, April 11, 2009

First Ever Baking Attempt: Hot Anxious Buns

Aaaahhh, a long holiday weekend. The perfect time to... do something terrifying. My mum and I had some hot cross buns when I was over in England this week, and it planted the seed of a very foolish idea. Of course this meant completely ignoring my mother's advice ("don't start with things that need yeast, it's too complicated"), even though I knew she was right (nothing new here).

Consulted Mr B. and Ms W. for advice, but you know, bless them, they really didn't have enough detail for a total beginner/nitwit, especially one who doesn't have a food processor. But stumbled on a fantastic site, Baking 911 - with almost too much information - and it held my hand through the entire process.

The result? A little chewy (see mistakes section below), but bore a striking resemblance to the real thing, and actually tasted good - spicy and just sweet enough.

It did all take a long time. I know that theoretically you can go off and get on with your life while the dough is rising, etc., but I ended up hovering like a new mum by the crib. Was the yeast doing anything? Was the dough rising? Too much? Not enough?

The experience? Nerve-wracking, but fun. Like many of the better things in life, she observed, sagaciously...

The Recipe: Nigella Lawson's Hot Cross Buns

Took the recipe out of my mum's Radio Times (quaintly-named UK TV listing mag; the recipe originally appeared in the book Feast). Would normally avoid Nigella on principle, as she's far too annoyingly hot herself.

For the dough:
  • 6 fl oz (175 ml) milk
  • 2 oz (50g) butter
  • Zest 1 orange
  • 1 clove
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 14 oz (400g) bread flour
  • 1 tbspn superfine (caster) sugar
  • 0.25 oz (7g, 1 packet) instant yeast [I used active dry, since it was all they had in the store - "how much harder can it be?" she thought, oh how naively]
  • 4 oz (100g) mixed dried fruit [in the UK we use sultanas, raisins, currants, and something called "mixed peel" that I couldn't find here - just some rather chunky candied lemon peel, which I cut into little pieces]
  • 1 tspn ground cinnamon
  • 0.5 tspn ground nutmeg
  • 0.25 tspn ground ginger
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little milk to make egg wash

For the crosses:

  • 3 tbspn all-purpose (plain) flour
  • 0.5 tbspn superfine (caster) sugar
  • 2 tbspn water

For the sugar glaze:

  • 1 tbspn superfine (caster) sugar
  • 1 tbspn boiling water

Makes 16 buns.

1. Heat the milk, butter, orange zest, clove, and cardamom pods in a saucepan until the butter melts, then leave to infuse. [If using active dry yeast, prepare it and prove it too, following directions on packet.]

2. Measure the flour, sugar, yeast [if using instant yeast] into a bowl and add the spices.

3. When the infused milk has cooled to blood temperature, take out the cardamom pods, and beat in the egg. [If using active dry yeast, add it to the mixture - make sure the mixture's not too hot or too cold though, as that would stop the yeast from working.]

4. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix. Knead the dough either by hand or with a machine with a dough hook: if it is too dry, add a little more warm milk or water. [It seemed fine to me].

5. Keep kneading until you have silky, elastic dough, but bear in mind that the dried fruit will stop this from being exactly satin-smooth. [Baking 911 said you should knead by hand for about 8-10 mins; apparently most people don't knead long enough, but you don't want to overknead either. Aargh.]

6. Form dough into a ball and place in a buttered bowl covered with plastic wrap, and leave to rise overnight in the fridge. Alternatively, you could leave it to rise for 1.5 hrs in a warm-ish place in the kitchen, but I [Nigella] always find it easier to go the overnight route, plus I think it gives a better taste and texture. [I did the 1.5 hr thing, but would use the fridge next time - see mistakes section.]

7. Heat oven to 425F (220C). Take dough out of fridge and let it come to room temperature. Punch the dough down, and knead it again until it is smooth and elastic. [See mistakes section for thoughts on this.]

8. Divide into 16 balls and shape into smooth round buns. No need to worry unduly about their size: just keep halving the dough until it's in 16 pieces. [I somehow ended up with two runty ones.]

9. Sit the buns on a lined baking sheet. Make sure they are quite snug together but not touching. Using the back of an ordinary eating kife, score the tops of the buns to make a cross. Cover with a tea towel, and leave to rise again for about 45 mins - they should have risen and almost joined up. [Baking 911 says that tea towels etc can get stuck to the top of the bread, so she recommends making a little tent by putting glasses at the four corners of the tray and draping plastic wrap over them. Seemed like a good idea, so I did it - see pix section below.]

10. Brush the buns with the egg wash, then mix the flour, sugar, and water into a smooth, thick paste. Using a teaspoon, dribble two lines over the buns in the indent of the cross. Bake in oven for 15-20 mins. [Actually, "smear" might be a better word; I diluted the paste so it was dribble-able, and the crosses came out a bit wishy-washy.]

11. When the hot cross buns come out of the oven, mix the sugar and boiling water together for the glaze, and brush each hot bun to make them sweet and shiny.


Well, they really didn't rise enough on the second go-round. My guess, based on Baking 911, is that the dough rose too much the first time. I clung to the 1.5 hrs in the recipe for the first rise, but apparently (and very sensibly) you should go by what's actually happening in front of you, as there are just so many variables (temperature, weather, what color knickers you're wearing, etc.) that recipes are just a guide. I'd try doing it overnight in the fridge next time, a more controlled environment.

Also, I really think that the kneading part before the second rise in the recipe must be because the dough was coming out of the fridge. Baking 911 says absolutely not to knead before 2nd rise. I actually tried an experiment - kneaded the two runty buns before shaping them, and sure enough, they hardly rose at all.

Also, most of the recipes I've seen since (on foodgawker) use all-purpose flour rather than bread flour - might try this next time.

Next year.


Ohmygod, the yeast! It's working!

Before first rise - so tiny

After about 45 mins - huge! Should have stopped it here, oh well
Set up for 2nd rise - Baking 911's tent idea
Ready for oven
A bun
Another bun
Full disclosure - shot showing the runty ones

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