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Hot Cross Buns

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

I have recently been referred to as a hot cross bun nerd… I’ll take that complement with warmth and a big smile!


The foods that mean the most to us are those that cause a reaction, stir a memory & spark the creative urge. Not those that are part of the every day but those that are reserved for the ‘occasional’, generating excitement through anticipation.


These are the foods that we strive to perfect, to bring to life with personality. But this is the essence of terroir! Individuality through expression!


Of course perfection is in the eye of the beholder & who are we to judge that. It is safe to say that to become a nerd at anything takes time, passion & drive in the pursuit of perfection. A most human of traits.


Having tweeted this recipe for many many bakes, this is my perfect hot cross bun.


I have a deep long standing love affair with dried grapes, in all their forms, seasoned with ‘Mixed Spice’ in bakes. Breads, buns, cakes, biscuits, they are all most welcome.


Batch baked and freshly glazed tray of hot cross buns

My earliest memory of baking stretches back to sitting on my Grandparents kitchen worktop, back to the window overlooking their garden, listening to the pond fountain trickle away interspersed by the whirr of Granny’s mixer. Spending time with my grandparents was a fairly regular occurrence, an anchor to calm and stability in an ever changing world, as it always is through the eyes of a person who has yet to reach double figures. Cooking was the glowing soul of this time for me, not just emotionally but physically too. From the moment you stepped out of the car to walk up the driveway, the heady aromas billowing out of the open kitchen door lifted your spirit, welcoming with open arms and a huge hug. Following the clatter or dishes, past the formal front door, that I’m pretty sure was reserved for the Queen, to the side door leading straight into the kitchen. Granny would be stood there in her apron while Grandad would be in the garden or garage tinkering with something, if he wasn’t at work, and that was all I needed to feel at peace.


While Granny was a competent home cook, she rarely strayed from the successful path of reliability. A Victoria Sandwich filled with jam then adorned with caster sugar, or a ‘Pound Cake’. So well rehearsed that recipes were an unnecessary formality.


Here in lies the foundation of dried grapes and mixed spice, Granny’s Pound Cake.


Pound cake was only really limited to the weekend, a regular treat. Far from mundane in its regularity, but lacking the excitement a seasonal treat gathers as that magical time of year approaches. Hot Cross Buns on the other hand were like forgotten treasure, only available for a few weeks each year then gone! Well almost, there are of course many bakes throughout the year to keep the hot crossed bun alive in memory. Inferior bakes by many accounts, each with their own merits but inferior. It is this seasonal nature that keeps these buns special. A brief encounter then they’re gone, banished to the realm of suspense, longing for their next appearance.

Hot cross buns, without question, have the royal throne when it comes to dried grapes and mixed spice. Mixing the dough begins to build an aroma that later envelops the whole house during the bake, only easing off once the golden buns are cool. Cut in half then gently toasted, so the melting butter doesn’t soak in too quickly, reliving that heady unctuous aroma trickling out of the toaster. Gooey, sticky and fruity.


Perfecting a hot crossed bun recipe is a never ending joy. As with all creativity, personality is at the heart, a living soul brining variation, a fingerprint for all to see if they choose to look. Minor variations, tweaks here and there, and changing tastes all bring about personality that build on a recipe. Saying that I’ve not changed how I bake hot cross buns for a while, in fact I have no intention of altering this recipe. Craft is an ever growing, ever changing tool that embraces heritage to further creativity. Who knows what there is to learn around the corner, but for now I’ve reached my perfection with hot crossed buns and here I am happy to rest.


The essence of terroir is to extrapolate that which influences you, heritage and environment, then add a sprinkle of your individuality through your craft skill. The essence of a hot cross bun is the dried fruit and spice combination and seasoning the dough to enhance these elements without dominating their individuality became a bit of an obsession.


Seasoning is a dark art and mastery takes a good deal of experience. As with wine tasting it’s a case of developing a full palate and memory through repetition. Then it becomes a case of closing the eyes and visualising the flavours and aromas in all their subtilty. The sign of great seasoning is to not quite be able to put your finger on what it is that makes the difference, but also being able to tell that there is something there in the background that makes a difference. Complement not overpower.


Loose leaf tea with teaspoon

Raisins and sultanas both bring a slightly different quality to hot cross buns. Raisins are from black grapes and develop a treacle richness while sultanas, from white grapes, have a fruity lightness. Both carry a caramel toffee sweetness that is very versatile when it comes to pairing flavours. Complement and contrast, this is the key to successful seasoning but also driving the existing flavours in a direction.


Tea… smoky, earthy and floral. Elements that complement and contrast the flavour elements of both raisins and sultanas. Many recipes harness this very well, Barra Brith springs to mind instantly. I love the floral quality of bergamot in Earl Grey tea. Pair this with the smoky rich qualities of black tea leaves and there is a perfect union for my favourite buns. Traditionally a ‘tea time’ treat hot cross buns and tea just makes sense so soaking the raising and sultanas in a strong cup of early grey before baking really lifts the dough in contrast to the slight heaviness from the dairy.


Jars of homemade marmalade on the kitchen counter

Marmalade… bitter, sweet and packed full of citrus. I tend to steer away from mixed peel, memories of those plastic supermarket tubs of hard crystallised peel that have no distinctive flavour aside from sugar with a bitter edge. Fresh citrus zest is delightful but often the zing this delivers can distract and overpower, which is why the essence of mixed peel is perfect in baking. Marmalade harnesses the power of orange without the acidic freshness making it the perfect ally to hot cross buns. I always have loads of it still in the cupboard as the season for true marmalade oranges is January to very early February giving just enough time to settle before hot cross bun season begins around March. Aside from this I think marmalade on hot buttered toast is very hard to top, especially in the cooler months. There is a texture the marmalade give to hot cross buns that is hard to replicate. The sugar syrup and poached pith of the oranges provides a softness to the dough, enhancing the unctuousness of the enriched dough. Such a perfect addition!


My trusty granite pestle and mortar

Spice…! The mixed spice is the king in hot cross buns! It’s the heady aroma, rich and thick, filling your head when you breathe it in. The unmistakable fog of spice that hangs in the air! A delicate balance of quite dominant spices that come together in perfect unison to give a sweet warming and aromatic complement. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, ginger, coriander and caraway. In the early 1800’s this blend was referred to as ‘pudding spice’ and it’s easy to taste and smell why! I could harp on for ages about this sublime blend, but personally the smell of mixed spice transports me instantly back to sitting on the kitchen counter as a child at my Grandparents’ house. A place of clam security that anchors my soul.


There really is no substitute for making your own mixed spice. The manufactured blends are inconsistent and generally quite stale by the time you come to use them, despite the BBF date! Dried spices carry with them long dates and a lot of miles so getting the most out of them take a little thought but the reward for blending your own will not disappoint. Take a look at my blogs on spices and seasoning if you want to learn more.


The dominant flavours in my mixed spice blend are nutmeg, cinnamon and all spice.


Cinnamon has a sweet aromatic warmth that enhances the perception of sweet in other ingredients rather than actually being sweet its self. Cinnamon’s profile sits very happily alongside allspice and cloves both with a sweet warmth to them.


Allspice brings a peppery heat and real body that holds the whole blend together. Being a very dominant spice careful not to over do it!


Nutmeg has a more woody warmth about it that complements the sweeter warmth and helps to mellow any heat with it’s slightly bitter edge. Nutmeg’s sweetness is really brought out by the allspice and cinnamon, taming any tannins and smoothening out any harsh edges some of the other spices have.


This trio is a heady combination with a very particular aroma when used in certain ratios but the true genius of ‘mixed spice’ is the interplay with less prominent spices. Coriander and caraway go almost unnoticed, but leave them out and you will certainly taste it. Cloves and ginger can be dominant, they are the bolshy teenagers, but again a vital element that complements and contrasts the blend, just exercise caution.


I will have a mixed spice blog up very soon, but for now the recipe below relies on a readymade mixed spice with the addition of shaved nutmeg and cinnamon to bring you close to a tailor made blend.


So here it is, my recipe for Hot Cross Buns with marmalade, tea and a tailor made mixed spice.

This recipe makes 12.


120g raisins

120g sultanas

Spelt flour to coat (when incorporating into the dough).


Begin by soaking these in a strong earl grey tea overnight at room temperature. Rehydrating in this way means the grapes will remain plump in the final bun while giving a real flavour lift.


The Dough.


It has to be an enriched dough! Luxurious texture and flavour emanating from the complexity found in all those glorious fats, balanced against preserving the all important gluten.


There are many enriched dough recipes out there and I am sure every baker has their ‘go to’ for success. Slight changes in the ratios of liquid, fat and flour can have big consequences down the line especially when adding sugars in various forms. How doughy the finished buns are is a personal preference, but keeping an airy crumb is a must for me!


500g white bread flour, organic and high in protein.

300 - 340g whole milk, scalded.

1 whole egg, beaten.

60g butter, cold and diced small.

40g caster sugar.

85 – 105g marmalade.

6g salt.

30g fresh yeast.


Spice and lots of it!

2 teaspoons of mixed spice

1 teaspoons of shaved nutmeg

1teaspoon of ground cinnamon


Begin by scalding the milk, always whole milk! Better flavour and higher in fat to deepen the soft nature in the finished bake. Scalding the milk involves bringing to the boil but not quite boiling, just waiting for small bubbles to develop around the edges then stop! This has two benefits. Firstly, the temperature of the dough will be higher helping the sugar to dissolve and gets the yeast going. More importantly heating the milk to this degree denatures a protein in the whey that inhibits gluten development. Scalding the milk first will give a lighter texture in the finished bake. Leave it to cool so it feels warm but not hot to the touch.


Add the milk and beaten egg to a mixing bowl followed by the yeast, sugar, marmalade, spice and finally the flour.

I like to use organic, this yields a higher proportion of natural yeasts and microbials. A helping hand to for the bakers yeast. Choose a flour high in protein, this is important to counter the denaturing effect the milk and butter have on gluten development.


Start to work the dough, either by hand or in an electric mixer.


Once the dough starts to come together, begin adding the butter slowly.


Good quality unsalted butter will has a delightful flavour further building the rich decedent nature of the buns soft tender crumb. Adding cold butter in small chunks to the dough as its it worked reduces the likely hood of it melting but also gives the gluten a chance to develop, allowing them to be gradually and evenly coated. Fats inhibit gluten strands from reaching their full potential giving a tender rather than chewy texture to the buns.


Continue working the dough until it becomes non-stick and stretchy with a silky feel and smooth appearance. The classic windowpane test coupled with a clean bowl is generally the best way to see that the dough is ready.


Drain the fruit thoroughly in a sieve, reserving the liquor to make the final glaze, then lightly coat in flour. This absorbs excess liquid making it far easier to incorporate into the dough. I prefer to use spelt flour here because of its fine texture and flavour.


To incorporate the fruit into the dough by hand roll out the dough and sprinkle the fruit all over before rolling up and continuing to work for a few minutes. In an electric mixer just continue on a low speed until all the fruit is evenly distributed.


It is here that the development of the gluten is so vital. A well worked dough will encase all the fruit, stretching around and encasing it. This stops it from burning. If the dough is not worked enough the fruit will tear and poke through, burning in the oven leaving a bitter edge to the buns.


Gather the dough into a ball then leave it to rise or ‘bulk fermentation’ for those bakers amongst you. There are many ways to shape the dough for this stage, as long as the surface is loosely stretched use whatever method you prefer.


The dough left to rise in a glass bowl

Leave to double in size. The time for this will depend on the temperature so a nice warm spot will encourage everything to get going, while a cold airy location will inhibit activity.


Preheat the oven to 200°C, preferably with a baking stone for bottom heat. Enriched doughs are tricky to bake. The high fat and sugar content means they will colour quickly disguising a god bake. Keeping the temperature a bit lower but giving bottom heat will ensure a good bake without a deep colour.


Here is a good time to make the final glaze to coat the buns. That sugar syrup that becomes a hard shell in the toaster or makes it completely irresistible to not lick your fingers after eating a bun!


Flavour is everything and spices are a bit of a passion for me, so it is not surprising that I try to cram in even more spice! The sugar is an important consideration here, caster is easy to use but lacks flavour. Demerara has good flavour but its large crystals take a bit more effort. Soft brown sugars are perfect. A rich muscovado is my favourite with it’s distinctive toffee flavour that conjures up the smell of a dark rum and warmth from the sun. The perfect complement!


50g muscovado sugar

50g liquor from soaking the fruit

1 inch of cinnamon

1 whole star anise


Slowly dissolve then simmer for a few minutes to thicken ever so slightly. Too thick and the syrup won’t soak into the hot crust, too thin and it will run off like water. Look at the bubbles. When the syrup is perfect, the bubbles will hold on the surface for a fraction of a second longer. The syrup will also have a tacky feel in between your fingers.


Now leave to cool with the spices left in to infuse their flavour.


Individual weighted out blobs of dough ready to be shaped

Once the dough has doubled in size turn out onto a lightly floured counter and divide into 12. I like to visually quarter the dough then thirds, before weighing each lump. The buns should be around 110g – 116g each to give an even sizing.


To shape slightly flatten then with your fingertips fold over the edge to meet the centre, working in small sections, turning as you go. Once this gives you a rough ball turn it over and rotate between your vertical palms. However you feel comfortable shaping is the best way to go here.


I prefer batch baking. It gives each bun a gooey middle on each edge. More often than not the corners buns are left by my boys to the end. It’s a bit like scrabbling for the front seat in the car. Batching makes the final bake slightly harder to determine and the bake time a little longer.


Leave to proof until a light press with the little finger leaves an impression rather than springing back.


Buns ready to proof

I don’t come from an especially religious background, this is not to say that I am not spiritual, but religion has not been a guiding light so to speak. The origins of these delightful bun is steeped in religious history so I do like to add a cross closer to Easter as a nod to heritage. For the rest of the time I tend to leave it off for convenience.


25g plain flour

10g self-raising flour

40g water


Simply mix this together and pipe a thin cross. The self-raising flour gives a lighter texture and helps the cross spread during baking so as not to constrict the growth.


Proofed, glazed with milk and a piped cross. Ready to go in the oven

Glaze with whole milk for a matte finish to the crust before piping a cross, then putting straight onto the middle shelf of the preheated oven.


Now turn the oven down to 180°C and keep the door shut for at least the first 10 minutes.


12 – 16 minutes depending on your oven and they are done! A light brown crust, not too dark, with springy but very soft texture. They will have a light hollow sound to their base when tapped but follow your nose. Enriched doughs are difficult to judge. High fat and sugar content doughs remain soft and squidgy, this is further compounded but the addition of marmalade. For a fail safe way of judging the bake, temperature is the way to go. 78°C internal temperature is the bare minimum. The dough will remain soft and loose structure when squiggled between your fingers, barely baked. Ideally look for 80°C - 82°C. Make sure when probing to go in through the side somewhere that isn't too visible.


While the buns are still hot brush with the syrup glaze then leave to cool just long enough to set the dough before getting stuck in!


A good lashing of cold butter left to melt on the surface of a fresh hot cross bun takes a lot of beating! If they last until completely cool cut in half and lightly toast, then get that cold butter out!


A toasted hot cross bun with melting butter ready to eat

More and more I am seeing flavoured hot cross buns springing up all over the place, leaving the traditional behind. My impression is that in the age of consumerism and convenience this makes for great sales. Easter eggs adorn shelves the first week in January and Hot Cross Buns begin creeping in at the start of February. No wonder shoppers get bored with the same flavour…


There are many reasons why experimentation, variation and straying from the path of tradition should be championed. Simply carrying on “because that’s the way it’s always been done” has a tendency to preserve the mediocre bringing about a tiresome mundaneness that becomes off putting. Straying from the path of tradition relieves this boredom breathing in new life. It’s a lot of fun to play around with tradition, pushing at the boundaries. Variation is the perfect way to stretch out enjoyment, to keep the excitement and enthusiasm going.


There is a time and place for this and hot cross buns are neither! Keep your salted caramel, red onion & cheddar, chocolate or cranberry! Hot cross buns are fleeting so why dim their flame of perfection with unnecessary variation for pointless excess.



Freshly toasted and buttered buns on the chopping board with a jar of jam and the used knife blurred in the background


This recipe makes 12.


120g raisins

120g sultanas

Spelt flour to coat (when incorporating into the dough).

Earl Grey tea to cover.


Enriched Dough:

500g white bread flour, organic and high in protein.

300 - 340g whole milk, scalded.

1 whole egg, beaten.

60g butter, cold and diced small.

40g caster sugar.

85 – 105g marmalade.

6g salt.

30g fresh yeast.

2 teaspoons of mixed spice

1 teaspoons of shaved nutmeg

1teaspoon of ground cinnamon


For the Cross:

25g plain flour

10g self-raising flour

40g water


The final glaze:

50g muscovado sugar

50g liquor from soaking the fruit

1 inch of cinnamon

1 whole star anise


 

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