From the ultimate bacon sandwich to the best-ever hot cross buns, in this new series Daniel Tapper consults experts to reveal how to master six classic comfort food dishes. This time: hot cross buns
Foods that punctuate the year are nearly always the most enjoyable to eat. Yes, I’m looking at you pancakes, parkin and mince pies (especially the latter). Of course, it’s not that these foods necessarily taste any better than those that are eaten year-round; it’s that they root us in time and fulfil that deep yearning in us all for tradition, custom and ritual. A celebratory food, therefore, is far more than just a food—it is an event.
And few foods have been used in celebratory events longer than hot cross buns. Buns marked with crosses were baked by Saxons to mark the coming of spring, the cross representing the seasons, as well as the four quarters of the moon. In Tudor times, Christians adopted the buns as a symbol of crucifixion. Later, Victorians imbued them with all manner of superstition, believing they could prevent shipwrecks and even resurrect the dead.
“Whatever you believe about the origins of hot cross buns, the main thing to remember is that they were once considered a highly luxurious treat,” says fellow Borough Market scribe Sybil Kapoor, whose new book, Sight Smell Touch Taste Sound—A New Way to Cook, is published this September. “This is because they were exceedingly expensive to produce, owing to the inclusion of both spice and sugar.”
The real thing
Sadly, as the price of both these ingredients has plummeted, so too has our ability to deny ourselves hot cross buns out of season. These days it is not unusual to see packets of the buns as early as December, and as late as mid-summer. Some supermarkets, meanwhile, have pooh-poohed the treat’s ties with Easter altogether and now sell them all year-round. Alas, we all know these mass-produced efforts come nowhere close to mimicking the real thing.
“You know when you’re eating a proper hot cross bun because you find it hard to conceal your happiness,” adds Sybil. “A few years ago, I was feeling in need of a treat and so bought a hot cross bun from a bakery. I was walking around with such an expression of pure bliss on my face that a passerby came over and said, ‘you look like you’re enjoying yourself’. He was not wrong.”
However, an authentic hot cross bun can be a tricky treat to master.
The most common problem is that they are far too dense. Sybil says one way of overcoming this is by giving the dough time to rise before combining it with the fruit. Another solution is to create a starter or ‘poolish’ before baking, which according to Olivier Favrel, the man behind Olivier’s Bakery in Borough Market, will help to give the yeast a head start, resulting in a fluffier texture. Interestingly, Olivier also suggests replacing white flour with spelt to give the buns a nuttier, sweeter and more complex flavour.
The spicier, the better
Another common stumbling block for lacklustre hot cross buns is a lack of fruit. ‘Don’t hold back’ is the common consensus from those in the know. The rule that seems to work best is equal parts currants, sultanas and mixed peel, ideally soaked in rum or dark beer. As for spice, the classic combination is cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and star anise, though Sybil also suggests a generous dose of ginger (“the spicier, the better”).
Finally, and importantly, is choosing the way in which your hot cross bun is served. “Those eaten fresh taste best when pure and unadorned,” says Olivier. “But then again, it’s hard to beat a toasted bun laden with melted butter.” I would have to agree.