Festive Fruity Buns

The following was an early attempt at embracing Christmas cheer, despite it fast approaching 35°C outside the kitchen window. These days see us living and working in Melbourne, Australia, where my system has not yet adapted to the backwards way of life. Spurred along by our new Parisian housemates (who are, coincidentally, making us feel very ‘at home’ in our new surroundings), I thought it high time to test out the oven with a British classic, spruced up a little by a festive twist. I of all people should know by now that the fastest way to win over a Frenchman is by feeding him. My aim was to kill two birds with one stone; enjoy some time in the kitchen with a new recipe, and woo our housemates with the fruity dough of my labour.

The following is a PH recipe (that’s Paul Hollywood, not Pierre Hermé) – he calls them Christmas buns. To be honest, the only thing mildly Christmassy about them is the inclusion of cinnamon in the filling, the smell of which always makes me feel festive, even if we do tend to use it year-round. I followed his recipe to the letter, but have made some changes, for the better in my humble opinion, to the one I include below. Firstly I would suggest adding some booze (if you can’t be extravagant at Christmas time then well, when can you?). I think the best way in which to do this subtlety would be to use a slosh to soak the fruits before making up the filling, thereby giving the buns a richer flavour and the dried fruit a moorish plumpness. I suggest using either Grand Marnier, Cointreau or perhaps Pedro Ximenez if you have a really sweet tooth.

Secondly, I think the quantity of filling could be much more generous; I’d even go as far as doubling the amount he suggests. Finally, I glazed my buns with egg-wash before baking them, just to give them a little added protection in the oven, and to ensure an even colour. I’m sure PH would not approve of my changes, and if you don’t fancy trusting them either, then you can find the original recipe in his book ‘How to Bake’. I won’t be offended. He might be though.

For the dough:
300ml whole milk
40g unsalted butter, softened
500g strong white flour
10g fine salt
10g instant yeast (I used 30g of fresh yeast)
1 egg, lightly beaten
A little extra beaten egg, for brushing the buns before baking

For the filling (double his suggested quantity, except for the butter):
25g unsalted butter, melted
150g soft brown sugar
4 tsp ground cinnamon
200g dried cranberries
200g dried apricots (chopped to roughly the size of the cranberries)
A generous glug of Cointreau/Grand Marnier/Pedro Ximenez (optional)

For the glaze:
75g apricot jam (use the cheap stuff, which melts down better and contains fewer lumps and chunks)

For the icing:
100g icing sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp water

Method:

1. Warm the milk and butter in a small saucepan until the butter melts. The mixture should not be hotter than lukewarm. If you are using fresh yeast, add this to the warm milk now and whisk gently to dissolve.
2. Add the salt and dried yeast (if using) to the flour. Add the egg to the warm milk mixture, then pour into the flour. Stir together, using either your hands or a wooden spoon, until the mixture comes together into a rough dough. It may be necessary to add a touch more flour, but don’t be too hasty; the dough should remain a little sticky during the kneading process.
3. Tip the rough dough onto a floured work surface and begin to knead. Keep working for 5-10 minutes, through the initial sticky stage until the dough starts to look glossy and smooth.
4. Transfer the silky dough to a lightly oiled mixing bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to rise until at least doubled in size – this will take approximately 1 hour, perhaps longer.
5. Line a deep-sided baking tray or roasting dish with butter and baking parchment. I used a round Victoria sponge tin which is fine too.
6. To prepare the dried fruits (if you’ve decided to steep them), heat your chosen liqueur in a small saucepan. When hot, pour over the cranberries and apricot pieces, making sure that they are completely covered, before setting aside to cool. You may want to cover this mixture with cling film just to prevent all the precious liquid evaporating away.
7. Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll it out to a rectangle about 5mm thick. Tack down the edge closest to you (this will allow you to pull and tighten the dough as you roll, giving a neat swirl). Brush the surface evenly with all the melted butter, then sprinkle over the brown sugar and cinnamon. If you have soaked the dried fruits in alcohol, squeeze out any excess by hand, then sprinkle the juicy fruit pieces over the sugared dough. Reserve the drained liquid, which could even be used instead of water to thin down the apricot jam for the glaze later.
8. Roll the dough up into a tight cylinder, stuffing any fallen cranberries back into the ends with your fingers. If your cylinder is slightly uneven in shape fear not; fat sections can be stretched out gently. In the end it’s shape should resemble a Swiss roll.
9. Before cutting, make faint indentations with your knife along the surface of the dough, to help ensure that each piece is of an equal weight and thickness. Aim for 9 slices, discarding the extremities if they lack filling. Place the slices, cut side up, neatly into the prepared baking tray, leaving a little space between each piece. PH lines them up like hot cross buns, 3 x 3. I arranged my buns in a spiral pattern (see photo below).
10. Cover the dough with a tea towel and set aside to rise for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 190°C.
11. At this point the dough should have risen and expanded into the little gaps that were left between the buns. They will feel light to the touch, and so gently so as not to deflate or tear the dough, brush them with a little beaten egg using a soft pastry brush.
12. Bake the buns for 20-25 minutes, or until slightly risen and golden brown in colour. Warm the apricot jam with a splash of water, then push through a sieve for a really smooth consistency. Brush the jam over the hot buns, then set them aside to cool on a wire rack. Ensure the jam is super-hot and it will spill into all the crevices, giving the buns an even and thorough glaze.
13. When the buns are completely cool, mix together the lemon icing (you could of course flavour your icing with orange if you prefer). Make sure it’s free of lumps before piping/spreading/trickling generously across the top of your buns.

Unfortunately, however much you may fancy guarding them, these buns are ideal for sharing. Neatly cut or simply torn apart, they make a perfect afternoon treat. If I were in England right now, I’d scoff them by the fire with some mulled wine. For this year though, perhaps they’ll make a nice addition to a Christmas picnic basket or BBQ. I bet you feel really sorry for me having to cope with all this Australian sunshine.

The dough has just about expanded into all the little gaps…..

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Baked, glazed, iced and ready to share, if I can bear to…..

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O Holy Crumpets!

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Nothing compares to a crumpet. I won’t say that nothing compares to a homemade crumpet, because that would be a lie. Shop-bought versions are very good, and as most of them are destined for the toaster anyway, freshness is never really an issue. I lived off crumpets for weeks at a time whilst at university (crumpets with Marmite followed by crumpets with Nutella to be more precise) – not only do they last for months in the fridge, but at less than 70p for six, I was able to save my pennies too. You could of course spend these on the butter instead (I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to eat crumpets without it)…..Lurpak ‘slightly salted’ was our usual choice, but you could go crazy and splurge on some really good quality French stuff. But whatever the butter, as long as it melts and trickles down into all the piping hot holes…..that’s crumpet magic.

Crumpets are true Brits. We managed to find them in the supermarkets of Paris (alas no, not in the boulangeries), but they still remain elusive outside of the UK. Maybe this is what makes them so special; after all both the muffin and scone have long-since emigrated, been imitated and a little lost in translation…..some of their foreign counterparts are almost completely unrecognisable. Here, in Tokyo for example, in addition to being square (?!), scones are much denser and crunchier (the edges are usually quite crispy, which gives them a pleasant texture, but not strictly scone-like). They like to play around with the flavours and fillings too – we’ve seen chocolate chip, banana, black sesame, cheese and green tea to name just a few.

And so perhaps this is why crumpets are so cherished; it seems that no other culture completely understands them and the charm of their little bubbles. Below is a Paul Hollywood recipe, which is in fact very similar to one of Elizabeth David’s. Although many other crumpet recipes use simply one flour or the other, she advises combining strong bread flour with soft plain, and this completely makes sense. The higher gluten content of bread flour gives the batter a more robust structure and therefore the resulting crumpet a stronger honeycomb and a lighter texture. However the addition of a softer flour will prevent them being too chewy, and will ensure that soft, fondant-like interior that absorbs melting butter so well. The bicarbonate of soda acts as another raising agent and releases carbon dioxide upon contact with the hot griddle.

This is by the way, after many years of crumpet-gluttony, the first time I’ve attempted making them at home…..I can’t say I’ll be making a habit out of it, but it was good fun and tremendously satisfying watching all the bubbles pop. Mum and I took a special trip to Lakeland and Limited (any excuse) to buy the metal rings, and we cooked them on her old-fashioned scone griddle.

To make 10-12 crumpets:

175g strong white flour
175g plain flour
2 x 7g sachets instant yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
350ml warm milk
150-200ml warm water
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
Sunflower oil or butter for cooking

1. Weigh the two flours into a large mixing bowl. Add the dried yeast and mix through.
2. Heat the milk to blood temperature, then add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Pour onto the flour then using a wooden spoon, beat the mixture until you have a smooth batter. Beat for a full 4 minutes to work the gluten in the strong bread flour – this is vital to increase the strength of the internal honeycomb structure.
3. Cover the batter with cling film and leave to rest for at least 20 minutes (you can leave it for up to one hour). The batter should rise quite considerably, and then begin to fall.
4. Add the bicarbonate of soda and salt and beat into the batter. Add about 3/4 of the warm water, then keep adding until the mixture is the consistency of double cream. Cover again and leave to rest for a further 20 minutes.
5. Heat a flat griddle or heavy based frying pan. Grease the insides of four metal crumpet rings with butter or oil, and the surface of the griddle too (although very lightly). Sit the rings on the griddle over a medium heat, then drop two dessertspoonfuls of crumpet batter into each ring – just enough to come almost to the top. After 4-5 minutes bubbles will appear and the surface should be showing signs of setting. Carefully turn the crumpets over in their rings and cook for a further 3 minutes upside down.
6. Remove the crumpets from the rings, which can be re-greased and set back upon the griddle for the next round. The hot crumpets can either be served immediately, or left to cool and toasted later.

Be sure not to get the griddle too hot – this will result in burnt bottoms and undercooked tops. The base should be a deep golden brown and the batter just starting to set before the flip…..

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These are ready to turn…..

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Forever my topping of choice…..

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