Hot and cross

Since today is Good Friday, I thought I should  write about Hot Cross Buns for today’s post.  I looked at recipes in several cookery books:  Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Angela Piper’s The Archers’ Cookbook, and Reader’s Digest’s Farmhouse Cookery: Recipes from a Country Kitchen.  For good measure, I also looked at Felicity Cloake’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns on the Guardian website.

The origins of the hot cross bun are somewhat hazy – Elizabeth David has not a great deal to say about the history, and other articles on the subject don’t offer much more.  During Elizabethan times a law was passed forbidding the sale of spice buns except at funerals, on Good Friday and at Christmas.  Elizabeth David does not relate whether the spice buns sold on Good Fridays in Elizabethan times had a cross on them, but she’s fairly categorical in her dismissal of putting a cross on the buns in pastry or with candied peel as “unnecessary fiddling work”.  I do love her no-nonsense style of writing!!

I also love Elizabeth David’s sweet spice mixture, which she gives in her book.  It consists of two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns or allspice berries, one part cinnamon bark, one part cloves and one part dried ginger root.  I mis-read the recipe, or perhaps wanted to, and added white peppercorns AND allspice berries! 🙂

My new kitchen scales seem to be fairly precise, so I weighed the nutmeg and used that weight as the basis for the other spices.  My small electric coffee grinder did a great job of reducing the spices to a fine powder.  The smell of the ground spices was divine and filled the whole kitchen!

Once I had studied the recipes on my kitchen table very carefully, I decided to use the proportions of Felicity Cloake’s recipe, but with some modifications.  In her recipe, the milk is heated and left to infuse with the spices – I used Elizabeth David’s spice mix and added it to the flour.  Instead of regular white wheat flour, I used Type 130 spelt flour, which is not quite white but not quite wholemeal either.  Felicity Cloake’s recipe also had the highest amount of currants, so I reduced their weight a little, to 125g.  Other than that, I followed the ingredients of her recipe.

I made the dough at lunchtime, so it could have a slow rise during the afternoon.  After the initial mixing I let the dough sit for five minutes so that the flour could absorb the liquid.  After that “hydration” period, the dough was still a little too soft for my liking, so I kneaded in an additional three tablespoons of flour.  Then I covered the bowl with a lid and let the yeast cells do their work!

At the end of the afternoon, the dough was well risen and had a lovely aroma!  The partially deflated dough looked like this, you can see lots of air bubbles around the edges:

The currants and mixed peel were kneaded into the dough after it was deflated.

Then it was time to portion out the dough.  I weighed the entire dough and then divided it into 16 individual portions, weighing about 70g each.

I shaped the pieces of dough into balls and flattened them slightly.  Once I had my two baking trays filled with the buns, I used my dough scraper to cut a cross into eight of the buns – pushing the straight side of the dough scraper right through and effectively cutting the buns into quarters.  As the dough was quite soft, the cuts ‘healed’ up again but stayed visible.  On the other eight buns I used a knife to cut a cross into the top of each bun.

Whilst I was doing the shaping of the buns, I had turned on my oven on the defrost setting, which warms to 50 degrees – perfect for proofing yeast dough.  Once the buns were shaped, I turned off the oven and put the trays in.  It was just a little warmer than in my kitchen, and produced beautifully risen buns within 30 minutes.

Once the buns were risen enough, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of plain flour and some water into a stiff-ish paste and put it into a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle.  Then I piped crossing lines on the buns.  I had prepared some egg-wash to brush the buns with before piping on the cross, but forgot to do that – oh no!!

Some of the buns which I had cut with the dough scraper did not get a cross piped on – I had run out of the mixture. 😦

I put the trays into the cold oven and turned it on to 200 degrees centigrade.  With yeast dough, I have found that starting with a cold oven can produce wonderful “oven spring”, as the yeast goes into overdrive before being killed off by the heat.  After 10 minutes the buns had puffed up nicely and were starting to brown.  I removed one baking sheet at a time and brushed the buns with egg wash, before putting them in the oven again.  After a further 10 minutes the buns were fully cooked and there was the most beautiful smell permeating the whole house!!  If only this could be a scratch-and-sniff post!!

Traditionally, the buns should be brushed with a sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven.  I have done this in the past, but I found that it makes the buns sticky and doesn’t add much more than that, so I gave it a miss this time.

What special foods will you be eating this Easter?

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The lamb that never was

Imagine Easter Sunday without lamb!  Well, it can happen and it did to me this year!!  Apparently this is the second year running that our butcher did not order enough lamb, and by Easter Sunday morning there was not a scrap of it left.  What to do?  Settle for mutton, that’s what!  Next thing was to find a recipe for the mutton chops I’d bought.  I was tempted to prepare a north African dish, like a tagine or couscous.  Then I logged onto my bookshelf on www.eatyourbooks.com (more about that site below) and did a recipe search for mutton.  In amongst the recipes on the list was Ballymaloe House Irish Stew;  I knew exactly where the book was, looked at the ingredients and decided that it was the perfect dish – it was somewhat chilly outside and a nice stew would be just the thing!   The stew was a doddle to prepare and wonderfully tasty; my misgivings about the potentially strong mutton flavour were totally unfounded!  The herbed goats cheese had sufficiently drained and matured and provided the cheese course, and for dessert I made a peach flan.  Brought back memories of my time in the pastry kitchen at the Meridien Piccadilly!   The flan is very delicious and very easy to make and proved to be the perfect dessert after the stew, not at all heavy (write if you want the recipe).

Now, about http://www.eatyourbooks.com :  I came across the site on a blog called www.larecettedujour.org and was intrigued by the idea, so read through it and decided to sign up.  The unlimited bookshelf is $25 for a year, with a free option of up to five books.  The idea is that you add all the cookbooks you own to your bookshelf, either by author/title search or by ISBN numbers.  Once the books are on your bookshelf you can search for recipes in the books which are indexed.  I found that I had a lot more cookery books than I thought, and by no means all of them are on the site’s bookshelf.  A lot of the older books and the French and German books are not in the library (despite 98,210 titles), and currently about 23% of my books are indexed (49 out of 214).  Considering that some of the titles are only on my bookshelf and others a bit “special interest” it’s perhaps not surprising, but it still gives me access to over 13,000 recipes.   Books are constantly being indexed, so that eventually be more of “my” books will become searchable.  A search for mutton on Easter Sunday brought up 63 results with a good selection of recipes from different books.  Fast, simple and easy, and a great way of using books which would otherwise languish unused, mainly because we all tend to use the same books and recipes over and over again.

Hot cross buns have been an Easter tradition for some years in my kitchen and this year I’ve subverted that tradition.  Not drastically though, but time available meant that baking the buns on Saturday night was not possible, and I didn’t want to get up super early to have them ready for breakfast on Easter Sunday.  A cunning plan had to be devised and here’s how!  Saturday lunchtime I mixed up my dough, using the spice mixture given by Elizabeth David in “English Bread and Yeast Cookery” (highly recommended), and loosely following a recipe by Jamie Oliver for the dough. 

I mixed flour, sugar, spice, instant yeast and raisins in a mixing bowl.  Warmed the milk/water mixture very slightly and mixed with the egg and melted butter.  Made a well in the flour mix and added all liquid, then stirred with a wooden spoon until the dough was formed.  It was soft but not overly sticky.  I put a lid on the bowl and left it in the kitchen (unheated at the time).  This was at lunchtime.  When I got back home, about 11pm, I turned the dough out on to the work surface, kneaded it for a very short time, shaped it into a loaf and placed it in a loaf tin (lined with a bit of baking parchment).  I put the pan in the oven, set to 200 Celsius, and programmed it to switch on at 6.10 am on Sunday morning, and to end at 7am.  When the alarm clock rang so did the timer on the oven, and there was a lovely smell coming up to the bedroom!  I went downstairs to check on the bread and it was just perfect.  Once cooled enough I sliced the loaf and spread it with clotted cream from Cornwall and some home made strawberry and apricot jam – yummy!!  And of course what wasn’t eaten on Sunday made lovely toast!

Starting bread in a cold oven can turn out very good results, and in this case it worked very well as the kitchen was fairly cool and the dough did not over-proof.  You could probably bake the dough straight from the fridge and still get what’s called good “oven spring”.

And since it’s spring, here’s a picture of coronilla, flowering everywhere right now, scenting the air and feeding bees.  Anyone looking for a spring break?  Le Figuier in Bize Minervois is currently available for April 21 to May 19, 2012 at 10% off.  See other special offers here