Best Hot Cross Buns ever

140509 Baked Hotcross bunsJ’accuse! A small storm rocked the fragrant world of hot cross bun making a few years ago when nationally beloved cook Jo Seagar called out the Edmonds Cookbook over the poor quality of its recipe.  Shockingly, this staple Kiwi household recipe bible had proven unreliable!  Many people, myself included, had tried using this recipe and come to the conclusion that hot cross buns were too difficult and we lacked the secret to make them work.  Of course that was bollocks.

Lots of people lack confidence in using yeast, which is a shame as it’s really not that hard as long as your yeast is active (i.e. working and not too old) and you give it sufficient time to prove (or ‘rise’).

Happily Jo Seagar came out front and centre with her own glorious recipe which you can find via the link at the bottom of this post.  Thanks to Jo and a wet Easter weekend, I restored my hot cross bun mojo.  A couple of hours and some hands on dough time and I had thirty substantial and delicious hot cross buns.  They were brown and glossy, with a lovely yeasty, spicy flavour.  Thumbs up – would trade again!

140509 Hit cross buns before cooking

Buns pre baking after final rise

Next time I think I would just ice the crosses rather than using the recommended flour and water mix which was lumpy and not easy to apply.

And lets just say that again: thirty buns. One of the things I like most about Jo Seagar’s recipes is that the quantities are always very generous.  This is a major consideration when you have a tribe of hungry boys to feed and still want a little to freeze for lunches.

Weirdly, hot cross buns have been appearing in the local supermarket from February this year in the same venal sort of seasonal creep we’ve seen with Easter eggs.  Generally those hot cross buns are pretty disappointing too, soft pale flabby things with an unpleasant aftertaste.  I guess someone’s buying them, but I find it devalues the tradition when seasonal trappings are available all year around.  Surely the way to maintain the special nature of our traditions is to respect them and not to exploit them.  One way to do this is to make them yourself.  It’s just once a year after all, and thanks to Jo Seagar they’re not only achieveable but rewarding.

You can find Jo Seagar’s hot cross bun recipe along with many other truly delicious and reliable edibles here:

The need to knead: How to make fantastic artisan style bread in your own kitchen

bread dough in bowlsFrom scratch: A no-knead bread experiment:

Bread has a reputation for labour intensiveness, however the amount of hands-on time required is actually not that high.  A measure and mix, 10 minutes kneading and popping in and out of the oven is all that’s required for the most part.  In between, you can be getting on with giving the laundry a bump, or finishing your powerpoint presentation. Whatever floats your boat ow!

For a couple of years I have been experimenting with different bread recipes.  I still find it miraculous that you can combine the four simple ingredients of yeast, flour, water and salt to create something everybody needs, likes and eats (we can talk gluten later).  The properties of yeast are downright magical.  The outcome is warm, fragrant and deeply satisfying in a Little House on the Prairie, back-to-basics way.

When I have the time, I enjoy the therapeutic exercise of kneading.  The bread becomes warm, smooth and elastic and is a pleasure to handle. Certainly it is a nicer sensory experience than a trip to the supermarket, though I am certainly grateful to have the choice.

jim lahey my breadAlthough kneading is not hard, it does add an extra step to the process. Enter the ever expanding (geddit?) popularity of no-knead breads.  The king is Jim Lahey’s method, originally profiled in the New York Times dining section (recipe below) and in his book “My Bread”.

The Jim Lahey method below requires less yeast, and a much longer rise, at least 12 hours and preferably 18 hours.  18 hours!! You can see where the extra planning ahead and added dedication to the craft come in.  But his bread looks seriously good, he’s certainly a focussed looking baker and I’m curious.

Artisan bread coverA year or so later after Lahey exploded on to the blogosphere, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois brought out the slightly more commercial ‘Artisan Bread in five minutes per day”, a seductive promise if ever there was one.

Both recommend baking the bread in a ‘dutch oven’, a lidded cast iron casserole, removing the lid for the final browning stage.  Both also use a very wet sticky dough which can take a bit of getting used to handling.

The ‘Artisan in 5 minutes’ method only requires 2-3 hours to rise before baking.  You can make a huge batch and keep it in a big tub in the fridge for up to two weeks, over which it will develop sourdough-like flavours, although you will see less of a rise the older the dough gets.  When you need it, you can rip off a grapefruit sized chunk,  shape it, rest it and bake it.  It’s convenient, and the hands-on time is very limited.  The results can be very good, a crisp chewy crust and nice fine crumb.  I also often use this for homemade pizza bases.

photo (5)On a recent trip to catering mecca Gilmours, for an entirely different reason, I over-optimistically bought 1.5kg of active dried yeast, thanks to Nico the chef and chief enabler!  Key Nico phrase: “it’s just your money!”.  Time to make good on that investment:

Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread – The reality:

So, in a retrospective attempt to justify that purchase I’m going to be having a bit of a play with the Jim Lahey method over the next two days or so.  We are a pro-bread household with no current gluten issues so I’ve got three doughs on the go: White bread, wholegrain and rye.

bread dough in bowlsAlready the wholegrain seems to need more flour to reach the same consistency as the other mixes, and I added 1/2 a cup more.. I much prefer recipes which ask for weights rather than notoriously inaccurate cup measures.  If I can track down the weights for the recipes below, I’ll post them

I’m also thinking of doing an artisan white bread mix at the same time for direct comparison. Obsessive, moi?

I’ll report back on my results.  Wish me luck.

Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread – The recipe form the New York Times:

Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Let them eat cake; a baker’s manifesto.

Birthday cakeI am a huge fan of cake. I love baking cakes, decorating cakes… mostly eating cakes.  I have had to make peace with the fact that despite my ‘A’ in Feminist Legal Theory, one of my happiest places is in my kitchen with a spatula.

Personalising the perfect cake for the right person on their special day is a true creative pleasure. As officiously self-appointed official family cakemaker, I’ve probably made made more than 150 cakes for friends and whanau over the last ten years.  I’m no patissiere, but I have a couple of very reliable recipes and as an enthusiastic amateur I  now know my way around a garden variety celebration cake.

I used to have to consult my cookbooks, go to to the library and  internet for inspiration and that fellow cake enthusiast feeling.  But it was pretty exciting to see the emergence of YouTube tutorials, television shows, and truly excellent websites dedicated to celebrating both brilliant cake making and, er, epic fails.

But here’s the thing – what has happened to cake decorating over the last three to four years is just plain nuts.

It’s no secret that most cakes fall within the high sugar, high fat treat food, category.  It’s not meant to be an everyday food. But I am staggered by the trend to sheer excess and overuse of fondants, and frostings  The decorations have taken over and the ratio of icing to cake is way out of whack.

The emphasis now seems to be on the form rather than the flavour.  The result is sometimes amazing but not an amazing eating experience, as anyone who has ever chowed down on a plug of fondant will tell you.  I’ve made my own share of fondant bumblebees and monkeys, but I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the priority that appearance is taking over the edible experience. I feel strongly enough that it may even be a personal manifesto: It has to be all about the delicious.

I blame the world domination of the cupcake, which has gone from a near muffin with a glaze and some sprinkles to an entire business model and the tired inspiration for a thousand chicklit covers. The cake acts simply as an apologetic support for an effulgence of overcoloured buttercream.  Is it weird or a natural correlation that at this time of concern about body image and obesity, when type 2 diabetes is epidemic that there should be such an obsession for sugared decoration?

TV shows have to take a lot of the responsibility.  Television is a visual medium, so the drama comes from how the cakes look rather than how they taste.  The shows are fun, but they don’t have to focus on flavour and, lets face it, not every cake needs its own working hydroslide, thanks Ace of Cakes.

Pinterest is in the dock on this one too.  While there’s some serious skill involved, fondant crafting seems to have taken over where Fimo left off, with ‘”Amazing ‘lil cowfaced mermaid cake topper tutorials” popping up all over Facebook, Youtube and Craftsy too.  And maybe that’s the point, that it has become crafting rather than cooking.

Another personal rising concern is the seductively intense colour offered by the modern gel colourings. Again, I can’t claim high ground.  I have three sons and have eaten a miniskip’s worth of bright blue icing during my parenthood.  But am I the only person who thinks this probably isn’t quite right? If someone came along with some decent and effective ‘natural’ colourings I’d be an instant customer right there.  But despite my searching there doesn’t really seem to be a good alternative offering just yet. Perhaps I should take a hint: maybe we just weren’t meant to eat cyan?

miette_bookGorgeous San Francisco bakery Miette put out a beautiful and useful book recently.  I understood their philosophy is that a cake must be more about taste and texture than architecture and fashion.  Their cakes are so so mouth watering and yet so simple and beautiful that I defy your mouth not to water when you look at them.  And not a single one is overdone in its decoration.

Interestingly, Miette cakes aren’t huge either.   The European influence at work here dictates that a small slice of divine quality is worth far more than an enormous slab of banality.  I’d go with that.

Maybe you’re well ahead of me on this, but as my children leave their primary coloured baby years. I’m feeling a pull towards a more ‘natural’ style of baking.  The low cal, artificial sweetener, apple-puree-butter-substitute is not for me – unless I am baking for someone with diabetes and my experience to date is that they don’t want it either.  But I am interested in trying more nut flours and fruit ingredients such as those set out in New Zealander Amber Rose’s recently published book Love, Bake, Nourish.  I’ll bet I can find a way to personalise those suckers.

What’s your favourite celebration cake?