It was Festival Week in Tuesday’s episode of the Great British Bake Off, and the three challenges included a yeasted festival bun signature; Sicilian cassatelles; and a brightly coloured Sarawak layer cake showstopper.
This week, we’re focusing on the simplest challenge – buns, in many forms – as they’re often the easiest to get wrong. Popular buns, namely the Chelsea bun, hot cross bun, cinnamon bun and tea cake, make an excellent teatime treat or breakfast. Served hot and slathered with good butter, cream or jam, these irresistible treats are open to infinite variations of fruit and flavour, whilst being cost effective and easy to store.
The late cookery writer Jane Grigson had strong opinions on home-baked buns, especially when it came to the hot cross bun and “the best of all buns” Chelsea variety. “Until you make spiced hot cross buns yourself…it is difficult to understand why they should have become popular,” she wrote. “Bought, they taste so dull. Modern commerce has taken them over, and, in the interests of cheapness, reduced the delicious ingredients to a minimum.”
Buns have exploded in popularity over the past decade, from the sticky and golden glazed cinnamon buns in London-based Nordic Bakery to the maple and cardamom scented saffron buns in Ottolenghi’s delis, while supermarkets, too, have expanded their offerings – this year, salted caramel, rhubarb and custard, and apple cinnamon were just some of the flavoured buns showcased for Easter.
But as we enter winter, there is no better time to make the home feel a little cosier with the scent of baked spice. So grab a cup of tea and an apron, as we’ve gathered recipes and a few tips from chefs and food writers to help you along the way.
Cinnamon buns and cheat’s stollen
Henry Bird chose the fashionable Scandi-inspired chocolate kardemummabullar as his signature of choice. Made correctly – fluffy and bursting with spice – cinnamon and cardamom buns are an addictive treat.
Magnus Nilsson, Michelin-starred chef at Fäviken in Sweden, uses a simple sweet dough for his sticky cinnamon buns in The Nordic Baking Book (Phaidon, £29.95); a comprehensive guide to baking tradition in the Nordic region.
Nilsson’s sweet dough – which requires a simple base dough of butter, milk, fresh yeast, salt, sugar, and strong wheat flour – is left to rise for 30 to 40 minutes before baking in the oven for 20 minutes.
Clair Ptak, food writer and owner of Violet Bakery, offers an alternative: a yeast-free bun dough for her cinnamon buns. Her recipe, shared below, is similar to Nilsson's in that it uses a simple dough base of plain flour, sea salt, unsalted butter and milk but skips the fresh yeast for baking powder, which Ptak claims is an easy alternative to time-consuming yeast or sourdough. This yeast-free version only takes 15 minutes of proving.
Whilst Ptak’s cinnamon buns call for a quick dip in caster sugar before serving; Nilsson uses pearl sugar for an additional crunch atop, which is traditional. If you particularly like cinnamon sugar, try a modest sprinkle within and load up the top before baking. That way, the sugar will caramelise into a deep, golden brown and not disappear into the dough.
Diana Henry, Telegraph columnist and author, also shares a recipe, below, grounded in Scandinavia. Her recipe for spiced and fruity stollen buns is a good entry-level number if you’ve never attempted a yeasted dough before and want to give it a go. “Of course they’re not like proper stollen – which is very difficult to make,” she says, “but with the spices and fruit and almond paste, they have the same flavours.”
Henry recommends buying almond paste for her stollen buns, not marzipan, as regular marzipan hardens in cooking, whereas almond paste stays soft. A great tip if you plan to flavour your cinnamon bun, or any bun for that matter, with comforting notes of almond.
Described by Jane Grigson in English Food as “the best of all buns, on account of their buttery melting sweetness, and the fun of uncoiling them as you eat them”, these sweet, sticky buns made from egg-enriched yeast dough flavoured with lemon peel, cinnamon or mixed spice, are stuffed with currants, brown sugar and an indecent amount of butter – and are surprisingly simple to make.
Though plenty of traditional recipes for Chelsea buns call for lard and shortening, Rose Prince, food writer and cook, advises using just unsalted butter for a flaky finish. Judge Paul Hollywood, too, uses unsalted butter and skips the lard for his Chelsea bun recipe.
For proving, which is key, both Prince and Hollywood recommend setting aside in a warm place for at least an hour – don’t be tempted to take it out early, as under-proved dough will crack once put into the oven.
When it comes to flavouring the dough, care is required. Too much fruit will inhibit the yeast and result in tight, dense buns. Leave the loading up for after the buns are finished baking and cooled properly, then try experimenting with a sprinkle of pistachio, walnut or pecan, like the pros at Honey & Co., for a bit of crunch.