A confession, to begin with – appropriate, given the season. This is not a story of how I stopped worrying. It wouldn’t take a psychiatrist to determine that, in the last two years, I have used baking as a crutch, or a crude therapy. I have written previously about how pastries and breads and curds have helped me in times of mourning and misery and panic. I have been grounded by baking. But for a long time, I was scared of bread.
When I began baking and cooking, I was eager to master bread. Those who made bread, I thought, were inherently competent, domesticated people. I pictured myself wiping floury hands on an inexplicably immaculate apron, whilst simultaneously reading Joyce, pouring my partner a glass of wine, and, perhaps, weaving a blanket on a loom I had hand-carved.
So after initial forays into the basics: brownies, biscuits, a couple of cakes, and some beginner’s luck with fudge, I turned my mind and hands to bread. I attempted a number of different types of bread: stout bread, wholemeal loaves, white bloomers, even my own sourdough starter-made boule. All of them were just about edible (or so I was told lovingly by those around me, who were probably simply relieved that I was throwing myself into something other than weeping and worrying about death), but I panicked every time I declared with clenched-jaw that I was baking some more bread.
This is a story about how I learned to stop worrying about bread, and trust dough.
Dough is like having a living, breathing being with you in the kitchen. Every recipe you read recommends different conditions to encourage life. Warmth! But not too much warmth! Time! But not too much time! Oil! No, don’t use oil! Water in the oven! No, don’t lower the temperature!
I had no idea what I was doing. And I, like a new parent, would return to it frequently, fretting that it wouldn’t rise, that it had risen too much, that it was too hot, too cold, that I should leave it for longer, that I should deal with it Right Now, and ultimately, inevitably, that I had Messed Around With It Too Much.
I just didn’t trust the dough to do its thing.
I truly, mistakenly, arrogantly, believed it needed my direction. And without it, it would fail.
I lost all confidence in bread. I actively avoided baking it, and felt like a little bit of a failure.
Ironically, the first bread I ever baked truly successfully — bread I was proud of, that I showed off! — was a batch of hot cross buns last Easter. I didn’t try and teach myself the history of yeasted foodstuffs. I didn’t look up the science in advance. I didn’t worry the dough whilst it was resting or proving. I just followed a recipe. And it was a revelation. Because here is the key: Mix. Wait. Mix. Wait. Shape. Wait. Bake. That is it.
It took me over a year of daily baking to realise that bread dough is not something to be feared. That there is no mystery, no secret to bread baking.
Hot cross buns proved to me that bread, even enriched bread — ‘scary’ bread — is simple. It needs time. It needs patience. It needs you to be willing to handle it, and get a little bit messy. With those ingredients, and a little bit of trust, the bread will do the work for you. Hot cross buns are the perfect proof in this respect because, when you enrich the dough by adding milk and butter and eggs and spices, you inhibit the yeast, and it can take longer to prove. You must walk away from it.
If you have ever doubted your ability to bake perfect little buns, I urge you: please try this recipe. You will produce satin-like dough, which is a joy to handle, delicious buns that are (honestly) better even that the supermarkets’ offerings, and I guarantee you this: you will feel competent, and enriched.
(This forms the first part of a double bill of hot cross baking on the blog: I live in a (converted) church, so felt I needed to pay more than mere lip service to the traditional format, but these will be swiftly followed by the hot cross bun loaf, a lighter but more robust bread, not as sweet.)
It goes like this:
Hot cross buns
(adapted from Paul Hollywood’s recipe)
Makes: 16 sizeable hot cross buns
Takes: 3 and a half hours (including proving)
Bakes: 20 minutes
For the buns:
340ml full-fat milk
500g strong bread flour
1 tsp salt
75g caster sugar
1 tbsp sunflower oil
7g sachet fast-action or easy-blend yeast
75g sultanas or other dried fruit of your choosing
50g mixed peel
zest 1 orange
1 apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
For the cross:
75g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
For the glaze:
3 tbsp apricot jam
1. Pop the milk in a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Remove from the heat, and add the cubed butter. Set to one side to cool slightly.
2. Place the dry ingredients in a bowl: strong white bread flour, salt, yeast* and sugar. Crack your egg into a bowl or mug and lightly fork it. Pour your butter and milk mixture in, followed by the egg. Take a wooden spoon and mix.
3, At this stage, you can take the stress-free, or the stress-relieving route, depending on whether you have a stand mixer, or pent-up aggression. Put the dough into a stand mixer bowl and place it on a low setting, or turn it out onto a floured surface, and roll up your sleeves. You need to knead the dough for five minutes, be this with a dough hook or a left hook, but set your timer, because five minutes — especially if you’re doing this by hand — is longer than you think.
4. Take a clean bowl and rub it with some flavourless oil (sunflower or vegetable would do the trick), place the dough in it, and then cover with oiled clingfilm. It is a real faff at this stage to transfer bowls and attempt to spread oil on clingfilm, but I promise it will make your life easier in about an hour’s time, and it will stop the dough crusting whilst it proves. Leave for an hour. DO NOT TOUCH IT OR WORRY ABOUT IT. IT IS FINE. IT DOES NOT NEED YOU.
5. Remove the clingfilm. Give the dough a good shove: you want all the air out of it, and then add your dried fruit, peel, zest, apple and cinnamon. You should mix this through so it’s evenly distributed, which takes a little longer than it should do, frankly. Replace the clingfilm. Leave for an hour. STEP AWAY FROM THE KITCHEN. STOP LOOKING AT THE DOUGH. IT WILL BE OK. JESUS, READ A BOOK, OLIVIA.
6. Now, flour your surface lightly and turn your dough onto it. Divide it into 16 pieces. Take each of these pieces and squash it down flat, fold the outer edges in to the centre, and keep doing this, until the dough is a bit more of a coherent ball. Now turn it upside down so the smooth side of the bun is facing you.
7. Want tight buns; who doesn’t? Cage your hand, as if you were holding a cricket ball, place it over the ball of dough so that your fingertips are on the work surface and the palm of your hand is just above the dough. Move your hand in circles, quite fast, this will move the dough balls in tiny little circles which tightens them, and reduces the seam on their bottoms.
8. Place your perfect, little dough balls evenly spaced on two baking parchment-lined trays about an inch apart from one another, and leave again for a final hour. Lay oiled clingfilm over the top of the trays, but loosely.
9. Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees C. Place your trays of proved buns somewhere flat, where it doesn’t matter if you get a little bit of flour paste in the general vicinity. Mix your flour paste in a small dish or mug, using 3 tablespoons of flour and enough water to make it the thickness of ketchup. Spoon your paste into your piping bag. Holding the piping bag so the tip is skywards, cut off the very tip of the piping bag. Now, starting from the edge of the tray, about an inch above the dough, boldly pipe your lines on. If you hesitate or double back, you’ll run into difficulties. You must be fearless. Repeat until you have two trays of buns all with flourpaste crosses.
10. Place the buns in the oven for twenty minutes. My oven is a nightmare, so I have to turn my trays to prevent anything burning or remaining raw; if your oven is also a liability, do similarly.
11. Whilst still warm, you should glaze your buns. Heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan, and when it is runny, sieve it into a small dish, and paint it liberally onto the top of your buns.
12. Ta Dah!
Hot Cross Tips
– Quick action yeast can be added directly to the mixture; If you’re not using this, you need to dissolve it in tepid water, four times the quantity of the yeast. Leave it for a minute to bubble slightly, before you add it to your bowl of dry ingredients.
– Never kneaded before? Stretch and fold. Stretch your dough outwards, fold the outer edges into the centre; turn the dough, and repeat. Pummel the dough, twist it. The aim is to lengthen the gluten strands in the bread, and once you realise this is what you’re trying to do, you can relax into attacking the bread a little. It can take some rough handling. You’re looking for it to be markedly smoother and more elastic than when you started.
– If you don’t have a silicon or pastry brush, you could use baking parchment to smear it on, but make sure you allow the buns and jam to cool enough before you begin!
– To add an elegance that is rarely seen in my household, you can add a very small pinch of saffron to the milk as it cools. These gives the buns a deeper, earthy flavour that works brilliantly with the orange zest, and a wonderful colour.
The Icing on the Cake
We ate this repeatedly, for breakfast, for snacks, for pudding; cold, spread with thick, unyielding salted butter, or toasted, with rivers of melting butter licked from wrists.