I was about age 11, with a few friends over ‘to play’, as we called it then – when we looked up phone numbers in Mum’s address book, dialed and questioned parents as to whether so-and-so could visit. Cell phones were something that we acquired a few years later- a brick Nokia first, with its enthralling black-and-white games of snake, and then a pink flip up Motorola. For now, it was the landline. I often had friends over to bake – chocolate chip cookies and peppermint slice, chocolate self-saucing pudding and Anzac biscuits, pancakes and french toast. This time our challenge was bread. A basic white dough – flour, yeast and water – kneaded in turns and proved sitting on top of Dad’s espresso machine, the warmth emanating up into the bowl. Our products were uneven and lumpy – misshapen scrolls and mangled attempts at braids – but the smell, and the taste, of our very own bread, served warm and spread with melting butter, is a reward I have chased since.
Bread baking holds a unique satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment unparalleled by anything else that emerges from the oven. Something about the gradual transformation of a shaggy mess of flour and water, sticky and coating fingers and nails with a glue-like paste, into a golden, crusty loaf made by you – not the bakery down the road, not the factory exporting sandwich loafs onto supermarket shelves – but YOU – is intensely gratifying. The process of kneading a dough, feeling the change from ragged to smooth as the gluten develops. The gradual rise as it looms from the bottom of the bowl like a living being – responsive to touch, temperature, humidity, timing, scoring. So basic yet simultaneously complex.
It astounded me to learn that most bakeries now use bread mixes and machines for everything. Premixed amounts of flour and water, precise preset humidities, temperatures and timing. Completely automated. The cafe where I worked over summer did everything from scratch – apart from using a professional mixer rather than kneading, all the initial mixing, shaping, proving, and timing was just as in your kitchen at home. Someone came for a trial with previous experience as a “baker” at a relatively boutique bakery in the city – but having only worked with machines, they really had no concept of what it should feel like at each stage, what it should look like, and what adjustments to make depending on the day. They really were just a tool to the robots making bread, which seems to take so much of the joy, skill and life out of the process.
I have improved since that day, age 11. Turkish bread is a favourite, along with the sweeter brioche, crumpets and doughnuts, and quick rise pita and tortillas. The famous no-knead bread too, of course. Ciabatta and sourdough remain elusive as yet, but they will happen soon!
These hot cross buns are perfect for anyone, whether it is your first time making bread or your 100th. There is a timeline below to demonstrate how simple they are – most of the time spent is just to allow the buns to prove. Easter coincides with a few days holiday and hopefully time spent with family and friends, giving you the space to enjoy the process and many willing people to eat them! The warmly spiced, yeasted bread smell fills the entire house – I don’t know why, but I have always found the smell of baking bread very comforting, homely. A little like when you walk past a bakery and can’t help but turn and gulp up the scent.
They aren’t traditional, however – gooey chocolate chunks and tender roasted pears stud the soft bread, with a background warmth of mixed spice and cinnamon. Shimmering with a sugar glaze, they are decadent – but Easter is about chocolate, right? I needed a change from sultanas, currents and bitter candied peel. You will never accept store-bought hot cross buns the same way again.
- A timeline:
- 20 minutes to make and knead the dough
- 45 minute rise time
- 15 minutes to mix through the pears & chocolate and divide & shape the dough.
- 45 minute rise time, then pipe on the crosses
- Bake 20-25 minutes.
- Traditional sultana version: if chocolate isn’t for you, you can stick to the original recipe and use 350g dried fruit – sultanas, dried apricots, currants. Soak sultanas in 1 cup of strong, hot Earl Grey tea 30 minutes for extra flavour. In this version, add the dried fruit at the end of the kneading process (before the first prove), rather than before the second prove. Feel free to up the spices as well!
- 250ml skim milk (1 cup)
- 200 ml water
- 10g instant dried yeast (2 teaspoons)
- 110g caster sugar (1/2 cup)
- 1 egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten
- 860g strong/bread flour (5 and ¾ cups)
- 1½ tablespoons mixed spice
- 1 heaped teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 85g butter, softened
- 3 beurre bosc pears
- 150g dark chocolate
- 6 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons caster sugar
- ¼ cup water + a bit extra
- ½ cup caster sugar
- ¼ cup water
- Preheat the oven to 200°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
- In a small saucepan, warm the skim milk and 200ml water to lukewarm (30°C on a thermometer, or just a little cooler than body temperature). Remove from the heat.
- Stir in the yeast, sugar and egg until the yeast has dissolved. Set aside
- Put the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment (or in a large bowl if kneading by hand).
- Add the yeast mixture and the softened butter to the flour mixture. Knead on low speed until just incorporated. Turn the speed to medium and mix for 8 minutes (if kneading by hand, knead for 10-12 minutes or until smooth).
- Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for 1 minute. Form a ball, and place in a large, lightly greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to prove for 45min - 1 hour or until doubled in size.
- Meanwhile, peel the pears and chop each into 6 segments. Place on the baking paper lined tray. Melt a tablespoon of butter and pour over the pears, tossing to coat. Place in oven for 20 minutes. Remove to let cool, then chop into small chunks.
- Chop the chocolate into chunks.
- When the dough has proved, tip out onto a lightly floured bench and very gently knead in the pear and chocolate. It won’t really mix in properly, but don’t worry - you can make sure to push bits in when you form it into buns.
- Divide the dough into 15-18 pieces and roll into taut balls, keeping the bits of pear and chocolate inside. Try to tuck the ends of the dough underneath and into the bottom, keeping a taut, smooth surface. This can get a bit fiddly, but rustic is good!
- Place onto a large baking tray lined with baking paper, leaving room for rising.
- Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to prove for 45 minutes.
- For the piping paste: stir together the flour and sugar in a small bowl. Add enough water to form a smooth paste.
- Fill a piping bag and pipe crosses on the top of the buns (for a make-shift piping bag, cut a tiny piece out of the corner of a ziplock bag).
- Place in oven and bake for 20 minutes until lightly golden and the buns sound hollow when tapped on the base.
- For the glaze: dissolve the sugar in ¼ cup water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Brush this glaze over the buns just after you remove from the oven.
- Best eaten on the day or heated for a couple of days after. Extras freeze well, wrapped individually in plastic wrap.