Whilst once upon a time hot cross buns only turned up in the shops just before Easter, they can now be bought any old time. So one-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns are now ten-a-penny, having lost their seasonal specialness. I try each year to make my own, even if it is only just once and the buns turn out far superior to anything shop bought. Even using mixed spice from an old packet that has sat in the cupboard for just about forever, you make a better bun. But it is only when you actually grind and blend the spice mixture yourself, moments before baking, that you learn to appreciate what a difference really fresh spices make to the taste. With a comparative whiff of your own fresh and zestful mixture alongside an already opened packet of the shop-bought sort, it is blatantly obvious that one is doing a merry dance with the occasional pirouette whilst the other is wearing misshapen Ugg boots and dragging its feet in a slovenly fashion.
It really is worth taking a little extra time to grind your own spice blend. Use whole spices that are as fresh as they can be, but even with whole spices you’ve had a while, if you grind them yourself just before you need them, they’ll will have bags more flavour than ones already ground that have sat on the supermarket shelf for who knows how long.
I do have an old Moulinex grinder somewhere that I use just for grinding spices but haven’t a clue where I’ve put it, and am certainly not prepared to allow my coffee grinder to be tainted with spice. So on this occasion I pounded and ground the spices by hand with a pestle and mortar, which is a job I very quickly tire of, but I got the result I wanted in the end. I do think some help from an electrical appliance is the best option.
If you use lots of mixed spice, you’ll be able to adapt the blend to suit your own tastes and tweak the amounts accordingly. Can’t say I’m that tuned in to it yet, but here is the blend I made for my hot cross buns that I am very satisfied with. Perhaps next time I’ll try a bit more cardamon and add some fennel seeds as well. I didn’t have a cinnamon stick so did add my cinnamon and ginger ready ground.
2tsp whole allspice
1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
2tsp freshly ground nutmeg (probably best to grate it separately first)
2tsp ground ginger
2tsp ground cinnamon or ground fresh from a cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp coriander whole seeds
4 blades of mace, broken up
seeds from 4 cardamon pods
Grind them all together to a fine powder. Keep in a well-sealed jar and label with the date.
I’m not partial to tasteless flour paste crosses on my buns though can appreciate the tidy result. I cut my crosses with a razor blade just before the risen buns went in the oven and this gives a much more haphazard, somewhat charming homemade look. You can of course make them non-denominational if you prefer and dispense with the cross altogether.
HOT CROSS BUNS
Makes 16 buns
500g strong white flour
7g packet of fast acting yeast
60g soft brown sugar
2 heaped tsp of mixed spice
1 tsp salt
60g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
60g candied peel **
250ml milk, slightly warmed
For the sticky glaze:
Place all of the ingredients except the currants in a food mixer with a dough hook and mix to a sticky dough for 5 minutes. You can of course use a bowl and combine by hand, but the mixture is quite soft and sticky. Add the currants and stir them through the dough. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for a couple of hours or a cold place for 4-6 hours until the dough has more than doubled in size.
Punch the dough down and empty the bowl’s contents onto a floured board then knead it for 2 minutes, incorporating more flour if needed to make a manageable, smooth dough. Form the dough into an even circle, cut into 4 equal pieces then cut each of these quarters into 4. Form each piece into a bun shape and place with some space between, on greased baking trays. Cover with tea towels and leave to rise and double in size. This will take as little as 30 minutes in a warm kitchen, or a couple of hours in a cool room.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C (425F, Mk7). Slash a cross in the top of each bun with a sharp knife or blade just before they go in the oven. Bake the buns for 15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from oven and whilst hot brush generously with sugar glaze. To make this, dissolve the sugar in the water in a pan and bring to the boil.
** I didn’t have any candied citrus peel in the house so used some candied melon peel, which gives texture, but without the tang, so then added 2 Tbsp chunky cut marmalade to the mixture as well. (I’m telling you this, not to confuse you but to encourage you to make things up as you go along!)