Hot cross buns

I know – hot cross buns are really cheap at the supermarket, so why would you bother making your own at home?

There’s a very easy answer: home-made hot cross buns are unbelievably delicious (unlike the supermarket variety, these are enriched with butter and eggs, and have more in the way of spices and fruit in their dough) – far better than the bought variety. They’re cheap, too. And if you’re interested in cooking something that will make your house smell divine for an afternoon, hot cross buns are just the ticket.

These sweet, yeasty little buns are a treat for Lent. (Pipe a Darwin fish on yours if you do not subscribe to this religious baking stuff.) According to Elizabeth David, the hot cross bun was a cause of great concern among the Protestant monarchs of England – Catholics were rumoured to bake them using communion wafers, and all that doughy symbolism was immensely threatening. The Tudors actually tried to ban them, but the populace would not be fobbed off with toasted teacakes, and eventually Elizabeth I passed a law allowing bakeries to make them at Easter and Christmas.

To make 12 hot cross buns, you’ll need:

7g (1 sachet) easy-blend yeast
1 teaspoon soft brown sugar
100g strong white flour
200ml blood-hot milk

350g white bread flour
1 pinch salt
½ nutmeg, grated
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
Zest of one lemon and one orange
50g salted butter, cut into small pieces
50g light brown soft sugar
90g candied mixed peel
90g sultanas
1 egg

3 tablespoons plain flour
3 tablespoons caster sugar

1 orange
75g caster sugar
100 ml water

Get your yeast going by mixing it with all the starter ingredients in a small bowl, and leave it in a warm place to start working for fifteen minutes while you prepare the rest of the dough for the buns.

Mix the flour for the dough in a large bowl with the spices, pinch of salt and the citrus zests. Rub the butter, cut into small pieces, into the flour and spice mixture as if you are making pastry. When the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, stir through the sugar, peel and sultanas. Check that the yeasty starter mixture has plenty of large bubbles on the surface, and add it and the beaten egg to the dough mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon, and when everything is amalgamated, start to knead the mixture with your hands.

Knead for ten minutes until you have a soft dough which is no longer sticky, and which stretches easily. (If after five minutes or so of kneading the dough still seems very sticky, add a little more flour – bread doughs will vary enormously in stickiness depending on variables like the humidity outside and the temperature in your kitchen.) Oil a bowl, and put the kneaded dough inside with some oiled cling film or a damp teatowel on top. Leave the dough for about an hour and a half in a warm place until it has risen to double its original size.

Knock the dough down, and make twelve round balls from it. Arrange them evenly in a baking dish, cover again and leave to double in size again in a warm place (between an hour and an hour and a half).

Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F). When the buns have risen, make a paste for the crosses from flour and caster sugar, adding water until it is stiff and pipable. Using a piping bag or a freezer bag with a hole snipped in the corner, pipe crosses on each bun.

Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes until they are golden. While the buns are baking, take the zest and juice of the orange for the glaze and simmer it with the water and sugar until you have a light syrup. Brush the hot syrup over the hot buns when they come out of the oven.

You can serve these immediately or cool and toast them. Either way, they’re glorious with a big slab of butter.

Easter egg

Hotel Chocolat sent me one of their thick-shelled eggs to sample – you can win one in the GD/Hotel Chocolat Easter competition. This year’s egg was called You crack me up, and the Hotel Chocolat people appear to have realised since last year that I am, under the wrinkled surface, about twelve, and so respond much better to their slightly less adult offerings. This egg was brilliant – rather than trying for grown-up flavours like last year’s liqueur chocolates, it was filled with smiley-faced pralines and solid chocolate chicks and bunnies. Enough to bring a smile to even the most leathery food-blogger’s face.

Once again, the shell is almost comically thick. (This is great – it’s my favourite bit.) Half is made from Hotel Chocolat’s 40% cocoa solid milk chocolate, which is creamy, malty and not too sweet. The other is milk chocolate with a swirl of white, and both are so thick and chunky that you’ll need a good bit of molar action to deal with them.

Two bags full of bunnies and chicks for the slaughter (I can’t be the only person who eats things like this head first – and I found myself picking the eyes off the little Humpty guys and eating those before going for the praline inside) are also inside the packaging. Hotel Chocolat’s packaging is always really good fun, and strangely classy – I was given a box of their bits and bobs by some friends at Christmas with a lovely magnetised lid which I found myself keeping to put things in when I’d polished off the chocolates. The origami-complicated box with this egg was beautiful, and did a great job of protecting the chocolate shell inside. Hotel Chocolat have a great range on offer this year – enter the competition, and have a look at their eggly offerings for 2008 online.

Hotel Chocolat Easter Egg

Hotel Chocolat sent me their Signature Egg to review a couple of weeks ago. This was excellent news – I am a big fan of Hotel Chocolat, who are my favourite high-street chocolatiers. They currently have 21 shops in the UK, a mail-order chocolate tasting service and some really interesting products – my very favourite thing in the whole shop is the cocoa nibs, which are simply little shards of cocoa bean with no sugar.

The Signature Egg, cleverly, uses milk chocolate for one half of the shell and dark for the other. This was one of the best chocolate shells I’ve tasted – it’s extra-thick, and the dark chocolate in particular is very good; not too sweet, and extremely smooth with a lovely creamy texture. Hotel Chocolat have their own cocoa plantation in the West Indies, which guarantees the quality of the chocolate. I had some Cadbury’s chocolate in the kitchen to taste as a sort of control chocolate,which was granular and tooth-hurtingly sweet by comparison.

You can see the very pretty mini-eggs that fill the shell in the photograph. They are all liqueur creams…and this is where the Signature Egg, with its gorgeous, thick shell, falls down. On paper, the flavours looked great; pink Marc de Champagne, Tiramisu, Kirsch, Amaretto and so on. Unfortunately, the lecithin-slippery centres all tasted rather synthetic (the pink Marc being a dead ringer for Angel Delight). Advocaat, a flavour I usually dislike, was by far the best (and appropriately Easterish, being made from egg yolks), but the Kir cream managed to mimic cough mixture. Still – these were sweet, and sufficiently grown-up tasting that you won’t find them being stolen by the kids. Unless the kids happen to like Kirsch.

Hotel Chocolat is currently running an Easter-Egg Hunt competition to win a rather lovely-looking Easter Hamper full of chocolatey goodness. You can enter until April 2. Happy hunting!