A spice made from the ground kernels found in the stones of a particular type of cherry, the Prunus mahaleb, mahlab is like a grown-up version of marzipan with a flavour not unlike bitter almond although fruitier and more delicate. I was introduced to it by the lovely Sarah, who is some sort of walking and talking flavour thesaurus, and have been fascinated with mahlab ever since. I first experimented with it over Christmas when I used it to flavour a rice flour thickened custard that we enjoyed with a sour cherry and orange blossom compote and fell completely in love with its flavour.
Mahlab has been used in the Middle East for centuries and, together with cardamom, is the key flavour in an Armenian Easter bread called Cheoreg made from a sweet enriched dough. Given that hot cross buns are typically eaten around Easter it did not take me long to give this year’s batch the same flavours. The saffron, my own addition, is here not just for its gorgeous colour but also because its wonderfully heady aroma is a nice antidote to the rich and buttery spiced dough. And while hot cross buns typically include currants or raisins or both, a number of people near and dear to me abhor currants and raisins so I used dried apricots (which I figured worked better with the Middle Eastern theme of these buns in any event).
It took me a few tries to get this recipe right and to a stage where the actual work required is minimal and the end result is a perfectly fluffy and deliciously buttery bun. These are pretty close to perfection – my only gripe is not making these buns any bigger, one on its own for breakfast seems rather frugal, yet two seem positively greedy, so next time I might just turn this quantity into 6 slightly larger buns.
I hope you all have a lovely Easter break, whether you are spending it with your loved ones or just enjoying an extra day or two off work. I am off to Italy tomorrow night to spend the long weekend in Italy with Alessandro and I literally cannot wait to see him and spend some time with him after 3 long weeks of not seeing each other while I was getting set up in Brussels.
Hot Cross Buns with Saffron, Mahlab and Cardamom
Yields 8 buns
A pinch of saffron
4g fast action yeast
120g all purpose flour
80g wholegrain kamut flour
2 1/2 tsp mahlab
Ground seeds of 3 cardamom pods
1/4 tsp salt
50g butter, softened
100g dried apricots, diced finely
For the cross: 30g all purpose flour and 2-3 tbsp water
To glaze: 2-3 tbsp honey
Gently heat the milk until it starts steaming. Turn off the heat, add the pinch of saffron and set aside to infuse for 1 hour. In a separate bowl whisk together the yeast, the all purpose flour, the kamut flour, the mahlab, the ground cardamom and the salt.
Return the milk to the stove and heat on a small flame until hot to the touch. Turn off the heat, add the butter, honey and egg and whisk to combine. Pour over the dry ingredients and stir together until you have a shaggy ball. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Using oiled hands knead the dough for ca. 5 minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and set aside somewhere warm to proof for 1h or until the dough has doubled in size.
On your worktop flatten the dough into a disk that is ca. an inch high, scatter the chopped apricots over the dough and gently knead until the chopped apricots are well distributed. Shape the dough into a ball and return to the oiled bowl to proof somewhere warm for 2 hours or until the dough has doubled in size (alternatively let proof somewhere cool overnight).
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Divide the dough into 8 pieces and form each piece into a small bun.
Make the cross paste by whisking together the flour with just enough water to form a fairly thick paste. Fill paste into a piping bag and pipe both a horizontal and a vertical line across each bun in the shape of a cross.
Bake the buns for 20 minutes until well risen and golden brown. Using a pastry brush cover each bun with a thin layer of honey while they are hot.