Breadbaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… There is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.
M. F. K. Fisher, “The Art of Eating”
Valeria wrote a post the other day about why she likes writing about food. And this got me thinking, not about why I write about food in this little corner of the internet. But why I derive so much pleasure from cooking, baking and in turn talking about cooking and baking and everything else to do with food.
In my case it isn’t as straightforward as simply saying ‘Oh, I just love cooking for others’. I certainly do. But for me it is so much more than that. It is also a creative outlet. It’s no wonder I started this blog when I was still living in London and had just started work as an associate at a big law firm, effectively signing my social life away for the foreseeable future.
Work was interesting and challenging but, as any junior lawyer can tell you, it was far from creative. Being a junior lawyer was all about learning the tricks of the trade and also about a lot of fairly mundane tasks – preparing binders, annexes, checking footnotes and citations, doing document review etc. Spending some time in the kitchen and experimenting with different techniques, recipes and ingredients gave me a creative outlet I was sorely missing at work. Plus, what better way to take out stress from work than kneading sticky dough into submission?
If that is what you are after, then these Hot Cross Buns are perfect. By hand (I sadly do not own a stand mixer) the dough takes around 15-20 minutes to turn from a sticky mess into a soft and shiny dough that passes the windowpane test. And as much as I love working with sticky dough, I freely admit to setting a timer and switching on Netflix whenever I need to knead some dough (same goes for making risotto, Turkish delight and anything else requiring one to stand by the stove for an extended period of time).
What makes these Hot Cross Buns a little different (other than the flavours but we will get to those later) is that the dough is made using the tangzhong method (also known as the water roux or yukone method).
This method consists of adding a small amount of flour (typically 5 per cent of a recipe’s total flour amount) that’s been cooked into a thick paste with 5 times its weight in water or milk (again, taken from the recipes liquid ingredients) to the rest of the dough ingredients before mixing the dough together. The process of pre-cooking a small part of the flour into a pudding-like consistency ensures a very tender crumb and a loaf (or buns) that stays fresh for longer as this gelatinised flour helps the finished loaf to retain moisture much better.
It is a method commonly used for Hokkaido style milk loaves but can basically be used for any bread recipe using yeast (and even bagels). And yes, it adds a step to your recipe. But a rather small one. It only takes a few minutes for the flour and water (or milk) paste to thicken sufficiently. And I typically use the saucepan I made the tangzhong in to mix the wet ingredients before adding them to the dry ingredients. If you want to read more about the tanzhong method, here is an FAQ.
But let’s talk about these Hot Cross Buns. For someone always looking to try out different flavour combinations and different ingredients, the fact that playing around with the basic formula for Hot Cross Buns is practically encouraged is a very good thing indeed. I mean I have seen Carrot Cake Hot Cross Buns. Hot Cross Buns with chocolate, Toffee Fudge Hot Cross Buns, Apple and Cinnamon Hot Cross Buns. Heck, I have even seen savoury Hot Cross Buns. So this year, I decided to make Hot Cross Buns with Chinese 5 Spice Powder, Prunes and Candied Orange – extra fluffy and moist thanks to the tangzhong method.
While Chinese 5 Spice Powder is more typically used in savoury cooking, there is no reason whatsoever to stop there. This spice blend typically includes star anise, fennel, cassia, clove as well as Sichuan peppercorns for a bit of heat. While a little spicy thanks to the Sichuan peppercorns, the overall flavour profile is not far off from mixed spice or gingerbread spice mixes.
And as I am forever trying to make the most of my spice drawer while trying out new recipes, it just made sense to try substituting Chinese 5 Spice Powder for the more common mixed spice. And because Chinese 5 Spice Powder is not far off the spices that go into Chinese Plum Sauce, I used prunes rather than raisins or currants for the Hot Cross Buns. And what can I say, I am a total convert – these may be my favourite hot cross buns ever!
Tangzhong Hot Cross Buns with Chinese 5 Spice Powder, Prunes and Candied Orange
Notes: What can I say? Make these hot cross buns. Skip the tangzhong if you are feeling lazy but do try the Chinese 5 Spice Powder – it is delicious. Or maybe try another spice mix that is lurking in your kitchen. Ras el hanout with chopped dates maybe? Or Persian advieh with barberries?
Yields 6 hot cross buns
For the dough
237.5g plus 12.5g flour
72.5g plus 62.5g milk
3.5g dried active yeast (a generous teaspoon)
2 tsp Chinese 5 Spice Powder
1/2 tsp salt
25g brown sugar
50g prunes, chopped finely
50g candied orange peel, chopped finely
For piping the cross
For the bun wash
Start by making the flour and milk paste. In a medium sauce pan on medium heat, whisk together 12.5g of flour and 62.5g of milk until they form a thick paste (see the photo above for what it should look like). Stir in the butter until it is melted completely, followed by the remaining milk and the egg.
In a mixing bowl whisk together the remaining flour, with the yeast, Chinese 5 Spice Powder, salt and brown sugar. Form a well in the centre and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir everything together then tip onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough passes the windowpane test. The dough is very sticky so this may well take 15-20 minutes. In the beginning it will seem like you are merely spreading a sticky floury mess all over your kitchen counter but do resist the urge to add more flour. With some perseverance (and maybe some entertainment from Netflix) the dough will soon become smooth, shiny and beautifully stretchy.
Cover the dough and let rest for 5 minutes then knead in the chopped prunes and candied orange until well distributed. Place the dough back in the mixing bowl, cover and set aside to proof until doubled (depending on how warm your kitchen is this will take around 1 hour).
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
On a lightly floured surface divide the dough into six pieces (if you want to be precise, each bun should weigh around 95 grams) and shape into buns. Place the buns, seam-side down on the prepared sheet pan, cover with a kitchen towel and set aside to proof until doubled (this should take around 45 minutes).
Whisk the flour together with the water, fill into a piping bag and pipe a thin cross on each bun. Bake the buns for 15-20 minutes (18 minutes seemed to be bang on when I was testing these) or until they are well risen and sound hollow when tapped underneath.
While the buns are in the oven, make your bun wash. In a small sauce pan bring the sugar and water to a boil and cook just long enough for the sugar to dissolve completely.
When the buns are out of the oven, brush generously with the bun wash (I store any leftover bun wash in the fridge and use it to sweeten iced coffees, fruit salads and such).