Hot Cross Buns

April 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

…is a recipe title that might confuse American readers but we in the UK know what we mean!

I spend most of the year going “Tsk, tsk” looking at unseasonal packets of hot cross buns on the shelf of my local Marks & Spencer food store.

Finally, Good Friday is almost upon us (yes, I know I have jumped the gun just a little) and we can eat them at their proper time.

If you fancing making a batch of your own, they are easy-peasy if you are familiar with the basics of yeast cookery (especially if you have a Kenwood or Kitchenaid electric mixer). Here’s my favourite recipe from Margaret Costa’s “Four Seasons Cookery Book”. As ever, I’ve tinkered with recipe just a little substituting half the white flour for wholemeal so you can kid yourself they’re good for you. Also I’ve added my favourite spice, cardamom, to her suggested nutmeg and cinnamon mix.

You unlikely to find cardamom in a shop-bought hot cross bun as it’s too pricy for the mass-market so you really will taste the difference (haven’t I heard that phrase somewhere before…).

Surprisingly, you can find the fresh yeast specified in the recipe at your local Sainsbury’s bakery counter. You may be able to find it at other supermarket in-store bakery counters too – Sainsbury’s just happens to be convenient for me.

I think there’s something magical about the way fresh yeast turns rapidly from an unyielding beige lump of putty into liquid when it is mashed and stirred for a few moments with a teaspoon of sugar. And it might be my imagination, but the rise, flavour and crust of bread and buns made with fresh rather dried yeast always seems superior to the result you achieve with dried yeast.

Here’s the mise en place for the hot cross buns – it’s a matter of just minutes to assemble what you need. The yeast and flour sponge after 45 minutes’ proving can be seen in the wider and shallower of the 2 stainless steel bowls.

Here are the buns after final proving ready to go into the oven. I happened to have a little ball of leftover pastry lurking at the back of my fridge so the buns are adorned with dinky crosses. I usually simply mark the crosses with sharp knife which is much quicker.

The finished product is shown at the top of the post. The aroma of warm spice and orange peel currently wafting round the kitchen is irresistible…

Recipe for Hot Cross Buns

From Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book with some additions of my own.

1 lb (450g) plain flour ( I like to use half strong wholemeal and half ordinary white or vice versa half strong plain white and half ordinary wholemeal
1 oz (25g) fresh yeast
1/2 pint (300ml) milk-and-water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
seeds from 10 green cardamom pods pounded to as fine a dust as you can muster using a pestle and mortar
1 teaspoon salt
2 oz (55g) golden caster sugar
3 oz (85g) currants
1-2 oz (25-55g) chopped mixed candied peel
2 oz (55g) melted butter
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons water for glaze

Sift half the flour into a bowl. Blend the yeast into a liquid with a pinch of sugar and a little of the lukewarm (not more than blood heat otherwise you will kill the yeast) milk-and-water mixture. Pour the yeast mixture and remaining milk-and-water mixture into a well in half of the sifted flour and mix well. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave in a warmish place for about 45 minutes. The mixture will by then have become puffed-up and spongy.

Meanwhile sift the rest of the flour with the spices, salt and caster sugar. Stir in the currants and peel. When the first mixture has proved, add it to the flour then pour in the melted butter and egg. Mix thoroughly and knead until smooth. 5 minutes with the dough hook in your Kenwood mixer will make short shrift of this task. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to prove this time for about 1 hour. The mixture should approximately double in bulk.

Now turn the dough onto a floured board, knead it lightly and cut it carefully into 16 equal pieces. Shape each piece into rounds and place not too close together on a lightly greased baking sheet. Mark each bun with a cross using a sharp knife or alternatively criss-cross the buns with narrow strips of shortcrust pastry or, even better, marzipan.

Cover the baking trays lightly with clingfilm or a clean tea towel and leave to prove for a further 15 minutes until well-risen.

Bake in a hot oven 220 degrees C (425 degrees F; gas mark 7) for about 15 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. As soon as you take them out of the oven, brush them generously with a glaze made by boiling together in a small saucepan for a minute or so the sugar and water.

Cool on a wire rack and eat them, split and spread liberally with butter, as soon as you dare!

Valentine’s day dinner at home

February 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

The thought of going out to a restaurant next weekend to spend the evening eating overpriced indifferent food sitting amidst heart-shaped helium balloons, wilting red roses and pink napery fills me with dread.  Far better to put together a special meal for two at home instead.

Food for a Valentine’s day dinner should go easy on the garlic and other strong flavours.  It needs to be light and delicious and look pretty on the plate. It shouldn’t require too much last minute preparation as who wants to sit down next to a cook spattered with fat from flash-frying a steak?

What I plan to prepare for a main course is a koulibiac of salmon, the version given in Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons cookery book.  This has a delicious light crispy crust of yeast-raised dough rather than the more usual puff pastry.  This is not a quick dish as the dough needs to be started the day before you plan to eat the koulibiac. It is not difficult to prepare and the various elements can all be done well ahead of time.  Slip it into the oven as you sit down for your first course and it will be ready 20 minutes later.  With it, I would serve a bowl of sour cream to act as a simple sauce, some steamed spinach simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and perhaps one or two baby potatoes.

To start, I will prepare a carpaccio of beef, following the simple instructions (one can hardly call them a recipe) in Alastair Little’s book “Keep it Simple”. My local butcher sells beautiful beef from locally reared grass fed animals which is just right for this dish.  The truffle oil in the dressing is appropriate for Valentine’s Day  as truffles are known for their aphrodisiac qualities. A simple first course with lots of delicious savoury flavours to tempt the appetite.

For pudding, there are various options.  My favourite cheese of the moment is a buttery Ossau Iraty from the Basque country.  A wedge of this with a tiny perfect bunch of grapes and a glass of dessert wine would be one way to finish the meal.  Or perhaps slices of perfectly ripe mango mixed with passionfruit pulp, the whole brought to life by a spritz of lime juice.  Or maybe only a little something sweet will do.  I have a weakness for white chocolate, white Toblerone if I can get my hands on it, otherwise plain old Milky Bar buttons. I think I might whip up a white chocolate mousse using the recipe from Frances Bissell’s book Entertaining.  Served in dainty white ramekins together with a spoonful of sharp fruit compôte and a crisp biscuit, it should bring the meal to a stylish and satisfying conclusion.

Recipe for carpaccio of beef

From Alastair Little’s lovely book “Keep It Simple” published in 1993 but still fresh and relevant today.  A piece of beef the size specified in the recipe will serve 4-6 people so use what you need for dinner for two and eat the rest for lunch the next day.


1lb (450g) piece of beef fillet from the tail end

about 1/4 pint (150 ml) olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To finish the dish

Handful of rocket leaves
2 oz (50g) best quality parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons truffled olive oil
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Trim the beef into a neat shape if necessary.  Brush all over with olive oil. Preheat a ridged grill pan to very hot. Lay the fillet on the grilling pan and give it 60 seconds on each side, including the two cut ends (6 sides in all), turning it with tongs.  Immediately refresh by dipping the seared beef into iced water for a few seconds, then pat dry with paper towels.  Season all over with salt and pepper, wrap tightly in cling film, place on a plate and refrigerate for several hours.  In fact the beef can be kept for several days like this in the refrigerator.

When ready to eat, remove the meat from the fridge. Wash the rocket and spin it dry. Put it into a bowl, pour over the oil, vinegar and seasoning and toss to coat each leaf. Mound a pile of gleaming leaves onto each plate.

Carve the beef into thickish slices at an angle of 30 degrees.  Distribute on top of the rocket.  Using a vegetable peeler, shave generous curls of Parmesan cheese over the top.

Recipe for koulibiac of salmon

From the Four Seasons Cookery Book by Margaret Costa.  First published in 1970, another book that’s stood the test of time. A great source of inspiration for the occasional instances when you can’t think what to cook. Somewhat surprisingly, you can buy fresh yeast at your nearest in-store Sainsbury’s bakery, maybe other supermarkets too, but I haven’t yet needed to go further afield. The recipe makes 6-8 portions, but it’s a good-tempered dish so take what you need and eat the rest cold or warmed through the next day.

For the pastry

2 oz (55g) butter
8 oz (225g) plain flour
pinch of salt
3/4 oz (20g) fresh yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 small eggs
4 tablespoons (60 ml) lukewarm milk

For the filling

3 oz (85g) long grain rice
fish, vegetable or chicken stock
2oz (55g) butter
1 medium onion or two small shallots, thinly sliced
3oz (85 g) button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1lb (450g) salmon fillet
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
3 dessertspoons (30ml) freshly chopped parsley (or mixture of chopped soft fresh herbs such as basil, chervil and tarragon)

Melted butter; fine dry breadcrumbs

First make the pastry.  Cream the butter.  Sift the flour and salt into a warmed basin. Cream the yeast with the sugar and when it looks frothy, add the well beaten eggs and the lukewarm milk. Mix into the flour, adding more lukewarm milk as necessary to make a soft paste. Beat thoroughly with your hand and finally work the creamed butter into the mixture. Cover and leave in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes. Then leave the dough in a polythene bag in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, start by making the filling. Cover the rice with exactly twice its volume of cold stock. Let it come to the boil, cover and turn off the heat or remove to a cooler part of the stove. In 15-20 minutes, all the liquid should be absorbed and the rice cooked through, with the grains firm and separate.

Skin the salmon, wrap in foil and bake in a 180 degree C oven for 15 minutes or until just cooked through. Melt the butter and cook the onion or shallot in it until soft and transparent. Add the mushrooms and cook for a few minuted longer. Mix in the rice and stir in the coarsely flaked cooked salmon. Mix together thoroughly, then stir in the sliced hard-boiled eggs and the herbs. Season well.

Now divide the pastry in half and roll each piece into a rectangle 12 by 8 inches (30 by 20 cm).  Put one onto a greased baking sheet and cover it with the cooled filling to within an inch (2.5cm) of the sides. Dampen the edges. Take the second rectangle and place on top of the first.  Press the edges together then make crosswise slashes at 3/4 inch (2cm) intervals to make a lattice-work effect. Knock up the edges with the back of a knife and leave the koulibiac in a warm place for 1/2 hour to prove.

Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with fine dry breadcrumbs. Bake in a hot oven 230 degrees C, 450 degrees F, gas mark 8 for about 20 minutes. Pour a little melted butter into the koulibiac through the slits and let it cool just a little before serving.

Recipe for white chocolate mousse

From Entertaining by Frances Bissell.  A book filled with lovely ideas if only one had the time, and the lifestyle. After all, how often is one called upon to prepare a picnic to be eaten on an island reached from a small boat departing from Hong Kong harbour? Don’t attempt this recipe unless you have an electric whisk to deal with the heavy duty work of beating egg whites and hot sugar syrup together. This quantity is enough to fill 8 small ramekins so plenty left for a treat another day.


7oz (200g) white chocolate, either buttons or bar broken into pieces
1 oz (25g) golden caster sugar
2 fl oz (50ml) water
2 egg whites, beaten until the soft peak stage
7 fl oz whipping or double cream, softly whipped
optional: 1 teaspoon chocolate or vanilla extract or a little grated orange zest

Break the white chocolate into pieces (not necessary if you are using buttons), place in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of hot water to melt very gently.

Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan and boil until the firm ball stage (124 degrees C if you have a sugar thermometer). Pour the hot syrup in a thin stream over the beaten egg whites whilst simultaneously whisking furiously to incorporate the syrup before it sets.  Carry on whisking until the mixture is cold.

Incorporate a little of the whipped cream into the melted chocolate.  Blend the chocolate into the egg whites, then add the rest of the cream and your chosen flavouring if using.  Use a light touch and a large metal spoon being careful not to knock all the air out of the mixture. Spoon into ramekins immediately and chill until set.

Proper Puddings

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Last week’s Radio 4 Food Programme was devoted to one of my favourite things, British puddings.  The programme was a joy to listen to, almost as good as eating the puddings themselves.

I was pleased to hear Jane Grigson’s English Food quoted, and also to have my previous assertion about the origins of Sticky Toffee Pudding corroborated. You can read about it in  my post

Mary Norwak, author of “English Puddings Sweet and Savoury” was featured on the programme.  I’d heard of her books but never before heard her interviewed.  I’m afraid she was rather a disappointment.  She came across as rather distant and snooty and her comments on trifle made me quite angry. We all have our differing views as to what should go into a trifle, but surely this is a matter of personal preference.  As far as I’m concerned, if you like it, put it in. Mrs Norwak has no right to look down on anyone else simply because of what they like to put in their trifle.  I didn’t feel inclined to buy her book after listening to her.

Nevertheless, still inspired by the programme as a whole, I thought I would give the recipes for two of our favourite traditional puddings at home, Guards’ Pudding from Margaret Costa’s classic Four Seasons Cookbook, and Lemon Layer Pudding (which is sometimes also referred to as Lemon surprise Pudding or Delicious Pudding).  This particular version is from the Good Housekeeping cookery book – a comprehensive and reliable cook book let down by a terrible index – try finding apple crumble and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s listed idiosyncratically under F for fruit (but not under A for apple, C for crumble or even P for pudding).

The list of ingredients for Guards’ Pudding is unprepossessing – brown breadcrumbs, bicarb, jam, sugar, butter and egg (no flour).  As the pudding steams, a marvellous alchemy takes place and the end result is moist, light and delicious. I think it’s best served with proper custard. You can buy really good ready prepared egg custard now from Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose to name but three supermarkets.  This is a great help for the busy cook preparing Sunday dinner which is the preferred meal of the week for a pudding.

Culinary alchemy of a different kind results in the lemon layer pudding mixture separating into a light sponge and lemon sauce after being gently baked in a water bath.

Here’s the pudding fresh out of the oven luxuriating in its hot water bath:

And here is a picture showing the  pool of lemon sauce that magically appears during baking.  All it needs now is a spoonful of extra thick single cream to set off all  that lovely lemony sharpness.

Recipe for Guards’ Pudding

From The Four Seasons Cookery Book by Margaret Costa.  Serves 4.


4 oz (115g) butter
4 oz (115g) soft brown sugar
3 tablespoons (45 ml) raspberry or strawberry jam
4 oz (115g) fresh brown breadcrumbs (some crust left on is OK)
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
butter for pudding basin

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, and blend in the jam. At this point, the mixture will be a disgusting pink colour but don’t worry. Add the breadcrumbs, the beaten eggs and the bicarbonate of soda dissolved in a very little warm water. Mix well, turn into a buttered pudding basin and steam for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours. Set the basin in the lowest possible oven for a few minutes before turning out and then, if you can wait, let it stand a minute or two longer to firm it.

Recipe for Lemon Layer Pudding

This recipe comes from The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.  Serves 4.


grated rind and juice of 2 lemons
2 oz (50g) softened butter
4 oz (100g) golden caster sugar
2 eggs, separated
2 oz (5og) self raising flour
1/2 pint (300ml) milk

Grease a 2 pint (1.1 litre) capacity ovenproof dish.  A white porcelain soufflé dish looks clean and elegant if you have one. Cream together the lemon rind, butter and caster sugar until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolks one by one, then the flour, continuing to beat well to combine. Whisk the egg whites until stiff.  Fold a tablespoon or so of the whisked egg whites together with the lemon juice and a little of the milk into the mixture.  Continue in this way with the milk and egg white until it is all incorporated into the mix.  It will look like a cake mix which has gone badly wrong at this stage – runny and curdled.  Don’t worry, this is how it’s meant to look. Pour the mixture into the greased baking dish, then stand the dish in a shallow tin of cold water (a roasting tin is ideal) and bake in the oven at 180 degrees C (350 degrees F or gas mark 4) for about 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown, set and spongy.

If you have any traditional British pudding recipes you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you – please send me a reply.

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