March 24th 2013 – Things fall apart

A couple of weeks ago I saw three hares running across a field just outside Hamme-Mille.  Apparently Oestre, the pagan Goddess of dawn, fertility and rebirth had a hare as her favourite companion thus vaulting the animal to sacred status.  We still have Easter and its bunnies but I can’t help feeling that something has been lost, become a bit tame and dumbed down.  The pagan Anglo-Saxons also offered the goddess coloured eggs at the Vernal Equinox.  Fortunately, the Christians couldn’t tie Easter down though and it wanders around the April calender following the moon, a constant reminder of our ancient roots.

This can, however cause problems with the weather, especially if Easter is ‘early’ (how dare it!).  I feel as if Spring has fallen apart as I sit in my conservatory watching ‘my’ blackbird eating the currants I have thrown out for him, searching through the snow which is deeper than he is tall.  I have plenty of currants spare at the moment as it’s the season for Hot Cross Buns and I have 5 dozen to make for Friday for some customers.  I’m not sure why I offered, I’d never made them before.

Chinua Achebe died this last week and I not for the only time this weekend have I been reminded of the title of his classic ‘Things fall apart’.  It started with the practice buns yesterday and has continued ever since. Perhaps I should have read the recipe more carefully.

I used Margaret Costa’s recipe, a cook who had a great influence on Delia and who wrote in the sixties and seventies, her recipes often appearing in the Sunday Times as well as in her wonderful ‘Four Season’s Cookery Book’ from where I based this recipe.  Follow her method not mine.

I had to change one thing though – I really don’t like mixed peel.  I love the yeasty, spicy taste of the buns with their sticky glazed exterior but peel just spoils it for me.  That’s what drove me to making my own.  After all, how difficult could it be?

In fact even as I write this, things are still falling apart.  The internet keeps going down.  This doesn’t surprise me as our provider is Voo (Brutele in disguise – you may remember how good they used to be if you have lived in Brussels for any length of time) and there is snow outside and that is enough to disturb my signal, apparently!  OK, rant over, at least I save drafts regularly now.  Actually, I write it in Word and upload when finished – I’ve learned my lesson.

Spicy Hot Cross Buns

Makes 15 – 18, depending how big you want them.

450g plain flour

25g fresh yeast, about half those blocks you can find easily in Belgian supermarkets

300ml milk/water mix, lukewarm

2 teaspoons of mixed spice.  We stock this so no problem here, but you might like to use a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg as Margaret does or go French and use their Quatre Epices

1 teaspoon of salt

2 teaspoons castor sugar (sucre de grain fine)

100g currants (I don’t like raisins, too dry and hard, yuk.  Why do mothers insist on making their kids eat them?  My kids hate them now and even view nice plump sultanas with suspicion.  You could use sultanas instead or a mixture.  For the buns, not for the kids).

50g melted butter.  Get this done early on.

1 egg, beaten

Some basic pastry made with flour and water. 

Sugar syrup, 2 tablespoons water and the same of sugar, heated until the sugar has dissolved.

Sift half the flour into a bowl (I did it all).  Blend the yeast with a pinch of sugar and a little of the milk-water (I put the yeast in a bowl, added all the milk-water and then the sugar.  It took a bit of time to get going…).  When frothy add the rest of the liquid.  Make a well in the sifted flour and pour it in.

Meanwhile, sift the spices, the rest of the flour and the salt together (this was problematic as I had used all the flour) and stir in the fruit and sugar.  By this time I had some sugar crusted spiced currants in the bottom of my bowl.  When the first mixture has nearly doubled in size, add this and pour on the butter and egg.  That’s if you had melted the butter in advance.

I’m sure this is quite easy and is the reason why the flour is used in two parts.  For me it took all my effort to force the crusty currents into the doughy mass.  At one time it seemed as I would never get them distributed evenly through the dough as they seemed to rebound from the elastic surface.  Adding the egg and the (finally) melted butter made the whole thing just slip arround the bowl.  I had to add some more flour and finally the dough became workable.  This could explain why the buns (when I finally baked them, 24 hours later) were a little dense.  Not very, but…

Anyway, you will knead until smooth (7-8 minutes) and leave to prove again.

I left mine to prove and then realised I was running out of time.  Marie-Rose had abandoned me to go to a really important meeting (her words) and I had to set up the market by myself.  This was going to take time and I realised that I couldn’t set it up and come home to finish the baking as she wasn’t there!  So I had to wrap the expanding dough in clingfilm and put it in the freezer.  The dough struggled with this and kept pushing through the clingfilm like some kind of culinary hernia but several sheets later I had finally trapped it.

You, however, will now pat the dough onto a floured surface and divide it into 16 ‘equal’ parts.  In fact they may be quite variable in size, at least mine are.  I always seem to end borrowing dough from some of the larger brutes and giving to the less endoughed.  Perhaps I should use repeated halving instead of guessing how much dough to take off each time.

Make your little dough strips.  I made a shallow cross-cut with a sharp knife in each. You will need to wet slightly the surface of the dough to encourage them to stick.  If not you will lose your temper as the strips insist that they are your best friends and refuse to part company with your fingers.


Pre-heat the oven to about 220°C.  Place the buns on a greased baking sheet and leave some space between them.  I did but there wasn’t much point as the yeast was stubborn after its night-long stay in the freezer.

Place your strips on the buns and bake for 15 minutes.  Take out and put on a wire rack to cool.  Brush with the sugar syrup.  Split in two, stuff with unsalted butter and eat, letting the butter dribble over your sticky fingers.  You can lick them as you go, but only if you are alone in kitchen at the time.


The buns were a little dense but they were good.  I’ll follow the recipe next time.  It’ll make for a calmer morning.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013,