Easter is possibly one of my favourite times of year. It’s about family, relaxing and a four-day weekend after getting through a usually dark and depressing winter. It’s the promise of spring, warmth in the air and the smell of daffodils and herbs.
I’ve recently returned from Spain where they DO Easter in a big way, burning effigies and the like. There, the air is thick with orange blossom and rosemary flowers. Lewisham Easters are more about Magnolia trees and the budding of trees, and the Big Top coming to Blackheath. Which isn’t quite as exotic but is a homely and comforting reminder of childhood. It brings to mind being a little kid again, eating sweet toasted buns until you threaten to explode and picking marzipan off the Simnel Cake, because fruit cake is gross when you’re a child but marzipan is the BOMB.
With this in mind, I set to making it a little more Eastery in the Lewishambles kitchen, using a spare evening to play with a few recipes I’d been toying with for a while. I came up with a hot-cross-simnel bun hybrid, marrying the light yummy texture of a good hot cross bun with the yumminess of marzipan.
Makes 12 large buns. Adapted from The Pocket Bakery Cookbook by Rose Prince. Which honestly I’m trying to love but finding tricky, because I find the whole “my children started a profitable bakery using ONLY my network of professional food writers and chefs!” riches-to-riches story a bit sickening. Sorry.
500g strong white flour
90g unsalted butter, cut into chunks
5g fine salt
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
a good fresh grating of nutmeg, about 1/2 tsp worth
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange
100g sultanas (I used posh Marks and Spencer mixed raisins which were very nice!)
Optional – 2 tbsp chopped mixed peel
1/2 pint whole milk, warmed to lukewarm
15g easy-blend yeast (yes, it seems like rather a lot but it totally worked so go with it)
60g caster sugar
About 100g golden marzipan
To ice: 5 tbsp icing sugar, enough water to mix
To mix, weigh out the flour in a large mixing bowl and stir in the salt. Take the butter and rub it in quickly and confidently. My friend the Jeweller once told me that when you rub in butter, you should use your fingertips as much as possible and only get flour up to your second knuckles. This seems ambitious but hey, it seems to work. The trick is to make the flour mix seem sandy and lovely-looking rather than lumpy. Here’s a nifty video I found which explains it nicely:
When that’s done, mix in your spices, sultanas and zest. If you’re using mixed peel, pop that in as well. The recipe said that you should choose between mixed peel and zest. To which I say PSHAW MADAM HAVE YOU NOT MET ME?! (Rose Prince has not met me, but I reckon we’d not see eye to eye on this matter).
Take your milk, warm it up (because honestly warming it before you do the other stuff is a waste of time since it will go cold again), then add the yeast. The recipe said “stir to dissolve” which makes me suspect the author has never actually used dried yeast, because it will simply float to the top of your milk and start clumping as it activates. That’s what it does – don’t panic. Stir in the sugar and the egg, stir vigorously to combine then pour the lot into your dry mix. Stir with a blunt knife to combine if you don’t want your hands to get yucky.*
This is the bit where you knead and honestly it’s a bit magic. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface (no need for flour here). It will be sticky and gross and you’ll be all OH HELL NO SISTER. It will probably need scraping out of the bowl and everything. Kneading it will be gross and sticky and you’ll think all is lost – but persevere! After about 3 minutes it will suddenly go silky and lovely and way less sticky. Let it sit for a minute or two and then knead for another 3 minutes until elastic and bouncy. This is the sort of moment when it’s really useful to put on a Beach Boys record, the songs are all about 3 minutes so you can time yourself really well.
Put the lot into a bowl, cover with cling and pop in a warm place until doubled in size – this will take about 1-2 hours. Sorry to be so vague, but it totally depends on how warm your house is. While this is happening, you can take the marzipan and roll it into 12 little balls about the size of walnuts.
After the dough has ballooned, punch it back and roll into a sausage, before cutting into about 12 equal pieces. They’ll have a gorgeous silky elastic texture and will feel very light and airy already. Roll each one into a ball, tucking a marzipan ball into the centre of each before popping on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Make sure the marzipan is completely enveloped by the dough or it will leak out! It doesn’t matter if the buns look a bit crowded on the tray, it’s nice to have them “kiss” to they can be torn apart later.
Let the buns rise for another 40 min or so in a warm place, until risen and about double the size again. About 20 minutes before they’re ready to go, set the oven temperature to 200C. Put the buns in for about 15 minutes until they’re a lovely even golden brown. You may need to turn the tray once if they’re not browning evenly. The kitchen, incidentally, will smell HEAVENLY. Which is appropriate at Easter, no?
When they’re ready, take them out and let them cool for 5 minutes on the tray (to prevent any escaping marzipan from making a break for it) before moving to a rack to cool further. I would totally advocate testing one while warm as the marzipan is still spreadable at this stage.
The interior will be light, fluffy and cloud-like, studded with plump raisins and with a blob of delectable gold marzipan in the centre like a yolk. You can leave them unadorned or, optionally, ice with a little water icing to create an easter cross.**
Lovely split and toasted under the grill with butter.
*I can’t tell you why I find the act of kneading dough so nice but mixing the dough so gross. The mess quotient is about the same, I think it’s because in mixing the dough you get a load of dry flour and wet mix on your hands which is nasty, but at least a sticky dough has a consistent texture. Any further ideas as to why I’m so weird about this in the comments please.
**I find the traditional flour-and-water paste cross disgusting and fiddly, and marzipan burns too easily. The original recipe suggested strips of sweet pastry which is just the sort of stupid suggestion a West London yummy mummy with a bunch of sweet pastry lying around going spare would suggest, but anyone who wants me to make a batch of pastry specially to decorate buns is a lunatic. And in any event, who doesn’t love icing on their buns?