Sourdough Hot Cross Buns

Confession: I’ve never had a “real” hot cross bun. The only hot cross buns I grew up with were the ones mentioned in the children’s song. My husband, on the other hand, has bad memories of overly-spiced, dense hot cross buns riddled with candied peel and wasn’t very enthusiastic when I mentioned I wanted to make some. Mission: make a sourdough hot cross bun my husband would eat happily, not just because he’s married to an experimental baker.

I started out trying to stay true to the idea of a traditional HCB: spiced dough with a hint of citrus (but no peel, please and thank you). I soaked dried figs and raisins in warmed orange juice and added some orange zest and my two favorite spices: cinnamon and cardamom. Personally I loved this combo — for my tastes, this was the perfect amount of spice and touch of citrus. However, DH is more of a raisins-only kind of guy; so I’ve included adjustments if you / your family prefers less spice in their bun. Of course, feel free to play around with your own favorite mix-ins. I think cranberries or dried sour cherries would be lovely, as would some toasted walnuts or pecans!

The base recipe for these buns is my trusty sourdough Hokkaido milk bread dough. When mixed properly, this dough produces beautifully fluffy, soft bread and is mild enough to adapt to many flavor combinations. I’ve been experimenting a tad with this recipe, and here are a few tips for handling this versatile dough:

  • When using a stiff starter you have some leeway in when you can use it (the peak/ripe stage is longer than with a liquid levain), but when making a sweet bread I like to use it as soon as it has reached peak and has just started to flatten (for me this is about 5-6 hours). I find there is no discernible sourdough tang in the final product, provided the seed starter is fresh. I’ve used the starter 10-12 hours after making and it’s still fine, but I do notice more of a tang.
  • In the past I’ve mixed this dough by hand, but recently I’ve had the use of the stand mixer and have been testing it out with this dough. Bottom line: it’s much faster and neater to mix this in a stand mixer (I’ve included some approximate timings below). However, it’s definitely helpful to know how to mix enriched doughs like this by hand, and it can teach you a lot about dough development. (It’s also oddly therapeutic.) So if you don’t have a stand mixer, don’t let it stop you — try it by hand!
  • The final proof time is long, no getting around it. Typically it takes me a minimum of 5 hours, more often 6+, at normal room temperature. Don’t rush this step or your bread will not be as fluffy as it could be, trust me! (Honestly I don’t think I’ve ever over-proofed this dough…) However, the long final proof actually works out pretty well for shaping before bed and baking off fresh buns in the morning — just put your shaped buns in a cooler area of your house if you’re going to be leaving them for more than 6 hours.

If you want to make these to bake off Easter (or any other) morning, I recommend the following schedule:

Day One:

  • 7:00am: Mix stiff starter
  • 1:00pm: Start mixing final dough
  • 4:30pm: Put dough in fridge to finish bulk proofing
  • 10:30pm: Remove dough from fridge, shape, give first coat of egg wash; proof at room temperature overnight

Day Two:

  • 6:30am: Preheat oven, make topping
  • 7:00am: Egg wash buns again, pipe topping, bake
  • 7:05am: Watch 24 hours of work get devoured in 2 minutes

Sourdough Hot Cross Buns

Makes 12

Levain

  • 18g starter (100% hydration)
  • 31g milk
  • 57g bread flour
  • Mix and ferment at room temperature for about 6 hours, or until puffed and with a slightly flattened dome. You should see large bubbles if you pull back the top. When using a stiff starter you have a bit more leeway in when you can use it (the peak stage is longer than with a liquid levain), but when making a sweet bread I like to use it as soon as it has reached peak and has just started to flatten. I find there is no discernible sourdough tang in the final product, provided the seed starter is fresh.

Final dough

  • All of the starter
  • 284g bread/AP flour
  • 46g sugar
  • 52g butter, room temperature
  • 21g milk powder
  • 53g egg (about 1 large), room temperature
  • 7g salt
  • 104g milk, room temperature
  • 88g cream, room temperature
  • 90g raisins and/or figs, soaked for at least one hour in the juice of one orange OR hot water + 1 tsp vanilla, drained, and patted dry
  • Zest of one orange (optional)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom (optional, preferably freshly ground) or freshly grated nutmeg

Topping

  • 53g cake flour
  • 60g butter, room temperature
  • 30 gm caster sugar
  • 1 egg, whisked with a splash of milk
  • Simple syrup or warm honey, for glazing

Method:

  1. Mix together all final dough ingredients except the salt, butter, fruit, zest, and spices until just combined. Cover and autolyse (rest) for 60 minutes.
  2. Add salt, and knead dough until gluten is moderately developed (3-5 minutes on speed 3 in a stand mixer). The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Add butter a tablespoon at a time, making sure each tablespoon is incorporated before adding the next. Continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test as demonstrated here. The dough should be smooth and supple (and quite lovely to handle!). This will take quite some time, especially if done by hand (it generally takes about 10-15 minutes at speed 3 in a stand mixer). Consider it your arm workout for the day!
  3. Gently fold in the dried fruit, zest (if using), and spices until just incorporated (I prefer to do this by hand, even if mixing the dough with a stand mixer).
  4. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover, and bulk rise at room temperature for 2 hours. The dough will be noticeably expanded, but not doubled. Fold, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 6 hours).
  5. Take the dough out and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Divide into 12 equal pieces (roughly 70g each) and rest for about 30 minutes, covered by lightly oiled plastic, to take off the chill.
  6. Shape into buns. You can form each piece into a tight round; or use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll each piece into an oval shape, roll up like a jelly roll, then roll along the seam and roll up again like a jelly roll (I prefer the latter method). Place formed buns on a parchment or Silpat-lined baking sheet about an inch apart. (It’s fine if they grow into each other slightly as this will make piping the crosses easier.) Brush the buns lightly with egg wash, then cover the pan with lightly oiled plastic and allow to rise at room temperature until puffed and about doubled in size (this usually takes 5-8 hours, depending on the temperature — see notes above).
  7. When the buns are almost done proofing, preheat the oven to 400F. Prepare the topping by mixing together the beating together the butter and sugar until well combined, then sifting in the cake flour and mixing until it forms a paste. Transfer to a piping bag or small Ziplock bag with the tip snipped off.
  8. Brush the top of each bun with a second coat of egg wash. Pipe crosses on the top of each bun (if they’ve grown into each other, just pipe long lines instead of individual crosses).
  9. Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway, or until nicely browned and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom. About 5 minutes before the buns are done, brush with a coat of simple syrup or warmed honey; then return to the oven until finished. Brush with a second coat of glaze once the buns are finished but still warm.

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