Hot cross buns

Freshly baked buns

An unexpected pleasure this year has been participating in the panel that’s judging the Guild of Food Writers “Cookery Writer of the Year” award. This particular award is not for cookbooks (my own book is entered for the cookbook award so I couldn’t really be on that panel!) but for articles published in newspapers and magazines during 2017. The five of us judges have each been given 5 recipe articles from 20 different writers, with a view to creating initially a shortlist and then a winner. It was a marathon of reading and thinking about 100 articles (perhaps 400 recipes in total) and their introductions. The breadth of people’s food imagination is remarkable, and I’m excited to have discovered several writers that I wasn’t familiar with – although probably should have been.

Since I’ve only just submitted my shortlist, and the awards ceremony is not until June, I can’t say anything about individual entrants. But the whole process has set off a wave of new recipe cooking at home – including delving again into some books that have been resting on our shelves. On Monday Sarah made a delicious Nigel Slater combination from his Kitchen Diaries vol 3– duck legs slow cooked with port and prunes, plus red cabbage with bacon. I was doubtful about the red cabbage and bacon but wrongly so. The salty cabbaginess made a memorably delicious plateful when eaten alongside the duck and prunes.

Meanwhile, with Easter (and therefore Good Friday) fast approaching, my eye had been caught by a hot cross bun recipe in one of the articles submitted for the GFW awards. I made a first version last week and have tinkered with it in a minor way this week to create the buns pictured here. I think they’re lovely – the diced apple and the spiced glaze giving the deliciously soft dough an extra lift. Taking these buns out of the oven I had to suppress once again my dream of having a little bakery. ’Remember the ridiculously early mornings, Bill, as well as the tricky economics’ I tell myself for the umpteenth time.

‘Mixed spice’ is classic British pudding spice mix which will vary from brand to brand but which generally features cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. I find the combination strangely alluring.

makes 16 buns

This dough is more easily kneaded in a mixer than by hand as it’s rather slack and sticky. As it’s an enriched dough it takes a lot longer to rise than normal bread dough.

340ml milk
50g butter

500g strong white flour
75g caster sugar
7g pckt yeast
5g salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

75g sultanas/raisins
50g mixed peel
1 eating apple, diced 0.5cm
1 tsp mixed spice

For the cross:

75g plain flour and enough water to make a paste like toothpaste

For the glaze

50g sugar
50g water
½ tsp mixed spice

  1. Heat milk to steaming. Add butter and allow to melt. Allow mixture to cool.
  2. In a large mixing bowl (ideally of a Kenwood Chef type mixer) add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Mix together roughly, then mix in the egg and knead for a couple of minutes (or 5 minutes if kneading by hand).
  3. Mix in the raisins, peel, apple and mixed spice and knead again until everything is evenly distributed. Cover with clingfilm and leave for 1½ to 3 hours (depending on the room and dough temperatures) until at least doubled in size.
  4. Line 2 baking sheets each measuring about 26cm x 32cm (or 1 larger one if you’ve got a big oven) with baking parchment. Divide the dough into 16 and arrange evenly on the baking sheets. Don’t attempt to shape the buns as they’re too sticky for this and, in any event, they settle to a nice shape as they rise.
  5. Allow to rise in a warm place until really puffy (1-3 hours depending on room temperature). Pipe on the crosses with the flour paste using a piping bag. If you make a mess (as I usually do) that goes to show that these are home-made buns and none of that shop-bought nonsense.
  6. Bake at 180C (fan) for 20-25 minutes until slightly browned and hollow-sounding when tapped underneath. Remove from the oven.
  7. Put the glaze ingredients in a small pan and heat to boiling point, stirring sufficiently to mix the sugar in to the water. Brush the glaze generously on to the buns whilst they’re still warm.

Bread part 2 – Bill’s brown bread

Freshly baked loaves at All Saints

Freshly baked loaves at All Saints

I love the way that recipes change and adapt and the change and adaptation is always part of a story. When we first started making brown bread at The Place Below we used a recipe from the lovely Ian Burleigh. I had worked in his and his partner Nick’s restaurant in Ashtead in Surrey and he subsequently became restaurant manager at The Place Below and would cycle 15 or 20 miles to be in the City at 5am making bread. I think he came up with the combination of white and brown flour with mixed seeds because we ran out of granary flour one day. In any event we stuck with his formulation for over 20 years. It’s in my cookbooks and we’ve made it in London, Hereford, Cambridge and St Davids an unimagineable number of times.

So with such a venerable history it took me a while to realise that I had stopped eating so much of it and also that when I made it at home I had started to change my own recipe. It was time for a new incarnation of Bill’s Bread. I experimented with lots of different versions and eventually found a new recipe that I was happy with – more wholemeal flour, wetter and with a completely new method. Then one day at All Saints (after we’d started using the new recipe) the bread tasted even better and it turned out that Michelle (one of our team of chefs) had made a mistake with the quantities and had added extra water and this made the loaf even better. So we now systematically make the same mistake every day and it’s incorporated in the quantities below.

The basic flavours are the same as the old recipe but there are a number of small changes. The result is a bread which is denser, nuttier, moister, has a better structure and crust and keeps better. It’s simply more delicious. Last night as I sat in the car waiting to take my daughter home from Hereford,  I started ripping the crust off a small loaf unable to stop myself eating more and more. Try it and see what you think. I hope you’ll love it as much as I do.

The method is slightly odd and comes, like much good stuff about bread, from Dan Leppard’s ‘Handmade Loaf’. The theory is that the bran in wholemeal flour is sharp and cuts through the gluten of the dough if you knead it too much. So most of the forming of the bread’s structure is done by letting it sit between rather brief sessions of kneading.

We use a bit of natural leaven (sourdough starter – see previous blog post) to add depth of flavour but it’s not essential and you can substitute the same weight 50/50 amount of flour/water if you don’t have any leaven on the go. Also, these instructions are for using a Kenwood Chef or Kitchen Aid type mixer (because that’s what I usually do), but it can equally well be mixed and kneaded by hand.

For 2 large loaves or 4 small, using traditional 2lb or 1lb loaf tins

950g wholemeal flour
200g strong white flour
50g sunflower seeds
50g sesame seeds
25g salt
15g instant yeast

850g water
100g orange juice
200g leaven (sourdough starter)

extra sesame seeds for sprinkling on top

1.  Put all the ingredients (wet ingredients first) into a mixer and mix with the dough hook for about 3 minutes at a low speed until the ingredients are all combined. You should do no kneading at this point.

  • Leave for 5 minutes then knead for 10 seconds only on low speed.
  • Leave for another 5 minutes then knead for 10 seconds only on low speed.
  • Leave for a third lot of 5 minutes then knead for 10 seconds only on low speed.
  • Leave for 10 minutes then it’s ready to go into the tins.

2. Tip the dough onto a work surface and divide into the correct number of pieces of dough (1.2kg for large loaves, 600g for small ones).

3. the dough so that all the creases are on the underside and then put into oiled tins. The dough should be an even sausage when you put it into the tins, if anything slightly thicker at the ends than in the middle to make a loaf that ends up as even as possible rather than domed in the middle (which would mean that some people get bigger slices than others).

4. Slash the bread with 3 diagonal slashes, brush lightly with water and then sprinkle with some extra sesame seeds. Then leave to prove on the warm shelf until at least 2cm above the height of the tins.

crust and crumb

crust and crumb

5. Bake in a very hot oven for 10 minutes (our beautiful Rational combi oven goes to 250C but 220C will work nearly as well) and then 180C for for a further 30 minutes. For small loaves, take them out 10 minutes earlier.

6. Leave the loaves to cool on wire trays.

Bread part 1 – sourdough

sourdough 009This is a long post, so pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine and read it when you’re in a relaxed frame of mind.

I love good bread. If I had to live mostly on perfect freshly baked bread and butter I wouldn’t be too sad. (Plus maybe some ripe tomatoes and pears, and some parmesan and Tudge’s smoked bacon as well) And baking has always been at the centre of what we do in my cafes. Every working day since 1989 we’ve made our own bread for sandwiches, for toast and for eating with soups and salads. Not only that but I know that our original ‘Place Below’ bread recipe has been adopted and adapted by customers, friends and family far and wide.

Since we opened, however, the standard and availability of craft baking has improved immeasurably and certainly I’ve become more picky about what I’m looking for in bread. So it was with both excitement and a little trepidation that I decided that it was time to develop and improve our bread. And we’ve now started selling our new breads to take home – already in Hereford and I hope before too long in Cambridge.

We now make a delicious organic white sourdough and at the same time we’ve improved the recipe for our brown bread. And we to continue to make our original Italian-style olive oil rolls and baps. I’ll come to our new brown bread recipe in a future post, but here’s a gentle introduction to the beautiful world of sourdough.


As all visitors to our house over the last year or so will know, I’ve been obsessing about sourdough for some time. I’ve found it’s taken a bit of time to become familiar with the processes involved so whilst there’s no single bit of it which is difficult you’re likely to find that your 10th batch is better than your first. Don’t be impatient – it’s really worth getting it right.

In addition to many conversations with other bakers (thank you to Dean at All Saints, Annabelle Mottram, Damien Lorentzen and Peter Cook amongst others) the book that I and many other sourdough novices have found helpful and clear is Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. Unsurprisingly it’s also a subject that has generated a vast number of discussion groups and blogs on the web, many of which are generous and helpful.

Nurturing your starter

Sourdough breads are made using a natural leaven in place of either fresh or dried yeast. A mixture of flour and water (and sometimes additional yeast-friendly things such as grapeskins) is left at room temperature where it attracts and becomes a feeding-ground for yeasts which naturally occur in the air everywhere. This mixture is then fed in a controlled way to promote the growth and activity of these natural yeasts until you have a fully developed and lively starter.

However, rather than start from scratch I did what I would recommend any sourdough novice does, and got some already fully developed starter from a friend. Mine came from Annabelle Mottram and she got it in turn from her son-in-law Damien Lorentzen of the short-lived but stunningly good Lorentzen’s bakery in Hereford. It’s a descendent of this starter which we’re now using at Café @ All Saints in Hereford and which I’ll be bringing over to Cambridge before long.

(If any Herefordian readers of this want to get a bit of starter from us to start your own home sourdough going then just give us a day’s warning and we’ll give you a bit to get started with.)

So once you’ve got a bit of starter you need to feed it to keep it lively. If you’re making bread daily then it’s an easy and routine process as you simply feed your starter daily just after you’ve made your bread. If you’re just making an occasional or weekly batch then it’s slightly more complicated. The sourdough starter will keep happily for many weeks in the fridge but if it’s been in the fridge for a while then you want to give it 3 days of being fed daily at room temperature before making a loaf with it. A creamy bubbly look and a (to me) delicious yoghurty aroma are the signs of a lively starter that’s ready to use.

You only need a tiny bit of starter (50g is plenty) to get your own sourdough setup going but to keep it simple I’ll assume that you’ve been given 100g of starter. Although many sourdough recipes suggest feeding with equal weights of water and flour I’ve found that a slightly higher proportion of flour including a small amount of rye flour, improves the taste of the bread. Apparently the bacteria that produce acetic acid are happier in a slightly drier environment. Also you should aim to add at least four times the weight of ‘food’ to starter. So, starting with a lively present of 100g starter from a friend your starter-feeding and bread-making routine might look like this:

Day 1

Note: both liquids as well as solids are weighed rather than measured by volume – this makes life much easier especially if you’ve invested in a decent set up electronic scales.

100g starter
200g strong white flour
40g wholegrain fye flour
200g water at room temperature

Stir everything together and leave in container with a lid on for 24 hours at room temperature. This produces 540g of starter. All being well at the end of 24 hours you will have a creamy bubbly gunge.

Day 2

Remove 380g of starter for making 2 x 900g loaves (see below) and then proceed as for day 1

Your loaves will then prove overnight in the fridge and be ready for baking on day 3

Day 3

Bake the loaves which have proved overnight.

If you are baking daily you will then make the next batch of dough and once again feed the starter. Continue this process for the rest of your life donating excess bread and starter to friends and family at every opportunity.

Making the bread

sourdough 006I’m going to assume that you’ve got a Kenwood Chef, KitchenAid or similar type of mixer. It can also be done by hand, but I’m trying to keep things (relatively) simple.

Most professional craft bakers that make sourdough bread prove the loaves in special baskets (‘bannetons’) and then when the loaves are ready to bake transfer them direct to the oven floor. However, I’m a former accountant and I like my loaves orderly and loaf-shaped which is both easier and creates the correct shaped slices for sandwiches, sandwich boxes and toast. The other difference is that that if you bake directly on the oven floor you tend to get big bubbles in the dough where it ‘springs’ upwards on initial contact with the hot oven floor. You may like this effect or you may feel (as I usually do) that holes are simply things that let butter and jam go to waste.

makes 2 x 900g loaves

Use traditional 2lb loaf tins. Quite a lot of modern tins are designed for 1kg of dough – if you’re using one of these you’ll need to increase the quantities accordingly.

900g strong white flour
550g lukewarm water
380g starter
20g salt

  1. The afternoon before you want the bread baked (i.e. day 2 in the notes above), mix the flour and water together (but don’t knead) and leave for 20 mins to ‘autolyze’. This improves the texture of the final loaf – Google it if you’re interested in the science.
  2. Add the salt and knead briefly to roughly distribute it, then add the starter and mix again fairly briefly until fully incorporated.  The reason for adding the salt and starter separately is that salt kills the natural yeasts in the starter. Leave for 30 mins at room temperature and then knead on a slow speed for 5 minutes.
  3. Leave for one more hour at room temperature then knead on slow for another 5 minutes.
  4. Oil the tins. Weigh the dough out to the correct sized blobs. Shape the dough and put in the tins. It’s a very wet dough and it takes a while to get used to shaping it – I find a metal dough scraper a useful tool. Leave in tins in the fridge overnight to prove. By the morning the dough should be bulging promisingly above the top of the tins (but this will depend on the temperature of your kitchen and your fridge as well as the liveliness of your starter). If the loaves have not risen enough then take them out of the fridge and continue to prove for an hour or two until they have risen sufficiently.
  5. Bake at 220C for 40 mins until a deep golden brown on the outside and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom. If the crust looks too dark for your taste then bake for only 10 mins at 220C and then reduce to 200C for the a further 30 minutes.
  6. Try to be patient one last time and allow to cool before eating.

I think this creates a stunningly good loaf. A delicious flavour and a wonderful chewy texture. If you’re like me you’ll find that normal bread no longer quite cuts the mustard. A dangerous development, a bit like getting to like old claret, but not quite so expensive.