“Go to Fitzbillies when you arrive in Cambridge and try their Chelsea Buns. They’re amaaaaaaaazing…” I was reliably told by my friend’s dapper older brother with the floppy Hugh Grant-esque hair. As he was in his third year and looked like a man who recognised a good bun, off I traipsed with another friend to sample this quintessential English teatime treat.
Arriving at Fitzbillies that sunny Fresher’s week afternoon, and foregoing the more familiar Norwegian cinnamon bun on their menu I took a deep breath and ordered the squishy, sticky Chelsea bun with some trepidation. You see an alarming amount of dried currants were tumbling out of this bun’s gloopy crevices. Currants and me have history. We have beef. It was to my mother’s chagrin that as a child I picked currants out of anything sweet and bun like. Something about the currants’ slight bitterness offended my finickety sensibilities, though who knows, this was also the same phase when I wasn’t eating cooked fish but would happily accept smoked salmon any day of the week.
But back to the bun. Was it a Eureka! moment, a revelation of all that was holy and great and secretly wonderful about British baking? Not really. Rather than soothing me with its spiced sweetness, all I tasted were the damn currants. The bun literally left a bitter taste in my mouth and it was seven years before another Chelsea bun passed my lips. I muttered some expletive to my friend – who had wisely ordered the Norwegian cinnamon bun – and launched into a tirade about how the English didn’t understand flavour, they didn’t understand cooking, food, the pursuit of love, the meaning of happiness, how to live…god knows what else, I was off and left Fitzbillies frustrated. Why couldn’t the English bake a decent bun?
So when MsMarmitelover, she of the Underground Restaurant fame, suggested a London menu for this year’s London Restaurant Festival I figured it was time to learn to love the Chelsea Bun by baking them for MsMarmitelover’s tea n’ fags dessert.
For Saturday’s Pygmalion night I made these little Chelsea bunlets in MsMarmite’s marvelous Aga, adapting the recipe from a Leiths one. Instead of strong white flour I simply used refined spelt flour, upped the butter and sugar content of the filling (of course) and added a sprinkle of lemon zest and butter to a marmalade glaze inspired by Dan Lepard’s recipe for Marmalade Chelsea Buns rather than use Leiths’ suggestion of apricot jam.
The result? Everyone loved the buns, they were light, pillowy, delicately spiced and not too sweet. The secret of course to making currants more palatable is to soak them either in tea such as citrussy Lade Grey or if you’re feeling decadent, whisky or brandy. Not a trace of bitter currants in these babies!
What do you think of Chelsea Buns? Yea or Nay?
Chelsea Bun Ingredients:
- 340 ml whole milk, preferably organic
- 210 g unsalted butter
- 675g refined plain spelt flour
- 60g unrefined caster sugar
- 10g dried yeast (or 20g fresh)
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 2 medium eggs, beaten
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 80 g sultanas
- 80 g currants
- 1 large mug (250 ml or more) of strong Lady Grey Tea
- 150 g unsalted butter
- 100 g light brown muscovado sugar
- 1 tsp Halen Mon vanilla salt
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- Demerara sugar or natural sugar crystals (optional)
- 1 jar Marmalade (I used St.Dalfour on account of its high fruit content)
- zest of 1 lemon
- 40g butter
In a saucepan scold the milk and allow the butter to melt in the hot milk. Set aside to cool to below 50 C otherwise the heat will kill off your yeast.
In a large bowl sieve flour, sugar, dried yeast (if using fresh yeast add a spoonful of sugar to it in a small bowl before adding to the mixture just to check it’s alive), spices, salt and stir thoroughly to distribute all the ingredients.
Once the milk has cooled to below 50 C, add the beaten eggs (and fresh yeast if using), milk and stir for 5 minutes using a large metal spoon. You can knead it for 5 minutes on the table but it’s not absolutely essential with spelt flour I find, and sometimes a good thrashing with a large spoon does the trick, a good way to release any tension!
Cover the dough and set aside to rise for an hour or so. It should double in size. You can also just leave it in the fridge overnight to bubble and ferment for a slower maturation and slightly more complex flavour. Soak the currants and sultanas in tea (or whisky!) and cover for 1 hour or so or leave overnight.
Once the dough has doubled in size knock back by kneading for 1 minute or so. Using a rolling pin roll the dough out to 40 cm x 20cm for bunlets rather than big buns. They still end up being about 5cm in diameter so you’re not depriving anyone by making them this size, plus there’s a better yield from all this work!
Drain the fruit of excess liquid. In a separate bowl mix the filling ingredients, minus the soaked fruit. Spread in an even layer across the rectangular dough and then scatter the soaked fruit in another even layer over the filling. Now using a dough scraper or a palette knife gently roll the dough up like a swiss roll and make sure the seal is on the bottom before you start slicing the dough into buns.
Line one very large rectangular tin or two smaller 30 cm x 20cm tins with baking parchment. Using a sharp knife slice the buns into 1 inch discs. Place each bun into the baking tin, allowing a bit of space between each one (they will squish together while proving), once filled, cover the baking tin with cling film and set aside to prove for 30 mins or so until the buns have puffed and doubled in size. Touch one on its lower side, when you remove your finger it should leave an imprint on the dough. Preheat the oven to 220 C 10 minutes before the end of proving.
When the buns are proved, sprinkle with demerara sugar or sugar crystals and bake on the upper middle shelf of the oven:
Turn the heat down from 220 C to 190 C after 5 minutes of baking so they don’t scorch. Bake a further 20 or so minutes until the buns look golden brown and sound hollow when you tap them.
Remove from the oven and set aside while you warm the marmalade, butter and a splash of water in a small saucepan. If you want a tangier glaze add the juice of a lemon to the mixture. Using a pastry brush generously glaze the buns with your marmalade mixture and then use a microplane zester to add lemon zest on top. You can of course use orange zest or omit the zest altogether but I like the extra citrus note, lifts the buns to something more than the sum of their parts…
Eat with abandon while the buns are warm, and of course, serve with a steaming cup of strong tea.
If you fancy trying the Pygmalion menu, replete with London Sacred Gin, London Particular, Fish Pie and of course these Chelsea Buns MsMarmitelover is reprising her menu this Saturday October 16th. Click on the link I give for Pygmalion night above for more details on booking….