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What does it take to make the best hot cross buns?

We tested three versions from three cookbooks, and combined them to create our ultimate recipe.

There's something inherently comforting about the smell of freshly baked hot cross buns. Perhaps it's the nostalgic scent of rising dough, the festive aroma of warm spices, or even the sweet perfume of orange and sugar bubbling away atop a kitchen stove for the glaze.
Straight from the oven or lightly toasted, these fruit-studded buns are a Good Friday breakfast ritual, one dating back more than 700 years. But which ingredients and methods produce the best bun? Does fresh or dried yeast work best? Caster or brown sugar? How sticky should the glaze be? We tested three recipes, then combined them to create our ultimate hot cross bun.
Elizabeth David: English Bread and Yeast Cookery
Elizabeth David has explored the history of the hot cross bun throughout her food literature. Her version calls for fresh yeast and strong baker's flour, with the addition of eggs, milk, light brown sugar and softened butter. The dough is flavoured with mixed spice and currants, rested for 2 hours, then rolled and proved again in bun tins (we used a muffin tin). David cuts the cross into the dough rather than making a paste, and uses a simple glaze of equal quantities milk and caster sugar.
The verdict:
The result is an old-school style of English bun with subtle spice levels, a golden outer crust and a light, yet slightly dry crumb.
Also contributing to the lack of moisture are the currants, which remain shrivelled as they weren't soaked before being added
to the dough. This is a fairly simple yet classic recipe.
Natalie Paull: Beatrix Bakes
The recipe in a new book from Melbourne baker Natalie Paull of Beatrix bakery stars orange: currants and sultanas are soaked in the juice of an orange, while the flesh from a second fruit is blended to a pulp and added to the dough, its zest flavouring the glaze. The dough also calls for plain flour, caster sugar, milk, "soft and squidgy" butter and fresh yeast (no eggs). And as an alternative to mixed spice, Paull shares a side recipe for a mix using ground whole spices.
The verdict:
Overall, these buns are dense and doughy, and although cooked through, have a raw consistency (we even tried a batch with an extra 15-minute cook time). However, the texture does improve slightly as they cool. The inclusion of a whole, puréed orange in the dough is an inspired idea, but may contribute to the bun's density. Highlights include the soaked fruits, which are extra plump, and the glaze – a standout, with the fragrant addition of vanilla and orange zest.
Nadine Ingram: Flour and Stone: Baked for Love, Life and Happiness
Ingram's dough uses softened butter, like the other recipes, with strong baker's flour, brown sugar, milk and 1 egg, and the choice of either fresh or dried yeast (we used dried). The spice blend consists of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. A fruit mixture of sultanas, currants and raisins are hydrated in boiling water, and there is the addition of candied orange peel, too. The buns are piped with a flour-oil paste flavoured with orange-blossom water and nutmeg, while the glaze is simple: caster sugar, water and orange zest.
The verdict:
It's a big call, but these are pretty close to being the perfect hot cross buns. The dough is consistent throughout, its soft, pillowy texture is studded with plump, juicy fruit and pieces of zesty peel.
An invigorating measure of spice contributes to the bun's traditional flavour, while a hint of orange zest in the glaze reinforces the citrus notes. The cross is fairly thin and light in colour, but Ingram mentions that you can make it thicker if you like. In addition, her recipe steps are uncomplicated and easy to follow. Hot cross buns Black-and-white bowl from Georgie Dolling. All other props stylist's own.
Words by Lisa Featherby, Georgie Meredith and Karlie Verkerk. Recipe by Lisa Featherby.

GT’s ultimate hot cross buns recipe

Makes 12 / prep time 20 mins / cook time 30 mins (plus soaking, proving, cooling)
This recipe combines everything we loved from the three tested recipes, plus a few GT tweaks. We started with Nadine Ingram's base, and from Natalie Paull's recipe, we borrowed the idea of soaking the dried fruit in orange juice and added a splash of Pedro Ximénez. For the best spice flavour, dry-roast whole spices and grind them yourself. The cross is slightly thicker than any we tested, and our glaze has the addition of vanilla.
Start this recipe one day ahead to soak the dried fruit.

Ingredients

  • 100 gm currants
  • 100 gm sultanas
  • Juice of one orange
  • 40 ml Pedro Ximénez
  • 50 gm candied orange peel, finely chopped
  • 200 ml milk
  • 3 tsp dried yeast
  • 470 gm strong baker's flour
  • 2½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¾ tsp ground allspice
  • ½ tsp ground cloves
  • 60 gm light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 60 gm softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
  • Finely grated zest of ½ orange
  • 1 tsp sunflower oil
Glaze
  • 150 gm (⅔ cup) caster sugar
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • Scraped seeds from ½ vanilla bean

Method

  • 1
    Combine currants and sultanas in a bowl with orange juice and Pedro Ximénez, then cover and soak overnight. Stir through candied peel and set aside.
  • 2
    Warm half the milk in a saucepan over low heat until just lukewarm, then combine with yeast in a bowl and stir to combine.
  • 3
    Place 420gm flour, combined spices (reserve 1/4 tsp spice mixture), sugar, egg, yeast mixture, remaining milk and ¾ tsp salt in an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix
    on low speed until combined (5 minutes). Add butter, zest and oil and mix until combined. Drain soaked fruit (reserve liquid). Stir fruit through dough just until incorporated. Place dough in a bowl lightly greased with butter. Cover and set aside to prove until dough has doubled in size (2 hours).
  • 4
    Line a baking tray with baking paper. Knock back dough, divide into 12 pieces, then roll each into a smooth ball, dusting with a little flour if needed to prevent dough sticking (do not add too much as dough will become tough). Place buns on tray in even rows, leaving a 2cm gap. Set aside to prove until doubled in size (30-40 minutes).
  • 5
    Preheat oven to 180°C. Combine remaining flour and reserved spice mixture in a small bowl with 40ml water and mix to a paste. Transfer paste to a piping bag, snip the end and pipe crosses over buns. Bake until golden and cooked
    through (25-30 minutes).
  • 6
    For glaze, combine ingredients and 1-2 tbsp reserved fruit liquid in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves and a syrup forms (2-3 minutes). While buns are hot, brush syrup over liberally, then set aside to cool slightly. Serve hot cross buns warm or at room temperature.