Reader, I will be frank with you: in many ways, this bread is the antithesis of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books that littered libraries when I was a child. But please don’t let that stop you.
For the uninitiated, these were books – inevitably ghost stories or quest books (the format never really suited Noel Streatfield or Dick King-Smith) – that would force you at the end of the page or chapter to nail your colours to the mast and follow a particular path, offering you two plot choices, and two associated page numbers. It made you implicit in the plot, in the conclusion. Inexplicably, these books were achingly cool. I had very bad instinct with these books; within three plot choices I was dead, the treasure was lost, the story ended prematurely. My choices failed me.
The slightly tortured conceit is this: with this loaf, you make choices as you go; nothing really needs to be decided in advance, but each choice has an impact on the final bread, and informs how you progress. That said, all routes lead to happy endings, in that, well, all choices still result in a pretty recognisable fruit bread. I will grant you, the choices you have to make are pretty low-risk, low-octane, and focus more on dried fruits than, say, escape or nightmares, but I would wager your odds of satisfaction are greater. The bread is named in the books’ honour because its versatility means that you can choose what you end up with, how long it takes, and how much effort you put in.
The idea behind the loaves is that they make your life easy, so easy that even as the long weekend approaches, you will feel equal to baking sweet bread, you can relish it, own it. You are the master of this bread. By the time you produce these little loaves (or a larger, single loaf, turn to page 93) , you will feel slightly embarrassed because the fantastic result is simply not justified by the minimal effort.
This loaf fits to the way you want to make it. Want to whip one up in three hours? Easy. Don’t want to be stuck in the house waiting on bread proving? Not a problem. Have leftover cranberries in the cupboard? Bung them in.
This loaf is not saccharine: it takes its sweetness from the dried fruit and apricot glaze. It has less sugar than normal hot cross buns, and is only slightly enriched by the milk, butter and egg. It is, in essence, a spiced bread, a grown up bread, with pockets of sweetness from the sultanas and cranberries. It forms a perfectly proper breakfast, and can stand up to being spread with jam or even honey. It is robust, and slices beautifully. I particularly like it with salted honey butter.
I am confident that, post-Easter, this bread will become a staple feature of our breakfast repertoire, although possibly foregoing the rather pretty flourpaste decoration.
It goes like this:
Hot Cross Bun Loaf
Makes: 2 miniature loaves or 1 large loaf
Takes: 3-15 hours (including proving time)
Bakes: 30 minutes
For the dough:
250g strong white flour
25g caster sugar
7g fast acting yeast*
130 ml full fat milk
25g unsalted butter
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
Zest (grated) 1/2 an orange
25g dried cranberries
For the Cross:
25g plain flour
1.5 tbsp water
For the glaze:
1 tbsp apricot jam
1. Get your dry ingredients into a bowl: the flour, the sugar, the salt and the yeast.* Rub together to evenly distribute. Add the milk and egg and mix with a wooden spoon until it comes together. Now get your hand stuck in and mop up the remaining flour in the bowl with the dough: you should now have a sticky and slightly rough but coherent dough. Cover the bowl with cling film or a tea towel and leave for 40 minutes.
CHOICE 1: What do you have in your cupboards? Scratch that, what do you like? I have loads of dried peel in my cupboards, mainly because I don’t like it, and try to avoid using it. I also don’t like raisins, as I think they’re a slightly bitter, miserable, gritty version of sultanas. But I love sultanas. And cranberries. So that’s what I chuck in. A small handful of each. Don’t like cinnamon? Leave it out. Love pecans? Chop them and put them in. Want apricots? Go wild!
2. Uncover the dough: it will have increased in size. Cube the butter and rub it into the dough until incorporated. Add your choice of zest, dried fruit, any nuts and spices and fold these into the dough. Your dough is ready when the colour is uniform.
3. Cover the bowl again and leave it for another hour to an hour and a half. The dough will have increased in size again.
CHOICE 2: Do you have a large family? Do they rush into your beautiful kitchen with an island that I covet, grab a slice of [hot cross bun] bread, kiss you on your sweet-smelling cheek and rush out again? If so, make one loaf. If you live with someone who claims to love your baking but Has Been Known to choose an ORANGE over a slice of fruit toast, make two little loaves, and have one later in the week.
4. Flour a board or your worktop and turn the proved dough out onto it. If you’re making two little loaves divide the dough into two equal amounts; if you’re making one, don’t.
5. Taking a quantity of dough, stretch out the dough and fold the two stretched ends back into the middle. Turn the dough a quarter-turn and do the same thing again. Repeat twice more. Now fold the top third and the bottom thirds of your dough down onto the middle, as if you were folding a business letter.**
6. Turn the dough over, smooth down the ends with cupped palms, and gently drop into your loaf tin.
CHOICE 3: Are you in a rush? Do you need a hot cross bun loaf urgently? Is your fridge so packed with easter eggs that the possibility of placing some loaf tins in there is ludicrous? If so: cover and leave the dough for an hour on a worktop, have a cup of tea, watch an episode of Dinner Date, then return.
Do you have somewhere terribly important to be? Are you exhausted by the stages that have gone before? Are you in fact appearing on Dinner Date, and the cab is at the door? If so, cover the loaf tin(s) loosely with clingfilm and place in the fridge. Forget about it. Go and dance on tables, or order pizza and hide in bed. It doesn’t matter. In any event, leave it in the fridge for twelve hours.
7. 20 minutes before you want to bake your loaves, pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
8. Now make your flourpaste for the cross: in a mug or small bowl, add the water to the flour and mix into a paste about the thickness of ketchup. Pour it into a piping bag; give it a squidge to remove air bubbles, and then twist it tightly at the point where the paste reaches.
9. Take your proved loaves and place them somewhere flat, where it doesn’t matter if you get a little bit of flour paste in the general vicinity. Holding the piping bag so the tip is skywards, cut off the end at about the width of your little finger nail. Now, starting from beyond the edge of the loaf tin, about an inch above the dough, boldly, and without quandry or compunction, turn your piping bag the right way round and drag it down the length of your loaf tin. Do the same for the width. If you’re making multiple loaves, repeat.
10. Bake for 30 minutes, keeping an eye on the loaf, turning it round if, like me, you have a criminally uneven and unreliable oven, and possibly putting it on a lower shelf, if necessary.
11. Whilst still warm, but not so hot that you’ll remove your own fingerprints, carefully remove the loaves from their tins. Heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan, and when it is runny, sieve it into a small dish, and paint it liberally onto the top of your loaf.
12. TA DAH!
Congratulations: you have unlocked the secret and the treasure is your to keep! You win this adventure! [Your treasure is the bread].
*Quick action yeast can be added directly to the mixture; If you’re not using this, you need to dissolve it in tepid water, four times the quantity of the yeast. Leave it for a minute to bubble slightly, before you add it to your bowl of dry ingredients.
**This sounds terribly complicated, but really, your aim is to a) tighten the dough, hence the folds, and b) make it loaf-shaped. If you’ve folded the dough in on itself, and your end loaf is basically oblong, you’re doing well. Remember: it will rise again, which will smooth your dough and mean that it fills the corners of your tin. The headline is: don’t panic, and trust the yeast (and me).
Icing on the Cake: We eat these greedily with disregard for the patience and craft that has gone into them. Whilst they are delightful eaten as intended, they are fantastic sliced, with a thin custard poured over them and baked, to turn them into crunchy, squidgy, spicy hot cross bun bread and butter pudding