For Easter, it seemed like a good idea to make hot cross buns using my 100% hydration white starter instead of yeast. My starting point was Elizabeth David’s version in English Bread and Yeast Cookery, because it is straightforward without too many additional ingredients.

The recipe calls for 500g of strong white flour raised by 30g of fresh yeast and incorporating 280g of milk. I decided to make 200g of 100% hydration leaven, which I built in two stages using water, not milk, because I have never tried feeding my starter with milk. So my final buns are probably not as soft as they would have been following the recipe “properly”. I also had to substitute raisins for currents.

Ingredients

200g lively leaven at 100% hydration
400g strong white flour
170g milk
60g soft brown sugar
60g butter melted in a little of the milk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each of allspice, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and nutmeg 
125g raisins
For the glaze, 30g milk and t tablespoons caster sugar

Method

Warm the butter in a little (25g) of the milk. Scrape the leaven into a larger bowl and add the milk. Break up the leaven somewhat and mix in the sugar, salt and spices. Stir up the butter in the warm milk and add that and the eggs, one at a time. Add the flour and stir until all the ingredients are mixed. Finally, add the raisins (or currants if you have them) and stir again to mix everything together. The dough will be soft and golden yellow, speckled with bits of spice. Cover with a damp tea towel and set aside somewhere warm to do it’s thing.

Spice mix

Spices mixed

After about four hours, my dough had puffed up a bit, but not quite enough. I transferred it to the oven with the electric light on and left it there for another four hours. By that time, it had more than doubled in volume. I can’t be precise about how long the bulk ferment ought to take; as ever, watch the dough, not the clock.

To prepare for making the buns, I did a very quick set of stretch and folds in the bowl then tipped the dough onto the counter. I scaled each bun at 65–70g; some recipes advise larger, about 90g. Shaping is a bit tricky. You just want to try and form them into a little ball by tucking under, like a miniature bread boule. Doing it on a floured surface and then pinching the bottom to seal worked for me.

Place the shaped buns fairly close together on a lined baking sheet and cover again with a damp tea towel to prove until noticeably puffed up. I returned mine to the oven with the electric light on for about an hour.

Shaped buns ready for final proof

Shaped buns ready for final proof

Preheat the oven to about 200°C (removing the buns first, if that’s where you put them to prove). At this point you could pipe a cross on top of the buns, but you’ll have to search for another recipe to do that. I just cut a cross in each bun, which wasn’t a huge success but was at least a gesture. Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20 minutes.

After 15 minutes, prepare the glaze. Boil the caster sugar in the milk until it is quite thick and syrupy. As soon as the buns come out of the oven, paint them with the glaze, giving each bun two coats. Elizabeth David says:

Provided that the dough was well matured and baked at the right moment, the crusts will be fine and soft and the glaze will not turn tacky or sticky but will form a fine shining mirror-like finish to the buns.

Open hot cross bun on a pretty floral plate

Opened and ready to eat; good just as they are.

Well, shiny they certainly were, but also tacky and sticky. I’m prepared to concede that perhaps the dough was imperfectly matured and baked at not quite the right moment. But they were absolutely delicious.

Hot cross bun buttered with plum jam

Gilding the lily with butter and plum jam, homemade in someone else’s home.

I was a bit worried that it might not work out, because the dough is pretty rich and might have been too much for the microbes. Given more time, I might have built the leaven with a slightly richer mix, maybe including some milk and even sugar in the feed, but as it was I needn’t have worried. As @litchfieldkitchen advised on Instagram, “have faith”. Which seems appropriate, even if I don’t have that sort of faith.

Save the Date: 9 June 2019

four students with their bread

Join me in a dream come true. Finally, I have access to a beautiful space and an oven large enough for me to be able to say, “Sure” to everyone who has ever asked me to teach them to bake bread.

While I have been able to offer private courses here in Rome and elsewhere, this is the first time I can make my courses public.

Reserve your place now

The day

hand resting on ball of doughThe first order of business is to make your dough. Step by step, I will guide you through the process, along the way explaining why we do what we do. If you have never made a loaf before you will be amazed at how a little effort transforms four simple ingredients into a living dough. And even if you are an experienced baker, there are bound to be new insights.

The secret of great bread

bread in a banneton There is no secret to great bread, apart from time.

We’ll talk about that, and while your bread quietly does its thing we’ll also talk about wheat, and flour and sourdough leavens. I’ll demonstrate some other techniques and make the bread we will eat for lunch.

About me

jeremy with "amusing" bread sign I’ve been baking bread on and off for the past 50 years. Some time before 1989 I made my first sourdough starter, and it has been with me ever since, travelling from Somerset in England to Italy. I’m also a biologist and so I have a good understanding of what is going on in the starter and in the bread.

In summer 2018 I made a series of 31 brief podcasts dealing with Our Daily Bread, from prehistoric breadcrumbs to tomorrow’s new wheats. I write about bread and baking on one of my websites.

Takeaway

You will leave with your own delicious loaf of handmade bread, plus:

  • a “Tuscan” sourdough starter that may or may not be more than 110 years old;
  • instructions on how to feed and care for your starter and how to use it to bake more bread;
  • an understanding of why I put “Tuscan” in scare quotes;
  • a few other recipes;
  • maybe some other treats.

And you will have a great day, with good food, in good company.

Small print

The day costs 120€, which includes lunch. All you need to do is turn up. Tickets are 60 € in advance, balance to be paid on the day. Cancel up to 72 hours before for a full refund. There will be gluten.

Next course, 23–24 June 2019

Two days in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, baking in a working watermill. Details

A couple of people with whom I have shared the recipe for black pepper rye have said that it is hard to turn the ingredients into a dough, despite the very clear tips in my write-up. So this week I thought, with 3.3kg of the dough to make, I would also make a video of how it comes together under my hands. I jury-rigged a support for the phone on the shelf about the counter, set the time-lapse video going and got to work. As I got stuck in, however, I forgot all about the camera, and of course my head kept getting in the way, so the resulting video is not quite as informative as I hoped it might be.

When I complained about this to a dear friend, customer for the bread and marketing expert, she pooh-pood my reluctance to expose my ineptitude and told me to share it anyway. “It makes you more human. You’ll get a load of followers.”

Well, I’m not really after a load more followers, but what the heck.

And the black pepper rye did turn out really well.

The problem was of my own making. A bit of bad planning meant both that we were due to run out of bread on Saturday and that my schedule for Saturday was very full. Certainly no time for any of my normal loaves. But a somewhat new approach saved the day with a stunningly good loaf on Sunday morning which, I swear, took me no more than 5 minutes in total on Saturday, and it was all totally serendipitous.

In one sense, my saviour was Jeremy Shapiro. On Friday, he wrote about Do-Nothing Bread, which I read because I read everything he posts. That was about an approach detailed in a book called Respectus Panis, written by a group of bakers called Les Ambassadeurs du Pain (in French, obvs., with the most intensely annoying automated music to boot, which is why I immediately went in search of details elsewhere).

I failed to run down anything very detailed, but that didn’t bother me as the whole thing looked to be pretty simple. Tiny quantities of inoculant, minimal amounts of salt and lots of time. In other words, not unlike Lahey’s no-knead formula. Just the thing, possibly, for a busy-day bread.

Ingredients & Method

10g sourdough starter, 100% hydration, straight out of the fridge
400g water
8g salt
400g white Manitoba flour
50g whole wheat flour
50g whole rye flour

Disperse the starter (you could use just a smidgen of yeast instead) in the water, add the salt and the flours and stir enough to mix all reasonably well. Cover loosely and go out for the day.

Come back and give it a set of stretch and folds in the bowl. Worry that nothing is happening.

Go out to the movies, giving another set of stretch and folds in the bowl before you leave. Continue to worry.

Come home, prepare a banneton, give the dough a final set of stretch of folds and then a coil fold directly into the banneton. Try to persuade yourself that there does seem to be a bit of activity. Cover loosely and go to bed.

Wake up, remove loose cover and marvel at the rise. Pretend you never had any doubts. Preheat the oven and a casserole to max (about 220°C). Gently tip the dough onto baking parchment, slash quickly, worry that it is spreading too fast and get it into the casserole, pronto.

After 27 minutes, remove the casserole lid and marvel all over again. Bake for a further 27 minutes. Remove and allow to cool before digging in for lunchtime. Give thanks to fellow bloggers and bakers.

Overnight rise

Slashed and spreading fast

Baked

Great oven spring

Soft, light crumb. Crisp crust. Oodles of flavour

And, of course, yesterday’s issue of the Bread magazine newsletter had a little story linking to Jeremy’s original post and some detailed versions of recipes. Mine was not exactly like any of those, but it was very fine. Do I now need to wait for another super-busy day to repeat? Probably not.

Lately I’ve started baking in greater bulk to satisfy my slowly growing list of people who pay me the ultimate compliment of paying for my bread. That could make sharing recipes here a little bit tricky, because not everyone wants to handle four loaves worth of dough at a time.1 Anyway, thanks to the miracle of baker’s math, I can give the quantities for a single loaf just as easily, so here goes.

Pre-ferment

I use my 100% hydrated leaven to start the pre-ferment, and as I store it in the fridge between bakes, that requires two builds to get it good and active, starting the morning before I want to start baking. To about 10g of starter I add 25g of flour and 25g of water, leaving that for about 12 hours to double. I then feed again with 25 g of flour and 25g of water, leaving it overnight. Next morning, I take 10 gm into a clean container and feed again with 25g flour and 25g water. This stays out on the counter for about 6 hours then goes into the fridge for storage.

The active starter goes into the pre-ferment.

  • 50g active starter at 100% hydration
  • 150g water
  • 250g strong white flour
  • 4g salt

First mix the water and the starter to break up the starter a bit, then add the flour and salt and stir well to incorporate everything into a rough dough. Put that aside to ripen. My kitchen is still pretty cold, so after a day the pre-ferment had barely moved and I had to put it into the fridge overnight. Next morning it had almost exploded out of its box. In warmer conditions, the pre-ferment will double in about 8-12 hours, but it really doesn’t matter much if you refrigerate to suit your schedule.

Final Dough

  • 50g whole rye flour
  • 50g wholewheat flour
  • 50g einkorn flour
  • 350g strong white flour
  • 185g water
  • 4g salt
  • 1/2 tsp dry yeast or 15g fresh yeast (optional)
  • All of the pre-ferment

The einkorn was my idea. If you don’t have any, add 50g of some other flour or just use 400g of strong white flour, rather than 350g. The yeast is completely optional, useful if you are in a hurry (or your kitchen is cold).

Mix the flours, salt and water and yeast if you’re using it. Knead the dough so that it has started to come together and then add a chunk of pre-ferment at a time, kneading between each chunk to start incorporating it into the dough. I guess about 4 or 5 chunks is right. It takes a bit of kneading to get everything properly mixed in but recently I have found this easier than mixing the pre-ferment with the water first. When the dough is uniform throughout, return it to the bowl, cover with a cloth and leave to bulk ferment.

After one hour, do one set of stretch and folds right there in the bowl. Wet your hand first and slip it gently under the dough, grab and pull up slowly, you don’t want to tear the dough, then fold it back onto the top of the dough and work your way around the ball of dough.

One (moving) picture being worth a thousand words, here’s my video.

Leave to bulk ferment for another hour, then do a second set of stretch and folds.

After a final hour of bulk fermentation, gently move the dough out onto the counter, shape, and prove for about 90 minutes before baking in a hot oven for about 50 minutes, with steam for the first half of the bake.


  1. I would love to get up to 12 loaves a time, but not with my current oven!