Wailyn Mar's hot cross buns.

Prize winners ... Wailyn Mar's hot cross buns, from the Blue Ribbon Recipes cookbook.

Hot cross buns before Good Friday. What a treat.

That was the rule in my house growing up and for some reason it’s a behaviour that has pretty much stuck, give or take a week. Not that I’m complaining. Given hot cross buns are pretty much available all year round these days, my waistline is thankful there’s something guiding restraint in the fruit bun department!

Hot cross buns straight out of the oven, however. Well, that’s too good an opportunity to pass up. Even if I had to make them myself.

My first foray into hot cross bun making was inspired by a recipe in the Blue Ribbon Recipes cookbook, a series of prize winning recipes from the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

Wailyn Mar’s recipe looked simple enough (dried yeast, check) and its inclusion in a book of prize winners promised quality. Thankfully, I was right on both counts, although working with yeast for the first time was a little nerve wracking.

Mar herself has only been entering hot cross buns into the Royal for the past three years, but has been competing in other categories for ‘‘20 odd years’’. Shortbread and chocolate cake are just two of the categories she’s won first prize for. Last year she was awarded second place for her hot cross buns.

It’s been a matter of trial and error, she says.

‘‘The first time I had too fine a cross, they actually disappeared into the hot cross buns,’’ she says.

‘‘That got commented on ‘the crosses could be a bit bigger’, then the next year they were too big.’’

On the eve of this year’s competition (entries are due in on Thursday), she shared her recipe and tips with Tried & Tasted.

RECIPE: Wailyn Mar’s hot cross buns

Getting a raise
Hot cross buns can’t be churned out in an hour. The yeast must be given time to work its magic, so there’s a few points in the recipe where the dough has to be left to rest in a ‘warm place’ and rise. Mar’s suggestion - if you’ve been baking other things prior to tackling the hot cross buns, open the oven and make use of the warm door.

‘‘It gets the residual heat of what I’ve been cooking,’’ she says.

‘‘Or heat the oven up and turn it off. This will help it because around Easter time the weather is a bit cooler so you have to help it along.’’

Another tip - while the bowl is sitting on the oven door, cover it with a wet tea towel. The steam will help to lift it.

The need to knead
The hot cross bun dough is very sticky, especially at the start.  To aid the kneading process, Mar suggests sieving a thin layer of additional plain flour onto the board and over the top of the dough. Having slightly wet hands also helps.

‘‘You can feel the dough, if it’s ready,’’ she says.

‘‘It’s not sticking anymore and it springs back and is smooth. All the sultanas are sticking out and you have to poke them back in.’’

Although a note from my two road tests - my hot cross buns still rose from a sticky dough, it was just a pain to work with and I wasn’t able to get a lovely round shape like Mar’s (pictured at top).

hot cross buns
My first attempt - crosses were a disaster but they rose well.

Mar’s mixture contains 1/2 cup sultanas, plus mixed spice and cinnamon. But as she says, it is very much a matter of personal preference. I like mine a bit fruitier so for my second attempt increased the sultanas to 1 cup, plus added the grated zest of an orange and lemon. This really added to the flavour of the buns. Next time I’m going to try 1/2 cup sultanas and 1/2 cup currants, plus the zest.

Mar says an increase to one cup of fruit shouldn’t require any change to the rest of the recipe (and my road test would concur) but anything more than that and dough might not be able to support the weight of the fruit.

In the tray
Using a similar approach to scones, the buns should be located side-by-side in the lamington/slice tin. This is another newbie mistake Mar has seen Royal judges point out.

‘‘They should be just touching each other because they need to have each other to help rise,’’ she says.

If you don’t have a lamington tin Mar suggests using a square cake tin.

Presentation
The crosses are a simple mix of flour and water, applied before the buns are baked. Mar advises experimenting with different nozzle sizes to find the right one.  I used a large star nozzle first (disaster) then for my second attempt a smaller star nozzle. This produced a much better cross. I’m going to try an even smaller, round nozzle next time. In response to the feedback she received from the Royal judges Mar ended up making her own piping bag using baking paper and snipping off the end.  

hot cross buns
My second attempt - crosses much improved.

The crosses are best applied in rows, rather than doing each bun individually.

‘‘If you’re quick enough it won’t sink in between the buns,’’ she says.

I was surprised to learn that gelatine is sometimes added to the glaze of hot cross buns. This gives a lovely glossy appearance and has that ‘stick on the lip’ quality. It’s not suitable for vegetarians though so I experimented with a couple of other options. A glaze of sugar syrup with some spices added was lovely and fragrant but not very glossy. Apricot jam brought to a simmer did have a lovely gloss, so is a good alternative. Neither had that sticky quality though.

Labour of love
Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. Pulling those hot cross buns out of the oven brought a smile to the faces of my family and what a treat it was eating them warm, straight from the oven and smothered in butter.
The first attempt was a bit stressful though and took about three hours as I let the dough rest for longer than specified to see if it would rise to the levels described by Mar in her recipe. They didn’t on either occasion (especially the ones in the tray), but they were heading in the upwards direction. Both times they rose beautifully in the oven, so I’m a lot more relaxed about that now.

Will I be entering my hot cross buns in the Royal any time soon? No way. As the photos show I’ve still got a lot to learn about making the perfect hot cross bun. But with Easter just around the corner, there’s a few family members who have promised to score me a 10 out of 10 if I make another batch.

Do you make your own hot cross buns at Easter? Do you prefer only sultanas or currants and mixed peel too? Any other glaze suggestions would be most welcome.