Cookery and recipes are all about people, not just about how and what they ate but how they lived, what they felt and how they amused themselves in their daily lives. The Chelsea Bun is no exception, it grew out of a time of upheaval and change in which whole populations were displaced from the Countryside into the Towns and Cities. Enclosure Acts, the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Industrial Revolution meant that rural dwellers who had once grown, raised and cooked their own food and could walk from their front door to commune with Nature now bought their food at the Pie and Bun Shops and paid half-a-crown to walk under trees in the pleasure gardens.
No business was better suited to thrive than the Old Bun Shop at Chelsea in London, at one time famous for its Hot Cross Buns, which had caused a near riot on Good Friday in 1792, when 50,000 people had turned up to buy and eventually 240,000 buns were sold! Hot Cross Buns were only baked on one day of the year, so it had been a stroke of genius to come up with a similar recipe for baked goods, though without the symbolism which made it so popular but that could be purchased on a daily basis. The Chelsea Bun had first been offered for sale around 1700. In 'The Journal to Stella' April 28th, 1711, the Irish writer Jonathan Swift wrote scathingly of this latest craze:
'Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one today in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it, as the man said, etc.”
The author of Gulliver's Travels however was in the minority, Chelsea Buns were 'in' and the bun shop was patronised by Royalty with both King George II and King George III and their respective wives being enthusiastic devotees.
Similarly in 1742 when the Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens opened its gates to the public, just a stone's throw down the road from the Bun Shop, success was assured. As the English writer and socialite Horace Walpole wrote:
'It has totally beat Vauxhall...You can't set your foot without treading on a Prince, or a Duke of Cumberland'
All of which goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun, from fast food to a fascination with celebrities and royalty.
Step 1: Ingredients and a Word About Using Yeast in Sweet Buns
This amount makes 9 buns but I am convinced you will need more, even though I have just eaten two of them fresh from the oven, writing this up has made me convinced I will need to revisit the kitchen.
All the ingredients I use are organic.
For the Dough
4 cups (455g) white bread flour
1 teaspoon of sea salt
3 tablespoons (40g) raw cane sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
¾ cup (170ml) lukewarm milk
1 extra large egg (or 2 bantam)
4 tablespoons (60g) butter - melted
extra flour for dusting
For the Filling
3 tablespoons (40g) butter - melted
½ cup packed (70g) raw cane sugar
1 cup (140g) mixed dried fruit - raisins, sultanas, (these I plump up in a little warm water) candied peel (home-made) recipe link at end
You will also need an 8" to 9" square cake tin 1½" to 2" deep - greased
To Glaze or Not to Glaze
Traditionally Chelsea Buns were covered with a sugar glaze but I find this makes them too sweet for my liking. All I do, is to retain some of the butter and sugar from the above recipe and then brush and sprinkle this on to the buns before putting them in the oven.
A Foreword on Yeast
The reason why these buns are so deliciously rich and yet fluffy and light textured is because of the action of a single celled member of the fungi family; Saccharomyces cerevisiae. As the name suggests this is a sugar-eater, which breaks down grain by the action of metabolising the sugars (both simple sugars and starches) in the flour turning them into alcohol and releasing carbon dioxide gas. The trick to a fluffy sweet bun is to get the CO2 to make the dough rise but not to leave it too long in this state, which would allow for a secondary fermentation and will then give the bun a savoury bread-type tang.
To Need to Knead or Not to Knead?
Wheat flour contains two proteins gliadin and glutenin, these combine to form gluten. When we mix our dough the proteins are haphazard and in no particular order, kneading causes them to form chains of amino acids, creating a network within the dough to trap the resulting carbon dioxide and allow for rising. However, as the bun dough rises, the action of fermentation creates heat at the centre of the dough ball. This means that the multiplying yeast cells start to form clusters, alcohol concentrates in one area as do the expanding carbon dioxide bubbles. If this is allowed to continue, then the dough may rise unevenly, pockets of alcohol could overcome and kill the yeast and the cooked dough could contain holes where the bubbles are too big and the buns could even cave in and collapse. Punching down the dough and then re-kneading it changes all that, the alcohol and CO2 are redistributed, as the hot centre and colder exterior of the dough ball become homogenised and the clusters of yeast are broken and redistributed. The action of kneading also enables air to enter the dough. This now allows, once the dough has been formed into buns, for them to rise to a wondrous and even fluffiness.
You can make no-knead bread buns but these will both take longer to rise and result in the 'tang' we discussed above.
Step 2: Making the Buns
400°F (200°C) - Preheating the oven to this temperature means the yeast is killed quickly, so will not have the potential to over-rise or continue to rise in cooking.
For the Dough
In the colder Winter temperatures we have at the moment, I usually like to heat my flour before I start mixing. I do this by just placing it in a large earthenware bowl at the side of our cooker.
Add the lukewarm milk to the yeast and the remaining sugar. Leave until the yeast has started to 'work', you will see a head of foam on the top of the liquid (approximately 5 to 10 minutes).
Mix together the sifted flour salt and half the sugar.
Make a well in the centre of the mix and pour the yeast mix into it.
With your fingers, add just a little flour from the walls of the well to the centre, enough, when mixed with your fingers to form a thick batter. This is called the sponging method.
Leave for around 10 minutes or until it becomes spongy.
Beat the egg and the melted butter into the spongy mixture in the well and then incorporate the rest of the flour.
Knead for 5 to 10 minutes until the dough feels and looks smooth and has a silky surface. I actually favour near to 5 minutes).
Form into a ball.
Oil the bowl and place the ball in the centre, cover with a damp cloth and leave in the open kitchen away from draughts until it has doubled in size. This takes about an hour.
Knock back or punch down the dough and turn out onto a floured board.
Using a floured pin, roll out the dough to form a rectangle, approximately 16" x 9" (40cm x 23cm)
For the Filling
Brush the dough with the melted butter, taking care to leave a ½" (1cm) border around the edge.
Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the dough and then do the same with the dried fruit and peel.
Take the dough firmly in both hands along one long edge and and begin to roll towards the opposite edge.
Cut nine buns from the roll and place them in the prepared bun tin.
Brush with remaining butter and sprinkle with sugar.
Cover and leave to rise on the chafing area of your oven until they have doubled in size.
The buns will spread to fill the tin.
Place in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes but check after the first 20.
The buns are cooked when the tin is turned upside down and they release easily from it.
Put them onto a wire rack to cool.
Now bite into a piece of History.
Try not to eat the whole lot at once! I really tried hard.............................
Link for making your own candied peel including chocolate dipped peel!