Are these the best hot cross buns in the world?

These hot cross buns have an almost cult-like following. Now its creator has revealed the recipe.

Freshly backed hot cross buns
  • Alice Galletly

You may be surprised to learn that the baker behind the best hot cross buns in Auckland (some would say the world) is a self-described “strange Jewish girl” from Tel Aviv.

“It’s a bit of a joke, isn’t it?” laughs Yael Shochat, chef and owner of the celebrated Middle Eastern restaurant Ima Cuisine – the irony of a Jewish girl specialising in a Christian tradition is not lost on her. “I’m not religious at all, but still ...”

What’s no joke is the reverence held for her buns, which have achieved a cult-like status among Aucklanders over the past decade. They are sweetened with honey and loaded with fruit peel and fresh spices, but the thing that really sets them apart are the crosses. Ordinarily these would be made from a paste of flour and water, but Yael’s are formed from a decadent vanilla custard.

“I found this recipe for hot cross buns with custard crosses by someone from the Culinary Institute of America years ago and I loved it,” Yael says. “You’ve got a bun that’s spicy and fruity, and the vanilla custard really balances it out. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. I’ve adapted the recipe and made it my own, and people go crazy for them.”

The hot cross buns go on sale at Ima around a month before Easter, and are regularly snapped up before most people have had a chance to hit the snooze button. If you walk past Ima during these weeks, you’ll likely see a flour dusted Yael through the window, kneading dough, breaking up cinnamon sticks and scraping vanilla pods in preparation for the next batch. As Good Friday approaches, production steps up to meet orders.

“On the Thursday before Easter we work all day and all night making buns. Last year we made 1500. This year we’re adding an extra team so we can hit the 2000 mark.” You might expect the recipe to be a closely guarded secret, but Yael shared her winning formula in her 2016 cookbook Ima Cuisine. For those who want to recreate her buns at home, she has a few words of advice.

“The most important thing is that I grind my spices fresh – it makes a big difference. Don’t be stingy with good mixed peel and currants, and if you don’t like currants, use dark chocolate.” And once the buns are ready? “Toast them under the grill and spread butter on them while they’re hot. Delicious.”

Recipe: Yael’s hot cross buns (makes 12 buns).

Ingredients

The buns

  • 850g (6 cups) strong bread flour
  • 125g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g honey
  • 60g fresh yeast (or 20g instant dry yeast)
  • 500ml milk, at room temperature
  • 2 tbsp flaky salt, crushed
  • 2 tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • tsp ground cloves
  • 250g currants
  • 125g mixed peel

Pastry cream crosses

  • 50g cornflour
  • 70g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 400ml whole milk
  • ½ vanilla bean
  • 40g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Sugar Syrup

  • 150g caster sugar
  • 125ml water

Method

Combine flour, butter, honey, yeast and milk in a stand mixer or mixing bowl. Knead on a low setting for 10 minutes, then add salt and spices and knead for a further 5 minutes. If mixing by hand, transfer mixture to a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Add salt and spices and knead for a further 10 minutes.

Transfer dough to an oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm spot until doubled in size (around 1.5 hours). Meanwhile, make the sugar syrup by bringing sugar and water to the boil in a small saucepan. Simmer for one minute, remove from heat and set aside.

Once the dough has risen, knead in currants and peel until evenly distributed.

Divide dough into 12 and shape into round, even buns. Place on a lined baking tray and leave to rise for a further 30 minutes, until each has doubled in size.

While the dough is rising make the pastry cream. Mix cornflour, sugar and eggs into a paste. In a pot, bring the milk and vanilla bean to the boil, then add butter and paste and continue to cook, whisking until thickened. Remove from heat and leave to cool, mixing regularly to prevent a skin forming.

Using the tip of a sharp knife, score the buns with crosses. Bake at 180°C for 15 minutes. Pipe a cross of pastry cream into the scored lines on the buns.

Return to the oven and bake for a further 10 minutes, until buns are medium brown. Allow buns to cool for 5 minutes before brushing the tops with sugar syrup.

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