nice buns

hot cross buns - fig & pecan

fig & pecan hot cross buns 

One of the few things I miss about winemaking is the opportunity to play with yeast. There is something deeply rewarding about taking a powdery dried dormant yeast culture and coaxing it to life so that it can go on to perform the almost alchemy-like act of turning grape juice into wine. It still amazes me that all it takes to bring about their renaissance is a gentle soak in some warm water (35 – 40oC)…not too hot …not too cold….sound familiar Goldilocks???? Then you gradually add some food….sugary grape juice…yum…and before you know it you have a rip roaring fermentation on your hands…

Interestingly enough the yeast used in winemaking: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is the same species as that used by bakers. You probably could use winery yeast to make bread but strangely enough I haven’t met anyone who has ever tried it… But while bakery and winery yeasts share a common ancestry, the winemaking side of the yeast family has evolved to be super efficient at eating grape sugar and turning it into alcohol with a bit of carbon dioxide on the side, whereas the bakers yeast crowd has developed a preference for converting starch to lots of carbon dioxide and a little alcohol perfect for getting the dough to rise….

For those of you who have shied away from cooking with yeast I strongly urge you to give it a go. The intoxicating smell of buns baking in the oven is reward enough but being able to eat the delicious morsels with butter melting, straight from the oven makes the extra effort all worthwhile. I like to use dried yeast in sachets which last for about a year on your pantry shelf.  The only thing you need to remember when working with yeast is that they really are like Goldilocks and work their best when the temperature of their environment is ‘just right’…

Although I have toyed with the idea of doing some home winemaking, these days I find myself turning to baking to get my yeast playing fix. And this Easter what better way to be at one with the yeast than to bake some deliciously seasonal Hot Cross Buns…sweetened with dried figs instead of the traditional mixed peel and currants and given a bit of crunch with pecans…..all good things…

fig and pecan hot cross buns
makes 15
Adapted from my Mum’s classic: The Australian Womans Weekly Cookbook.

You can either mix, leaven and bake these all at once, or you can put the dough in the fridge to rise overnight. The yeast will still do their job at low temperatures but much like me they work considerably more slowly in the cold. The other option is to do as I did on Easter Saturday afternoon and double the mix to make one batch for afternoon tea and leave the other to rise overnight so you can have them straight from the oven for Easter Sunday breakfast. Delicious either with a slab of unsalted butter or some of my Mum’s awesome fig jam.

500g plain flour
1t salt
2 sachets yeast
1C milk
60g butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1t mixed spice
1t ground cinnamon
200g chopped figs
120g chopped pecans, lightly toasted
paste for crosses:
1/2C plain flour
1/3C water

Warm milk until nice and tepid. You want it to be about body temperature so use your finger and if it feels cool it need to be warmer and if it feels hot you need to cool it down. Sprinkle the yeast on the top of the milk and then very gently stir through (this is the best bit in the winery). Leave for at least 10 mins for the yeast to rehydrate and wake up.

Combine flour, salt, spices, figs and walnuts in a large bowl. When the yeast is ready (it should start to bubble a bit) combine with the egg and butter then stir the wet mix into the flour mix to form a wet dough.  Turn onto a floured bench and knead for approx 5 mins until dough is smooth. You want it to be just past the sticky stage so add more flour if it is sticking as you knead.

Return dough to the bowl and cover with cling wrap. Now you can either leave in a warm (but not too hot) place to rise for about 45 mins to 1 hr or you can place it in the fridge for a long slow rise overnight.

Preheat the oven to 225oC (450F). When the dough has doubled in size, gently punch it down and divide into 15 equal sized pieces. Pat the pieces into squarish shaped buns and place in rows in a greased lamington tin (approx 28cm x 18cm). Leave in a warm place to rise for about 15 minutes.