When the world shut down, a year ago this week, I remember going into a retreat of my own making. Home and garden became a sanctuary; I avoided news and social media in an act of self-preservation and focused instead on sowing seeds, being with my family, finding stillness and contentment in the unfolding wonder of spring. Twelve months on I find myself having to do the same thing. Recent events are so deeply distressing, I feel raw. And angry. So do many of my friends.
I do what I can to have a positive impact on the world, both in my professional work and my personal life (for goodness sakes I have even been moved to join the Women’s Equality Party this week), but sometimes it can feel immovable. So this poem, by the writer and thinker L. R. Knost, feels appropriate:
Do not be hardened by the pain and cruelty of this world
Be strong enough to be gentle
To be soft and supple like running water
Gracefully bending around sudden turns
Lithely waving in strong winds
Freely flowing over sharp rocks
All the while quietly sculpting this hard world
Into ever deeper beauty
Gently eroding ridged rock into silken sound
Tenderly transforming human cruelty into human kindness
Remember true strength is found not in the stone
But in the water that shapes the stone
Meanwhile there is slow progress with the seeds. The sweet peas and broad beans are shoving up their lime green shoots, and I have started sowing the hardy annuals – cornflower, toadflax, honeywort – and a few bush-type tomatoes for the veg trug. It’s all slow and steady, which suits the current mood. I am told by friends in Worcestershire that the blossom there is not only out but almost going over, whilst here, an hour north, the trees are bare. We still wait for daffodils in shady areas. A late spring can feel both a hindrance and a blessing – for although the long winter is hard, when the warmth finally arrives, its presence is doubly appreciated. I distract myself with line drawings of this year’s allotment plan, good intentions of blocks and rows that will inevitably become a jumble when we actually come to plant in May.
Onto buns. I was going to write that Lockdown has seen our household become mad about buns but actually, I don’t think the pandemic has anything to do with it….yeasted dough has been a slight obsession since youth. Every few weeks I will make a batch of something or other, Harry and I will snaffle a few, then the rest get bagged in the freezer ready for another day. Once frozen, individual buns can be put straight into our rickety counter-top oven at 150c for a few minutes until they are hot and crisp. Cinnamon buns are my usual, but they can also be simple round fruited buns, Scandi-type twists, apple buns…really I am not fussy.
I first attempted Chelsea buns years ago, only to experience crashing disappointment when they emerged from the oven as solid as rocks. This time around, encouraged by the wonderful fellow bun-obsessive writer Regula Ysewijn, I have success. But there are things to mention.
First, over the years I have realised that the judging criteria of a home-made bun has to be different from the shop bought ones: mine will inevitably be wonkier, stickier and probably a bit heavier (no steam injection ovens in these parts). No matter.
Second, I use the Bertinet method of mixing, working and proving dough. It’s not my place to repeat it all here, but you can look it up at www.thebertinetkitchen.com. In short, the dough begins far wetter than you think it should be. Work it by hand in the right way, and the mess miraculously transforms into dough as pert as a baby’s bottom. I suppose you could use a mixer, but I don’t have one, and in any case I actively enjoy the tactile squelchiness of getting my fingers into dough. Remember to remove any nail varnish first, though, as it will inevitably be ripped off by the dough, which is stickier than a swamp to begin with.
Thirdly, Chelsea buns should never (in my view) be messed about with. There has been a tradition of making Chelsea buns in this country since at least 1711, and as such this is no place for yuzu or chocolate or chilli any of that kind of thing. I want a classic Chelsea of the kind that I sold in Cooks Bakery in the 1990s: they should be square, tightly coiled, studded with more fruit than is perhaps wise, crunchy on top and soft beneath. The trick is to roll the dough as thinly as you can manage, and to ensure the filling is very soft before attempting to spread it on your dough. Finally, be sure to use the correct size tin so that the buns squash together as they rise.
Adapted from Oats in the North Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn
Makes 12 buns, using a 39x27cm tin
For the buns:
500g strong white flour
5g fine salt
15g dried yeast
60g caster sugar
70g unsalted butter
For the filling:
225g unsalted butter, very soft
145g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
175g currants or raisins
For the sugar syrup:
30g granulated sugar
3 tbsp water
caster sugar, for sprinkling
For the buns, gently warm the butter with the milk until it is melted. Cool a little – it should feel simply wet when you touch it, not hot or cold. Place the salt in the bottom of a large bowl, then put the flour and sugar on top, then yeast in last. Stir to combine using a plastic scraper. Whisk the egg into the milk, add to the flour, then combine using your scraper to a sticky mess. Tip the lot onto a work surface, then work with your hands until it comes together into a springy, worked dough – about 5 to 10 minutes. Do not add extra flour. This video explains the Bertinet technique of working dough. When it is ready, put the dough back into a bowl, cover with a tea towel, then leave to prove in a warm place for at least one hour, until puffed and roughly doubled in size.
In the meantime, prepare the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon until it is very soft and whipped.
When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 200c and line a roasting tray or baking tin with greaseproof paper.
When the dough is ready, lightly flour your work surface. Gently encourage the dough out of its bowl, and ease it out onto the surface using your finger tips. Do not punch it; treat it firmly but gently. Roll out the dough to a rectangle that is about 2mm thick – basically, as thin as possible. It should be facing you horizontally, with the long edge facing you.
Smear the top half of the dough with a third of the filling, then fold the bottom half over the filling. Roll it again to flatten it out.
Smear the remaining filling over the dough, dot with the dried fruit, then roll up lengthways to make a long roll. Ease and firm it together with your hands so that it is roughly the same size all the way along.
Cut evenly into 12 slices, then place cut-size up in your tray. There should be a small space between each bun. Leave to prove for another 15 minutes or so.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and fully cooked through.
Whilst the buns are baking, make a syrup by gently melting the sugar into the water then bubbling until this and sticky (do not stir else it will crystallise). When the buns are cooked, immediately brush with the syrup and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.
Cool before eating. Best eaten on the day they are made, so freeze any leftovers then reheat in a warm oven before eating.
Also this week:
Sowing: Starting the hardy annuals, so toadflax, honeywort, cerinthe, cornflowers, plus tomatoes.
Harvesting, cooking and eating: Last of the cavolo nero and pentland brig kale, salads from the veg trug. Cooking Viennese fingers; Italian sausage rolls spiked with chilli, fennel and oregano; egg fried rice with fat prawns bought in bulk from the Chinese supermarket.