Celebrating London with Chelsea buns

I’ve been out in London all afternoon, running around taking photos of blue plaques and buses. You see, today was Edward’s fourth annual London Photo Hunt, a sort of team-scavenger-hunt-with-a-digital-camera that never fails to completely exhaust me. Well, that’s not quite right. It was actually Richard’s first annual London Photo Hunt, as Ed’s brother Richard had very kindly taken over the planning and organisation of the entire project to let Ed have a chance to play. Thanks Richard!

To get us through this energy-zapping game, I’d planned a breakfast to fill us up and celebrate London: Chelsea buns. The Chelsea bun is basically the British version of the cinnamon bun; it’s a sweet, sticky, spicy and fruity London original. Surprisingly, these days it’s damn nigh on impossible to find good, traditional English baking in London, full of its frou frou French pastries and American-style cupcakes. For the real deal, you need to get out of the city. And in bakeries up and down the country the Chelsea bun is one of the most popular items you’ll find – although London’s Chelsea Bun House disappeared in the mid nineteenth century, its namesake bun lives on.

To make mine I started with the dough from my sister’s sticky bun recipe, and while it rose I got on with the filling. While many people like a very fruity filling including questionable ingredients such as candied peel, I played it safe with a mixture of currants, sultanas and golden raisins tossed in spices.

The traditional topping is a simple glaze of honey or milk and sugar, but I thought, why not gild the lily? Mine were drenched in an icing sugar drizzle thickened up with a little cream cheese – again, similar to the sticky bun topping. I love that extra bit of 'bad for you' indulgence that icing can contribute!

The result is something that feels like the cousin of a sticky bun; a little bit the same and a whole lot different.

As for the results of the photo hunt… sigh. My partner in crime Eva kept exclaiming about how well she thought we were doing! I didn’t have the guts to tell her I thought we were a lost cause, as she already thought I was being a Negative Nelly. But I knew the drill: Every year I come last, every year I have a bit of a grumpy sulk afterwards in the pub about coming last, and every year I say it’s my last year playing.

This time? We came last. It’s my last year playing.

Chelsea Buns

Makes 6

Dough:
250 g (2 cups, lightly spooned into measure) plain flour
25 g (2 scant Tbsp) sugar
1/4 tsp salt
5 g (1 tsp) instant yeast
38 g (2 Tbsp + 1 tsp) unsalted butter
75 ml (5 Tbsp) milk
1 large egg

Filling:
1 Tbsp butter, melted
100 g (2/3 cup) mixed currants, sultanas and raisins
50 g (1/4 cup firmly packed) dark brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp cloves

  1. Mix together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
  2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and the milk over low heat. Remove from heat and whisk in the egg.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix to form a dough. Once it begins to cling together into a ball, turn out onto a floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover with cling wrap and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour, until doubled in size.
  4. To make the filling, in a small bowl toss the fruits with the brown sugar and spices. Set aside.
  5. When the dough is risen, punch it down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. With a floured rolling pin, roll out into a long rectangle, about 15cm by 30cm, with the longest side facing you.
  6. With a pastry brush, brush the dough with the melted butter. Sprinkle the fruit filling mixture over the dough evenly, leaving about a one inch border around the sides.
  7. Roll up the long side of the dough, firmly but not too tightly. You will have a long, coiled sausage-like shape. Cut into 6 even pieces and place each piece, coil side up, in a small baking pan or oven proof ceramic dish. The pieces should be nestled closely together, touching and crowding each other.

(The buns can be made ahead up to this point. Simply cover the dish with cling wrap and place in the fridge, continuing with the baking steps when ready to eat. It makes enjoying these buns for breakfast much easier).

  1. When you’re ready to bake the buns, remove them from the fridge and preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Bake for about 30 minutes, until puffy and browning on top. (If the buns begin to get too brown on top before they’re done, cover loosely with foil or parchment paper.)
  2. After removing the buns from the oven you can either glaze them immediately with honey, with a mixture of equal parts milk and white sugar heated together, or with icing sugar thinned with a little water or milk. Once cool, pull apart the buns to eat.