Chelsea Buns … there are a lot of questions needed to be asked about a traditional Chelsea Bun, but the two main ones are: should they be square, or round in shape? should they be plain, or filled with currants? If we take an observers journal written in 1855 then we have our answers, they should be square, sticky and they should have currants in them. To this end we are going to use a traditional Chelsea Bun recipe from a baker’s trade book – see the next pages of this recipe for references.
‘Chambers Journal’ published in 1855, written by W. Chambers
The Chelsea-bun is of a coarse stamp; square in shape, greasy and sticky in texture, its mass of dough faintly dotted with currants, and its outside smeared with sugar and butter, it appears to the eyes of a grown-up person anything but an inviting treat. The Chelsea-bun is less frequently seen in the shop of a legitimate pastry-cook, than figuring on the trays of wandering cake-sellers. It is a roving vagrant bun, made by strange manufacturers in unsavoury alleys, and hawked about the country by bawling vendors. It has its origin in the midst of dirt and discomfort; and its principal purchasers are the unfastidious little urchins who make a play-ground of the streets.
Chelsea Buns Recipe
Chelsea Buns are made in a two step process, first the ferment is made, then the dough. The original recipe calls for ‘sugar nibs’ these are large, very coarse grained sugar granules – use the coarsest grained sugar you have.
For the ferment (first stage)
- 300ml milk (warm)
- 20g caster sugar
- 20g yeast
- 100g plain flour
For the dough (second stage)
- 750g plain flour
- 150g butter (softened)
- 2 eggs
- 90g caster sugar
- zest of a lemon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
For the filling
- 100g currants
- 50g butter (melted)
- 50g soft brown sugar
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
For the outside brushing
- For the sides – 30g melted butter
- For the top - a beaten egg and a little milk
- sugar glaze made from boiled milk and sugar
- 25g coarse sugar (nibs)
Making the ferment: In a large jug add the warm milk then stir in the sugar, plain flour and yeast, in that order. Keep the ferment at a temperature of around 29C and let it stand until it drops (it will froth up then start to collapse in on itself).
Making the dough: In a large mixing bowl sift in the flour and ground nutmeg. Then rub in the softened butter with your finger-tips until the flour resembles breadcrumbs. Into the jug with the risen yeast whisk in the eggs, lemon zest and sugar. Add this to the flour and butter breadcrumbs and make it into a well developed dough. Kneading gently with your hands and adding more flour if necessary. The dough should be smooth, silky and elastic. It is important that when rolling this dough out later it should not be sticky.
Leave the dough covered in the bowl, in a warm place, and ‘knock it back’ after an hour (60 minutes). Knocking it back just means to gently punch the air out of the dough and bring it back down in size.
On floured work-surface take the dough and shape it into a rough rectangle. Roll the dough out keeping the rectangle shape, taking care to keep the sides straight and the corners square. The width of the rectangle should be around 25cm to 30cm and it will be about 5mm thick.
Brush the entire surface of the rectangle with melted butter – sprinkle over evenly the ground cinnamon, soft brown sugar and scatter over the currants. Carefully roll up the wide edge of the rectangle closest to you into a tube – this should be quite tightly done. Cut the tube into pieces all away along the tube equally at 4cm intervals with a sharp knife so as not to depress the dough. Each bun needs to be cut to the same size.
Take each 4cm piece, shape it into a solid and even square, and place it on a well greased baking tray – sit each piece on its wide cut base with a little space between each Chelsea Bun. Brush all over the sides with melted butter, brush all over the top with the beaten egg glaze. When placing all the buns care must be taken to place them on the baking sheet so that each has the same space uniformly in rows, so that when baked each one is supported by its neighbours. If needed, to keep the last row in place, a greased stick tightly wedged in, is usually used in commercial bakeries. Once assembled leave to have their final rise for thirty minutes (30 minutes).
Preheat the oven 210C
Bake in a hot oven at 210C for 20 to 25 minutes, or until risen and golden brown. When the Chelsea Buns are just out of the oven brush over with the hot milk and sugar glaze, and then sprinkle over some coarse sugar. Set the buns aside to cool on a wire rack.
‘THE COMPLETE BISCUIT & GINGERBREAD BAKER’S ASSISTANT’, GEORGE READ, 1854
Take plain bun dough, or, if they are for common ones, bread dough, roll it out in a sheet, break some firm butter in small bits, and place over it, fold it up, and roll it out as you would paste; after you have given it two or three turns, moisten the surface of the dough, and strew over it some moist sugar, roll up the sheet into a roll and cut it in slices, or cut the dough in strips of the required size, and turn them round, place them on a buttered tin that has edges, about 1/2 inch from each other; prove them well, and bake in a moderate oven. You may dust the tops with loaf sugar either before or after they are baked. The quantity of ingredients used must be regulated according to the richness the buns are required; 1/2 lb. of butter, and the same quantity of sugar, with 4 lbs. of dough, will make a good bun. When bun dough is used, half this quantity of sugar will be sufficient, and some omit it altogether.