Tea cakes are soft, white brioche-like buns with a shiny golden-brown top. Currants are added all over Britain, but not in West Yorkshire, where a tea cake is a plain bread roll. Cookbooks from the 19th century are divided about adding currants, with some stipulating currants in their recipes and others simply leaving the bun plain. It is sometimes also said in books from that period that the bun is the same bun as the Sally Lunn, but with added currants. To make it even more confusing, a tea cake in Scotland is a biscuit with a mallow cloud on top, dressed in a chocolate jacket.
On tearoom menus it always says ‘toasted tea cake’ – they are hardly ever served untoasted. The toasted tea cake is crisp on the outside, with caramelised bits of currant, and soft and doughy on the inside. Tea cakes are best when they are freshly baked or toasted; when a day old, they become heavy. Just heat the oven as hot as you can and stick the buns in for a few minutes to revive them. Then toast them, of course.
Add the yeast to the lukewarm milk and stir briefly and gently to activate it. The yeast will start to foam up in clusters, which means it is ready for use. Combine the flour and sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook and put the butter on top. Pour half of the yeast mixture over the butter and start kneading. When the milk and butter are completely absorbed, add the rest of the yeast mixture, along with the egg. Knead the dough for 5 minutes, then let it stand for a few minutes (at this point the dough will be very wet). Add the salt and the currants (if using) and knead for 10 minutes, scraping the dough off the dough hook and side of the bowl if needed, until the dough has come together in a smooth and elastic dough that is not too dry but also not terribly wet.
Cover the dough and set aside for 1 hour until it has doubled in quantity. Meanwhile, line a baking tray with baking paper.
Briefly knead the dough and divide it into eight equal pieces. Take a piece of dough and lightly flatten it on your work surface, then pull the outer parts in like a purse and gently squeeze together like a dumpling so that the dough can no longer split open while rising. Turn the dough over so the squeezed ends are on the bottom. It should be nice and smooth on top – if not, flatten it and start again. Place the bun on the baking tray and continue shaping the other buns.
Cover the tray of buns with a light cotton cloth and wrap it in a large plastic bag (I keep one especially for this purpose). Rest the dough for 1 hour or until the buns have doubled in size. Towards the end of the resting time,
Brush the buns with the egg wash and
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