Bath buns, 18th century

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • For

    8

    buns

Appears in

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British Baking, savoury and sweet

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South

By Regula Ysewijn

Published 2020

  • About

The earliest recipe for Bath buns dates from Elizabeth Cleland’s A New and Easy Method of Cookery from 1755. The book was published in Scotland, over 400 miles from Bath, which means the bun must have been well established by then. This recipe, as well as that from Bath resident Martha Bradley from 1756 and Elizabeth Raffald from 1769, calls for one part butter to two parts flour. This is the 18th- and 19th-century version of the Bath bun, with much more butter than the modern version, and complete with caraway comfits as decoration.

I discovered that Indian mukhwas, which are eaten after meals, are very similar to caraway comfits. Most mukhwas are made with fennel seeds, but they look exactly as the caraway comfits would have looked in the past. Pick out the white mukhwas from the box of multi-coloured mukhwas. Use the coloured ones for the Caraway seed cake.

Ingredients

  • 15 g (½ oz) dried yeast
  • 250 ml (9 fl oz) full-fat milk, plus extra for brushing
  • 450 g (1 lb) strong white bread flour
  • 30 g (1 oz) raw (demerara) sugar or white sugar
  • 225 g (8 oz) butter, at room temperature, cubed
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 5 g ( oz) fine sea salt
  • 1 tbsp caraway seeds or mukhwas, plus extra caraway seeds or mukhwas, for decoration

Method

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, and knead for 5 minutes. Let the dough stand for a few minutes (at this point it will be very wet). Add the salt and caraway seeds (if using – mukhwas are added later because of the sugar coating). 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, adding the mukhwas (if using), 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, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

Brush the buns with milk, sprinkle with a few caraway seeds or mukhwas and bake for about 15 minutes until lightly golden brown. The buns are best eaten on the day they’re made. The next day they can be revived in a hot oven for a few minutes. You can also freeze the baked buns, thaw and then pop them in a hot oven for a few minutes.