Jane Austen approved
Recently I had an opportunity to spend some time in Bath, England. The charming town, famous for its ancient Roman baths and for being a vacation destination for Jane Austen, among others, has some foods that they have claimed as their own since the 1700s. And while usually 18th-century foods of almost any kind hold little appeal for me, let alone British foods (feel free to look up Bath chaps before you judge me), I was utterly won over by one of their oldest baked goods, the Bath Bun.
I had arranged to spend a day with a local chef doing a cooking afternoon of traditional British recipes, and the first thing we made were Bath Buns. I had seen them in the local stores, but they didn’t appeal—basic round rolls topped with pearl sugar and currants didn't seem overly tempting. But our plan was to return to the original recipe, which is a butter-enriched dough, garnished with chunky morsels of crushed brown sugar cubes and caraway seeds. Stay with me.
The Bath Bun would not be the sexiest item in the bakery case. The opposite of fancy, only slightly sweet, no icing or crispy edges or fillips of cream or jam. And yet, warm from the oven, smeared with sweet cream butter, I can completely understand why the indomitable Miss Austen would have written letters about “disordering my stomach with Bath Buns,” because I could have eaten about six of them without hesitation.
Immediately upon my return, the latest season of The Great British Baking Show dropped on Netflix, and in my jetlagged fog, I indulgently binged the whole thing in two glorious days. As it always does, it made me want to make all sorts of British treats. Bakewell tarts and sticky toffee pudding and Victoria sponges all floated like cartoon birds around my head, but it was the Bath Buns that sent me to the kitchen on a snowy day. By teatime, there were warm buttery buns and some serious carb comfort. Bath Buns will never be the showiest of the English bakes, but I can promise you Mary Berry would call them "scrummy," and Prue would definitely think they were "worth the calories." Pretty sure Paul Hollywood would love them too, as long as the bake is good.
Since they are not overly sweet, they make a great little vehicle for sandwiches. Ham and turkey with fig jam would be great, or a good mature English cheddar, maybe with some Branston pickle if you have access or onion jam if you don’t. A high tea inspired brunch would be infinitely enriched by their presence.
If you are not a fan of caraway, you can swap out another spice that you do like, such as aniseed or fennel seed. If you don’t want to buy natural brown sugar cubes to crush, pearl sugar would work fine, or even a sprinkle of raw Demerara sugar. You can also take the modern route of adding dried currants, but I encourage you to try them once as originally intended. However you choose to make them, I recommend serving warm with butter, or split and toasted with butter and jam. Just maybe don’t disorder yourself with them.
Adapted from a recipe in The Experienced English Housekeeper by Mrs. Raffald, from 1769
For the buns
16 ounces all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
11 tablespoons butter, cool room temperature but not super soft, cut into ½" cubes
½ tablespoon dried yeast
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 cup whole milk
For the topping
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 tablespoon milk
4 natural brown sugar cubes, roughly crushed so that you have small pieces of sugar, mixed with 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds
In a large mixing bowl blend the flour and salt, and then cut in the butter as you would do for a biscuit or scone recipe, blending until the mix looks like coarse bread crumbs. Warm the milk in a small saucepan or in the microwave to about 110°F degrees. Should be warm to the touch, but not scalding hot. Set aside. Add the yeast, sugar and caraway seeds to the flour mixture, then stir in the warm milk to make a soft dough. If your dough feels stiff, add a little milk as needed.
Knead for about 10 minutes on a floured surface until smooth and pliable, then return to a lightly greased bowl and cover with a cloth. Set to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, which could take up to 3 hours as enriched doughs like these cause the yeast to work much slower. Check after an hour and then every 30 minutes after until you get the rise you want.
Punch down and cut the dough into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece against your counter or a cutting board under a cupped fist until you get a smooth ball. Place rolls 2" apart on either a greased or parchment lined baking sheet, cover with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and leave to rise again for up to an hour. They should just get slightly more pillowy.
Heat the milk for the glaze with the sugar until melted and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.
Glaze the hot buns as soon as they come out of the oven and immediately sprinkle with the sugar/caraway mixture. Then let cool on a rack for 10 minutes before serving warm with butter. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.