I often think March is really the worst month of them all. Traditionally it is January that gets bad press but at I’ve never found it as trying as March. January is the month of Christmas hangover and that, for me at least, is a happy thing (call me a masochist but I harbour a perverse love of hangovers – something about self-inflicted pain and the opportunity to truly revel in it appeals to me. As I am never ill – famous last words – this is also my opportunity to be really sorry for myself). Finishing off bits of ham (the end is always the best bit anyway), nubs of cheese, nuts and dates, now a little dry and shrivelled, but toffee-like and indulgent nonetheless. Taking fresh pleasure in the good presents you were given and languishing in the lingering astonishment at the bad ones (my personal worst was a pumice stone from my granny). No, January is fine by me. Then there’s the citrus, which cuts through the cold, grey month like a steely knife; sweet, sharp and sassy and taking absolutely no self-pitying prisoners. Marmalade-making to look forward to, too.
February has its appeal, with Valentine’s day – whether twee or not it’s at least something to break up a month, then perhaps a frost and an abundance of bitter greens, brassicas and bean stews. But by the time it comes to March I’ve had it with winter, and April still seems so very far away. Especially this year, as we mark a year’s worth of lockdown, March feels particularly pesante.
So there seems only one way to pass March, apart from planting seeds, and that is preparing for Easter, the next real festivity and a celebration which, luckily, has a seemingly never-ending supply of edibles associated with it…..
Which brings me to tante belle cose. Many beautiful things. I met a friend in a bar last week (we were briefly allowed back into bars before another Easter lockdown) and as he waved goodbye he sang this phrase to me, which I hadn’t heard for a while. It reminded me how much I liked it, and how I had wanted to write it down. Waving goodbye to someone, wishing them ‘many beautiful things’. It’s a lovely idea, and a phrase which sadly seems to have been lost in translation….all the best perhaps? Somehow this phrase seems March-mean in comparison.
The joy of Easter is that there are tante belle cose to make, do and eat. Spring flowers to pick (or buy), eggs to paint (or eat) and cakes to bake. One of the most significant edibles associated with Easter are Hot Cross Buns. I missed them last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, as we ate Italian-themed Easter treats instead (these are various and wonderful in their own right) but I thought now it was time to make my own here too.
I have kept them relatively straightforward, tinkering only by adding a little Saffron, not always traditional but used often here in Sardinia, and also in one of my favourite English buns, The Saffron Bun, so a fitting addition (feel free to leave it out if you don’t love the flavour as I do). I love the orangey hue it gives to the crumb, and the unmistakable flavour too. Then I have added some extra orange zest, and of course hopefully your home-made candied peel, which really does make all the difference (see previous post) and finally soaked the raisins in orange juice for an extra citrus kick.
As we slowly but surely move into Spring and out of miserable old March, here’s wishing you all Tante Belle Cose, beginning (as all the best things do) with buns (of the Hot and Cross variety).
Some notes on proving & rising:
It is probably best to start this recipe the day before, the evening before in fact and leave the dough to rise overnight in the fridge. This makes the whole thing much easier.
I know from bitter experience that when recipes say leave a yeasted dough to rise or prove for 45mins-1 hour it can take much longer. The only true way of knowing when a dough has either risen or proven sufficiently is if it has doubled in size. Temperature is key, if your kitchen is cold (as it tends to be in March) both rising and proving can take up to 90 minutes. There is a little trick to make life much easier. In professional kitchens proving cabinets/cupboards are used, where a constant temperature is maintained, but in a domestic environment you can simulate this if you (as I do) have an electric oven. Turning the light setting on in your oven maintains a steady temperature perfect for rising and proving bread. Just switch the dial to the ‘light’ setting (no heat!) and you have created yourself a proving cabinet. Genius.
Blood Orange & Saffron Hot Cross Buns
220g bread flour
120g dark brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
Pinch (1/4 tsp) of ground saffron
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of ground ginger
Zest of 2 blood oranges (save juice for later)
20g fresh yeast (or 10g dried)
300g water (at blood temp)
For the final dough:
400g bread flour
2 egg yolks
130g butter, softened
120 g candied peel (finely chopped)
200g raisins (soaked in the juice from 1 of the oranges)
For the Cross:
Pinch of salt and pinch of sugar
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Mix all of the other ingredients for the starter together and cover. Leave for 1 hour until bubbly and aerated.
Bring the orange juice to the boil in a small saucepan and simmer for a minute. Add the raisins and then remove from the heat. Set aside for half an hour or so until the raisins have soaked up most of the juice.
Making sure the butter is soft and pliable (you may need to put it in a warm place) add the remaining ingredients for the final dough and mix in a mixer until you have a smooth, even dough. (you can use your hands/a spoon but it will get messy. This is a sticky dough).
Once you have a uniform dough (it will be sticky) place it in a clean, lightly oiled bowl and cover it with clingfilm or a plastic bag. Leave to rise overnight in the fridge (this is the best way to make these) or at room temperature for 1hour – 90 minutes, until doubled in size.
On a lightly oiled surface, scrape the dough out of the bowl and divide it into 10 x 120g pieces.
Shape each piece into a neat ball and place on a large baking tray lined with greaseproof paper a few inches apart.
Cover and leave to rise again for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 180.
Brush the buns evenly with milk.
Mix the ingredients for the cross together in a bowl. Make a little piping bag out of grease-proof paper or using a piping bag with a small nozzle, decant the mixture into it. Pipe on the cross.
Bake in the oven for 14-16 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and glaze, whilst still warm, with honey, a simple sugar syrup (100m water and 100ml sugar melted together over the heat until shiny and clear) or the syrup from your home candied peel (my favourite)…. Or marmalade or apricot jam…..Basically anything shiny and nice.
Saffron: A Digression
I want to write a bit about Saffron for two reasons, firstly because it is a fascinating spice with an equally fascinating history, and secondly because it is – strangely – the crimson thread that runs through my life linking two significant places; Cornwall and Sardinia.
Whilst I was technically born in Devon (in Plymouth, no less) we have always lived only a stone’s throw from the border into Cornwall, and we went there on every summer holiday. Now my dad has moved there permanently, so it is, in many ways, home. One of the things I loved most about Cornwall were the saffron buns and saffron cake we used to buy in the village shop at Lerryn, a little hamlet which straddles a river of the same name. The buns were yellow, heady with saffron, soft and stuffed with plump raisins and candied peel. They had an otherworldly scent which seemed at exotic odds with the damp and grey Cornish landscape and its habitual smell of seaweed, moss and mud.
It is hotly debated how the spice arrived in Cornwall, but it is thought that during its history of trading tin with foreign merchants, saffron entered into the Cornish cooking repertoire, with some claiming that it was brought by the Phoenicians as early as 400 BC.
Saffron is an elusive and enigmatic spice. In some instances I love it, in others I don’t. It is not only me that feels this way; it has a famously divisive flavour. Both gentle and dominant, subtle and loud, saffron is an edible contradiction. It smells of hay, of the sea, of bonfires and ‘diesel and rotten apples’ (according to journalist Oliver Thring). Thinking about it all of these things are very much at home in Cornwall, so perhaps it’s not so strange it has penetrated the Cornish cook-scape.
Saffron is also shrouded in myth; legend has it that Cleopatra ‘used it’ before encounters with men, though in what capacity one can only guess (the aphrodisiac qualities of saffron have been long celebrated). Saffron’s associations with sexual passion also crop up in Ovid, who writes that Smilax changed her pursuer Crocos into a flower leaving the red stigma as a ‘symbol’ of his ‘passion’. Another myth describes Hermes wounding his friend Crocos by accident and then changing the blood that fell on the ground into a flower. Zeus is said to have slept on a bed of saffron (a lovely thought). Its name in Italian too is wonderfully poetic: zafferano, from the Arabic ‘Za’faran’ which means ‘yellow’.
Saffron was not really part of my cooking life in England. Perhaps I used it once or twice in a Bouillabaisse or a tagine, maybe in an aioli. Moving to Sardinia made me appreciate it anew, as Sardinia has a strong tradition of cooking with saffron, and produces around 60% of the Saffron made in Italy today. Thought to have been brought to the island by those same Phoenicians it is used in a traditional pasta, broth and cheese dish called Su Succu (delicious) and occasionally added to Fregola (a cous cous style pasta made of semolina) Malloreddus (Sardinian gnochetti) and Zippole (fried doughnuts).
Saffron is also eye-wateringly expensive, thought to be the most expensive spice of all and commonly known as ‘red gold’. Production is arduous, which explains such a price. The red stigma of the purple flowering crocus are picked and dried, and it takes roughly 200 flowers to produce just 1g of saffron.
Now I have easy access to it (though even here in Sardinia where it is produced in large quantities it is not cheap) I am introducing saffron into my cooking more. Mostly I love it, sometimes I don’t, but that – to me – makes it all the more intoxicating. I find it works particularly well in quite specific combinations; with tomatoes, with ricotta, with citrus. The deliciously orange-heavy Hot Cross Bun recipe above provides the perfect opportunity to get re-acquainted.