Chelsea buns were sold in The Chelsea Bun House in London as far back as 1711. They may be considered the first sweet confection that people ever queued for in masses, just to get their hands on a bun or two. It might not be as modern as a cronut or a freakshake, but the Chelsea bun managed to live through the ages without being forgotten along the way. Today it is still the bun you see most frequently sold in British bakeries, although it’s getting some competition from the Scandinavian cinnamon bun.
Chelsea buns are made from a rich yeast dough and must have a square shape, with a circular spiral dotted with currants. The pleasure of unrolling them while you eat them and tearing the dough is addictive. The size of the baking tins is important to ensure that the buns touch one another and push each other into a square shape. The trick to making the best Chelsea bun is to roll out the pastry as thinly as you can manage.
Makes 24 buns
For the Buns
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (30 grams) dried yeast
- 2 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
- 8 1/3 cups (1 kilogram) strong white bread flour (around 12.6 grams/1/2 ounce of protein per 100 grams/3 1/2 ounces of flour, or 12 to 13 percent; see Note)
- 1/2 cup (120 grams) demerara (coarse raw sugar), or granulated white sugar
- 10 tablespoons (140 grams) butter, cubed, at room temperature
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Flour, for dusting
For the Filling
- 1 pound (450 grams) butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/3 cups (285 grams) demerara (coarse raw sugar), or granulated white sugar
- 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 2 1/2 cups (350 grams) currants
For the Sugar Syrup
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) demerara (coarse raw sugar), or granulated white sugar
- 5 tablespoons water
- Superfine sugar, for sprinkling
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 eggs. 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 knead for 10 minutes, scraping the dough off the dough hook and sides 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, make the filling by whipping the butter with the sugar, cinnamon, and salt until creamy.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F and line two 15 x 10-inch jelly roll tins with parchment paper.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a rectangle that’s about 24 x 38 inches and 1/16 inch thick (or as thin as possible). Place the dough in front of you horizontally. Cover the top half with a third of the filling, then fold the bottom half over the filling. Roll over the dough with a rolling pin to flatten it out.
Spread the whole surface of the dough with the remaining filling, dot with the currants, and roll up lengthwise to make a long roll. Cut the roll into 2-inch slices and place in the baking tins with the spiral facing upwards and a little space in between each bun. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the buns are golden brown.
Prepare the syrup while the buns are baking by heating the sugar and water in a small saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Brush the buns with the sugar syrup as soon as they come out of the oven and sprinkle with superfine sugar.
The buns are best eaten on the day they’re made, but they can be revived in a hot oven for a few minutes the next day, or you can freeze the baked buns, thaw, and then pop them in a hot oven for a few minutes.
Note: British recipes for bread and other bakes sometimes require completely or partially strong white bread flour, which can be compared to patent flour. This flour is made from harder wheat, which means that the flour contains more gluten. Gluten is needed for a light and well-raised result. There are several varieties of patent flour and the difference is in the protein content. American flour may be made from either winter or summer wheat. Winter wheat is sown in the fall and harvested in the summer. This wheat produces more protein than wheat that grows in the summer. These types of flour are available only in specialty shops or online, but are very accessible to hobby bakers.
Reprinted from “The British Baking Book: The History of British Baking, Savory and Sweet” by Regula Ysewijn, with permission from Weldon Owen Publishers.