I’ve already mentioned my love for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess— quite apart from the doll reference, Sara was a character I could relate to (at least in some respects), always telling stories and imagining things.
There are several references to food in the book– rich, savory soups, hot muffins, sandwiches, cakes– but the most prominent takes place when Sara is out on a cold winter day. Tired, cold, and extremely hungry, she daydreams about being able to buy some hot buns, when suddenly she happens upon a lost four-penny piece!
And then, if you will believe me, she looked straight at the shop directly facing her. And it was a baker’s shop, and a cheerful, stout, motherly woman with rosy cheeks was putting into the window a tray of delicious newly baked hot buns, fresh from the oven—large, plump, shiny buns, with currants in them.
As a child, I didn’t really know what currants were, but “large, plump, shiny buns” sounded delicious. I figured that these buns would be lightly sweet, studded with rehydrated dried currants, with a shiny egg wash and perhaps even a light sugar glaze over the top.
I used a basic yeast dough recipe, not too heavily enriched with butter or eggs because I didn’t think that fancy brioche-like buns would be sold for a penny each, even back then.
Sara’s Currant Buns (makes 12)
1/2 cup warm water (about 100 degrees F)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tbs. instant yeast (or active dry)
4 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup warm milk (100 degrees again)
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled (to about 100 degrees)
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup dried currants (soaked in hot water or apple juice for at least 10 minutes, then drained)
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tbs. water)
Powdered sugar glaze (3 tablespoons powdered sugar + 1 tablespoon water)
1. In a measuring cup, combine warm water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar, then sprinkle the yeast over the top and let stand for 10 minutes. If the yeast doesn’t get foamy, discard and get new yeast.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix together remaining sugar, 3 1/2 cups flour, and salt.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, butter, and eggs. Add yeast/water mixture and whisk until combined.
4. Add wet mixture to dry ingredients (remember you’ve withheld a cup of flour!) and stir until a soft dough forms.
5. Using the dough hook on your stand mixer, knead the dough for 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic, adding the remaining flour as necessary to achieve this result. (it’ll still be very sticky)
6. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, turning to coat it in oil, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size.
7. Punch down the dough and knead in the currants. Shape into a log and divide into 12 equal pieces.
8. Roll dough pieces into smooth balls and place onto a greased baking sheet at least 2 inches apart.
9. Cover with a tea towel and let rise for 30 minutes.
10. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
11. When ready to bake, beat 1 egg with 1 tablespoon of water and brush over the buns.
12. Bake buns for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.
13. Mix together glaze ingredients and glaze buns immediately upon removing from the oven.
13. Eat hot, or give away to begging children as desired. (heh, see what I did there?)
These turned out almost exactly as I’d imagined them. I was a little concerned after the second rise of the dough, since the buns looked kind of puny, but they rose beautifully in the oven (and gave off a wonderful smell after only a few minutes of baking) and developed a gorgeous golden brown gloss, making them the perfect “large, plump, shiny buns” from the story. The sugar glaze is a perfect complement to the flavor of the bread itself.
I think if I were to make these again I’d use more currants– perhaps 3/4 cup instead of 1/2– and add a little orange zest to the dough itself (maybe using orange juice instead of water in the glaze), just for another layer of flavor. But they’re excellent the way they are. I tried one hot from the oven, intending to just take a taste, and found myself eating the whole thing!
1. If you put your currants and water/juice in a cup in the microwave, you can heat them together until the liquid is hot, then let stand for the 10 minutes. I’ve gotten good results this way.
2. The 100 degree temperature setting for the liquid ingredients isn’t exact, but don’t go over 110 degrees or you could kill the yeast. To get my milk and butter to the right temperature I put the butter and about half the milk into a measuring cup and microwaved them until the butter melted. Then I added cold milk until the mixture got down to 100 degrees.
3. Don’t worry if the initial dough looks too wet while you’re kneading it– only start adding extra flour after at least 5 minutes of kneading, or you’ll risk adding too much and your buns will be dense and dry. I used the whole additional cup of flour and was tempted to add more, but refrained. Sure enough, the sticky dough firmed up nicely during the 1-hour rise time and it was easy to work with after that. The buns turned out nice and light, and very moist.
4. To knead in the currants I flattened the dough, sprinkled the currants evenly over it, and rolled it up like a cinnamon roll log. Then I rolled the log up in a flat spiral, and flattened out the spiral before rolling it into another log, which I cut into 12 pieces. This helps distribute the currants evenly through the dough. But you could also just dump the currants on top of the dough and knead them in.
5. The sugar glaze actually turns a little matte as it dries, which kind of negates the whole “shiny bun” thing, but I wouldn’t omit it– the sweetness it adds really makes the bun. Perhaps honey would keep the sweetness while maintaining the shine?
6. If, for whatever reason, you don’t eat all of these on the first day, they freeze well. To reheat, I put a frozen bun in a toaster oven at the lowest possible setting (to avoid burning the glaze) and let it toast. Then I let it sit in the hot toaster oven for a few minutes so the heat would permeate. This worked for the most part, though the very center was still a tiny bit cold. You could probably also just put the buns in a regular oven at 250 degrees F to warm through. The important things to remember are 1) Don’t burn the glaze! and 2) Microwaving baked goods just makes them mushy, so it’s not the best method of reheating.