The Gourmet Celeb (GC) was disgruntled. He’d just returned from Canada and was complaining how every damn pastry, cake or bun has cinnamon in it routinely. The Gluttonous Pig (GP) chimed in with his hatred of the indiscriminate use of this spice in the US also. Before they got down to tasting 15 hot cross buns, they resolved to set up the NSPCC – the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Cinnamon. It is indeed a gorgeous spice, but familiarity breeds contempt. This is why spicy, hot cross buns are such a treat – we only eat them at one time of the year.
The moment the packets were opened, we could enjoy their fruity aroma and imagine them toasted and deluged in melted butter. It’s a taste of Easter that promises renewal and an end to winter. This year has been very grey and cold so we were thinking – renaissance!
Our mood had changed and we realised we were now much looking forward to the task. Not least the Discerning Litigator (DL), of Yorkshire descent and thus discriminating when it comes to buns, and the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG) who, brought up as a Druze, enjoyed celebrating at religious festivals with little milk cakes.
Our general observations would be that the buns made from white flour dried out quicker and should be eaten on the day of purchase. The wholemeal ones remained moist the day after. The buns we favoured all had a generous dose of fruit and peel – we had no truck with parsimony or puritanism. You can tell from a cursory examination how miserable or generous the baker has been. It should have a bejewelled exterior. And the spice mix wants to be subtle – some had (sin of sins) overdone the cinnamon.
First we must elect our nice-try-but-a-mistake category winner. Marks and Spencer’s Belgian Chocolate Hot Cross Buns had 12 per cent dark chocolate chips, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves plus orange peel. But it came bottom all the same. The rumour is that you can buy these in the Low Countries so perhaps we’re just too conventional: “a bun with a cross – OK – but really a piece of chocolate cake” (GC); “lacks clarity” (GP). The Discerning Litigator went further: “awful, what is it? An affront!”
Following our usual blind tasting, the buns were numbered and only revealed afterwards. Several came out very well, so we’ll break with custom and recommend the four that exceeded 50 marks. Tesco Finest came fourth. These buns had 23 per cent fruit and mixed peel, and it showed: “plump currants, moist, glossy on top” (DL); “tastes as Easter should” (GC). Third was an unusual bun. It stood proud, like a soufflé, and had unusual flavourings which the Gourmet Celeb cleverly spotted. Being Waitrose’s Heston Blumenthal Earl Grey and Mandarin Hot Cross Bun, it displayed the flair and care we’ve come to expect from its products: “orange peel and tea – delicious” (GC); “Christ is risen and so is the bun” (GP). Second came Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Cranberry & Golden Raisin Hot Cross Buns, another range we’ve come to anticipate good quality from. This had 30 per cent fruit and included cranberries, which was an agreeable touch, along with some fragrant spice oils: “Interestingly fruity, well done with the cranberries” (LG); “luscious, tastes like the buns we had at school, but better” (GC).
Our winner, Gail’s Artisan Bakery, has 13 sites in London, with most baking done on the premises and a gratifying accent on quality. This bun also had the most piously prominent cross. So if you want a devotional breakfast on Easter Sunday, this is the one to go for: “good all round bun” (LG); “fresh spice, moist dough, artisan look” (DL); “lovely wholemeal flavour, zealous cross” (GP); “designed for a bishop – to be enjoyed by us all” (GC).
1. Gail’s Artisan Bakery
£1.50 for one (takeaway); £2.20 for one (eat in), www.gailsbread.co.uk
2. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Cranberry & Golden Raisin Hot Cross Buns
£1.45 for four, www.sainsburys.co.uk
3. Heston from Waitrose Earl Grey & Mandarin Hot Cross Buns
£1.79 for two, www.waitrose.com
4. Tesco Finest White Hot Cross Buns
£1.70 for four, www.tesco.com