My friend Stacy from New York recently came to stay for the weekend. Time passed quickly and with much greed; I introduced her to the hearty lancashire fare on which I was reared: fish and chips, parkin, Lancashire cheese, and unashamedly, a takeout curry. I don't think I've eaten so much over the course of a weekend since I was a sugar-fuelled child, rapaciously raiding the biscuit tin. Stacy, who is so petite, managed just a quarter of her fish and chips, but she gave it a jolly good go - she'll need to expand her stomach before her next visit in October. Bizarrely, we hardly cooked or baked, but these gleaming golden buns (along with the best potato, cheese and onion pie I've ever made) were delicious.
Mahlab is the ground kernel from the cherries of a particular tree and is commonly used in Greek and Eastern festive cooking and baking. Its flavour is something of a muted marzipan, with a hint of floral cherry. Click here for stockists.
Ingredients - Makes 16
For the Dough
- 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 250g strong white bread flour
- 7g fast-action/instant yeast
- 5g fine sea salt
- 40g caster sugar
- 270ml whole milk
- 50g unsalted butter
- 1 large egg
For the Filling
- 125g unsalted butter, softened
- 100g dark brown muscovado sugar
- 3 tbsp mahlab powder
- 30g plain flour
- 175g dried apricots, finely chopped
For the Glaze
- 125g caster sugar
- 125ml prosecco
- Pinch gold lustre dust (optional)
- Pearled/nibbed sugar (optional)
First make the dough. Put the flours into a bowl and toss through the yeast, salt and sugar. Put the milk into a saucepan and set over a high heat, heating just until the milk feels slightly warm on the finger. Add the butter - don't worry that it won't melt completely - then pour into the dry ingredients along with the egg. Using your hand, a wooden spoon, or, if you have one, a KitchenAid with dough hook attachment, work the ingredients into a fairly wet dough, then knead until it is elastic. The time in which it takes to achieve this depends on so many variables: the speed and the action to name a couple. The best test for a sufficiently kneaded dough is to flour your fingertips extremely well, then grab a cherry-sized chunk of dough, dipping that in flour to coat. I then hold the dough with my thumbs and forefingers, and with my middle and ring fingers I gently (and I mean very gently) 'tickle' the dough to stretch it until it becomes a very thin membrane. There may be the odd small tear here and there, but for the most part the dough will be a thin 'window pane'. If the dough tears severely, springing back, it means sufficient gluten hasn't been formed, so just keep kneading. Once the dough is kneaded, put it in a bowl, cover with cling film, and leave out at room temperature to double in size - this may take an hour or many more, depending on how warm the room is. Just be patient and get on with something else.
When the dough is almost doubled in size, get on with the filling. This is just a case of mixing everything except the apricot pieces together into an almost impossibly smooth, spreadable paste. I find the most successful (and satisfying) way is to use my hands. Just cream everything together and the heat of your hand will make it much quicker and more evenly amalgamated.
Grease 2 large baking sheets with butter in preparation for the knots. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a rough square of about 45cm. Spread the paste evenly over the dough using a small crank-handled palette knife or the back of a spoon, then sprinkle over the apricot pieces as evenly as possible. Fold the dough in half, starting with the edge closest to you. Press the dough down gently, then roll it a little more just to work the paste in. Here I recommend you put the dough onto a third baking sheet and into the freezer for 15 minutes to stiffen it a little, which will make it easier to shape the knots. Trim the two ends and discard (or bake off later as chef's perk). Cut the dough horizontally into 16 equal(-ish) strips 2.5-3cm in width.
To shape, take a strip of dough. Hold each end and twist to spiral the dough neither loosely nor tightly. Once the dough is spiralled, hold one end of the strip between the forefinger and middle finger of your non-dominant hand, then wrap the strip around those same two fingers, tucking the end into the twist to knot it. It takes a little getting used to. Place the knots well-spaced on the baking sheets and allow to rest until they feel almost jelly-like. They will turn from dense little knots into swollen and aerated (slightly larger) knots, so take a mental note of how they feel just as you've shaped them. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/gas mark 7.
To make the glaze, simply put the sugar and prosecco into a saucepan and stir to dissolve. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes (or, if using a sugar thermometer, until the temperature reaches 106C). Add the lustre and stir to combine - this will resemble liquid gold.
Once the buns are swollen, bake for 8-12 minutes, until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and glaze immediately using a pastry brush. Sprinkle each knot with pearled sugar (if using) just after glazing. Allow to cool, to at least an edible temperature, before serving.