The Chelsea Bun House was a phenomenon of 18th century London. Near the river, it was situated on the main road from Pimlico to Chelsea, benefiting by being close to Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens. Customers came from miles around, some on foot, some by river boat. Although much has changed, today there is still a small street nearby called Bunhouse Place. It was a long one-storeyed building with a verandah, and inside there were tables and chairs in the tea-rooms style where customers could sit to enjoy buns and cakes fresh from the ovens.
At Easter the Bun House also made staggering quantities of hot cross buns, numbering in the tens of thousands. The throngs of Good Friday bun customers, also reputedly in the thousands, sometimes needed a police presence to control such an unruly crowd.
While contemporary writers say the Bun House was popular with all classes, royal patronage must have assured its fame. Both George II and George III liked Chelsea buns, and George II’s Queen Caroline, along with her brood of princes and princesses, sometimes visited when they were out on a river boat. I like to imagine a London where the monarch could stroll about without bodyguards. Stories of the time describe George III walking through parkland to approach Chelsea from his palace, and there he would visit the Bun House to fill the large pockets of his coat to take Chelsea buns home to the grand children.
The prosperity of the Bun House was overseen by four generations of one owning family, the Hands. However, the closure of Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens in 1804, coupled with the lack of an heir within the hands family, led to its decline and closure in 1839.
While there is recorded diarists’ praise for the buns in the early 1800’s as being light, rich, and delicate, there is no real record of their shape and size, or the technique of making them. Tradition has it that the flattened dough is rolled up in the manner of Swiss Roll into a long sausage from which each piece is cut, working from the end of the long roll. Each bun is to be placed on the baking tray with sufficient space around it to allow it to press against its neighbours during final proof, so that each coiled bun comes out as a square shape.
Most professional bakers making Chelsea buns will use their standard spiced bun dough as the material for a batch of Chelseas. If starting from scratch, be careful not to make the bun dough too spiced, for fear of losing the flavour of cinnamon added to the butter that is placed onto the dough before the rolling up phase. Grated lemon peel accompanying a modest amount of spice in the dough would give your Chelsea buns a lift.
There is a sugar glaze to be washed over the buns as soon as they come from the oven. To make it, have two parts of caster sugar to one part of milk, heated in a small saucepan. 100 grams sugar and 50 ml of milk would cover a lot of buns.
CHELSEA BUNS MADE AT PANARY
Make PANARY’s bun dough using the “one-pint ferment” method.
Whisk together first:
- 600 ml (little more than 1 pint) warmed milk
- 15 gm (½ oz ) sugar
- 60 gm (2 oz) fresh yeast, or half that in dried yeast mixed in the flour.
Now whisk in the flour:
- 110 gm (4 oz) bread flour
Stand the ferment until it is quivering, looking as though it is nearly ready to drop – probably 30-40 minutes
Add the Ferment to:
- 1 kg (2lb 3oz) bread flour
- 2 large eggs
- 110 gm (4 oz) sugar
- 15 gm (½ oz) salt
After only a few minutes of kneading, when the dough is properly formed, without dry lumps or chips,
- 140 gm (5 oz) butter
- the spice, if you are making spicy fruit buns , 30-40 gm
Knead until the dough stretches with well formed gluten. It will feel silky.
Finally, gently add the fruit:
- 350 gm (12 oz) currants, sultanas, raisins, etc
FOR CHELSEA BUNS, make three adjustments:
- Lower the spice to 20 gm. so that the cinnamon in the Chelsea mix is able to flourish
- Add a little less dried fruit, suggested currants/sultanas would be 200 gm.
- Add the grated zest of two lemons
Its total weight is about 2.5 kg, enough to make 16 – 20 Chelsea buns of a good size.
Prove the fruit dough fully as you would for bun making.
While it is proving, beat together in a mixing bowl :
- 150 gm of butter
- half-tablespoon of cinnamon
- 125 gm soft brown sugar
Turn the proved dough out onto a floured surface and stroke it into a rectangle with the rolling pin, setting it out just as you would for making puff pastry by the “English method”.
Have your rectangle at least twice as long as it is wide. Spread the paste of butter-cinnamon-brown sugar onto two-thirds of it, then fold on top the uncovered third, making the pastry parcel in the English way.
Put it, covered, into the fridge or a cool place to rest, to relax it, and to make the spread butter firmer.
After about 15-20 minutes, pin it out again, this time into a long rectangle, aiming to have its length at least 2½ times its width.
Roll it up fairly tightly towards you into a long sausage, brushing warmed honey along the front edge to enable a tight seal.
Cut this long sausage evenly into 16-20 discs which are then placed on the baking tray as flat rounds. Each bun should be at least an inch thick, 2.5 cm.
Place them carefully, at least 2 cm. apart, so that upon full proof they will touch gently, being pushed into a square shape, (yet able to be pulled apart easily when baked and cooling).
Egg glaze and prove like normal fruit bun dough.
Bake in an oven that is duller than bread temperature, barely 200 C., 15-20 minutes.
When the buns are out of the oven glaze them with the sticky sugar/milk glaze, or with warmed honey.
That’s it Panarians, enjoy your buns.