These buns look very plain from the outside—just round little breads with burnished, sugar-dusted tops—but they come to life when you slice them across their middles, revealing a vivid, fragrant golden-yellow crumb. Make sure you halve, toast, and butter them to serve. They’re so wonderful that Elizabeth David herself declared “the delicious and beautifully simple Cornish saffron cake” a personal favorite.
This recipe is based on one in Linda Collister and Anthony Blake’s brilliant The Bread Book, but I’ve altered the process to include a “sponge” stage. A sponge is just a portion of dough allowed to prove for a short while in advance, giving the finished dough extra strength (useful in a recipe like this where the bread is so heavily enriched with sugar and butter).
This sponge stage doesn’t make the recipe take any longer, as it can be left to prove while saffron infuses the milk. A word of warning, though: Like most enriched doughs, this isn’t a quick bake. It needs an enthusiastic knead and a couple of long, slow rises, so make sure you’ve got a few lazy hours to devote to it. You won’t regret it.
- First prepare the sponge. Stir the yeast into the lukewarm water until more or less dissolved, then mix this into the flour in a large bowl. Work the ingredients together until you've got a homogenous, putty-like dough, then cover the bowl and leave for an hour and a half.
- As soon as the sponge has been mixed, start working on the saffron infusion for the dough. Stir the saffron strands into the mix, then heat until just about to boil, stirring every now and again. You should see the beautiful ochre color of the saffron begin to bleed into the milk. Once it's hot, set it aside to cool and infuse. It will take an hour and a half, just like the sponge.
- Once the sponge and saffron milk are both ready, you can start on the dough. Stir the yeast into the saffron milk infusion and leave for a few minutes for the yeast to activate. Meanwhile, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl, and rub in the butter using your fingers, until no visible flakes of butter remain. Add the now-frothy yeast and milk mixture to the bowl and mix using your hands until a rough, sticky dough forms. Add the sponge, which by now should be slightly puffy, and much more elastic, and knead everything together on a clean surface for a full 5-8 minutes. You will get bored, but it's worth the time and energy you'll spend. If it feels tough and tight, add a little extra milk; if after a few minutes of vigorous kneading it's still unworkably sticky, add a little extra flour.
- When the dough is supple and springy, pull it out to a flat rectangle shape and sprinkle over the dried currants. Roll the dough up to encase all the fruit, then give it another knead to distribute the fruit evenly throughout. Place in a large bowl, then cover and leave at warm room temperature for 2-3 hours, or until the dough is 1 ½-2 times its original size.
- Divide the risen dough into 12 equal pieces and roll them into smooth balls, pinching and tucking any lumpy bits to the underside of the ball to leave a smooth, taut top. Arrange in three rows of four buns each in a 22 x 30 cm deep baking pan lined with baking parchment. Cover and leave to rise for 1-1½ hours, or until the buns are at least half as large again. (Don't worry if the buns end up touching as they rise—there's nothing more pleasing than tearing them apart once they're baked to reveal soft, fluffy edges.) Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Uncover the risen buns and bake them for 15 minutes, then brush with the melted butter, sprinkle with the sugar, and bake for a further 5-8 minutes, or until their tops are nicely bronzed. Leave to cool in the pan before serving, toasted, with butter.
Ruby Tandoh is a food writer living in London. She's the author of Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want.