Seven experts, a dozen bakeries' buns, a catering kitchen and a blind tasting: that was the recipe for Epicure's quest to find Melbourne's best hot cross buns. The perfume of nutmeg and cinnamon scented the dining room, along with hints of ginger and allspice as the judges, chosen for their palates, knowledge and passion, sat down to their task.
In the four years since Epicure's last hot cross bun tasting in 2009, new bakeries have opened, others have closed, and we spied the first buns on shelves in February. Hot cross buns are emotive. Strong opinions emerge about whether to glaze, include peel or fruit - and whether the best buns are light and airy or dense and doughy. And many are adamant they shouldn't be baked, or enjoyed, before Good Friday.
For our blind tasting, a dozen different buns were chosen from metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria. Artisan and commercial bakeries were included as well as supermarket brands bought directly off the shelf. The buns were heated through and served with Myrtleford butter. The judges didn't know the brand or bakery behind each bun.
Five minutes was allowed to assess, taste and score each bun. Tasters held, inspected and broke open the buns, smelling them, pulling them apart, adding a touch of good unsalted or salted butter, and trying them without, to gain a sense of how we eat them at home. Tasting notes are wonderfully telling: the differentiation of the buns became clearer with the judges claiming their love of or disappointment in the buns - ''Do not eat'', wrote one taster on one of the buns that didn't make the top three, while another commented, ''Nobody cared about the making of this little fella'' about another bun. The better buns began to rise to the top.
Conversation started in earnest after the score sheets were collected. One of the tasters, Pierrick Boyer, executive pastry chef from the city's Le Petit Gateau, explained which bun was over-proofed, and said one that he scored well was ''not the best looking but its texture and lightness is very good, where another is over-proofed with little spice''.
The unanimous call was that using a sourdough base does not necessarily guarantee a great hot cross bun. It was agreed while some sourdoughs worked, others overwhelmed the spices of the bun.
The judges also noted cinnamon tasting ''dusty'' in some of the lower-scoring buns, and flours ''bland and too light with no body''.
The balance of fruit throughout the bun was another deciding factor. Like dedicated CWA judges, our tasters questioned fruit placement and fleshiness of fruit within each bun. One taster was put off by burnt raisins on the outside of the bun, saying ''the flavour of the whole bun was lost''.
Generally, cheaper buns, perhaps not surprisingly, did not fare as well as the most expensive ones. But at a fraction of the price, you might expect some compromise.
Pierrick Boyer's tips for bun bakers? ''Macerate the fruit in sugar syrup and when you drain it, dust it in a little flour to dry and separate the fruit. This way the fruit will suspend in the dough and separate from each other while cooking.''
Each judge was asked to score the buns on five elements:
1. Appearance and aroma.
2. The balance of the components - is the spice too much or too little?
3. The fruit - is the fruit content measured and treated delicately?
4. Texture - is the bun dense and rich or light and fluffy, and how does it feel in the mouth to chew?
5. Flavour - quite simply, does it taste good or not?
*Where buns were available only in a pack of six, the per-bun price has been calculated for comparison purposes.
THE JUDGING PANEL
Richard Cornish food writer.
Jo Corrigan owner of The Commoner restaurant, Fitzroy.
Bob Hart journalist, author.
Roslyn Grundy food writer and editor.
Pierrick Boyer executive pastry chef, Le Petit Gateau, city.
Ross Karavis competition manager, Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards.
Neil Hargreaves food publisher.
Editorial assistant: Jess Dale.
1. Candied Bakery
81a Hudsons Road, Spotswood, 9391 1335, $2.70 each
This bakery was the overall winner. The buns were described as ''handsome'' by one taster, with ''lovely freshness and appealing fruit'' in flavour by another. There's a complexity to the flavours with a robust but light texture making it a pleasure to eat. Score: 105.5
1030 High Street, Armadale, city, and other outlets, 9576 2020, $14.95 for 6 ($2.49 a bun)
Noted for its ''good spice, whole fruit'' character and texture, Phillippa's came a close second. The texture is light but full and the flavour was described by one taster as having ''spices that taste fresh, nothing overpowers or numbs.'' Score: 102.5
3. La Tropezienne
780 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, 9818 1895, $16.90 for 6 ($2.80 a bun)
Comments such as ''wonderful flavour combination'', and ''dense, rich not doughy, but solid with distinctive spicing'', brought the Hawthorn bakery into third spot. The buns are very well-balanced on the palate with even fruit and a chewy but soft texture. Score: 99.5
3 Tivoli Road, South Yarra, 9041 4345, $3.50 a bun
''Better than most commercial buns'' was the consistent theme with these, the highest-priced buns tasted. The moist texture that still allows the bun to have a lightness to it won points with the judges, as did the ''enticing'' flavour. Score: 96.5
4. Baker D. Chirico
178 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9349 3445, 3/149 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 9534 3777, $18 for 6 buns ($3 a bun)
The ''thick, rich texture'' of this part-sourdough bun appealed to one taster, another liked the ''lovely moist structure''. The richness of fruit was desirable, as was a good combination of spice, fruit and texture. Score: 96.5
109 Scotchmer Street, Fitzroy North, 9403 5333, $16.60 for 6 ($2.77 a bun)
The small amount of zest was questioned, but the gentleness of the spice was commended in these part-sourdough buns . One taster said they were a little ''dry in texture, but otherwise good all round'' and the ''good wholesome solid texture'' was appealing. Score: 93
7. La Madre
18 Milton Street, Geelong, 5272 1727, $15.40 for 6 ($2.57 a bun)
The weight of the sourdough worked against the spice and flavours for the tasters: ''a bit too hefty'' said one judge. However, another enjoyed the ''dense, generous fruit and good sweet-sour balance of flavours.'' A plump and dense sourdough bun. Score: 90.5
8. Zeally Bay
2B Baines Crescent, Torquay, 5264 7883, $12.60 for 6 ($2.10 a bun)
One taster described the texture as ''a bit tough'', but loved the ''tart orange flavour that stays with you''. There was a general consensus it was a good sourdough bun rather than a great one, with balanced spice and a slightly chewy texture. Score: 77
9. Convent Bakery
1 Heliers Street, Abbotsford, 1300 447 697, $2.50 a bun
This bun came in lower than others due to it having ''little or no spice'' and ''lots of sultanas but can't see other fruit.'' There was a common feeling it was lacking texture, depth of flavour or much lift from spice and fruit. Score: 63
10. Baker's Delight
$6.50 for 6 ($1.08 a bun)
Described as ''not inviting'' by one taster, the general feeling here was that there was an ''uneven distribution of fruit,'' and there was little to ''no complexity in the flavour.'' Most tasters commented on the use of cinnamon over any other spice. Score: 60.5
$4.79 for 6 (80¢ a bun)
A taster asked if this bun was ''cooked in a baking tin'', as it was clear it hadn't been rolled like some of the other buns. A consistent theme with this bun was lack of spice and a dense, unbalanced spongy texture that fell apart on the palate. Score: 44.5
$4 for 6 (67¢ a bun)
This was the most inexpensive bun, but it didn't rate well, with one taster giving it no score and another finding it ''bland and unacceptably dry''. The use of commercial flour caused it to breakdown quickly on the palate and not carry any texture or much flavour. Score: 40