The real thing: hot cross buns at Adriano Zumbo Patisserie in Balmain. Photo: Edwina Pickles
They're no longer one-a-penny or even two-a-penny, so we've spared you a bad Good Friday breakfast and found the best buns in town. We were on the hunt for traditional buns this Easter, with yeasted dough and aromatic spice, studded with fruit. Citrus tang was optional. We tried buns plain, then toasted and topped with unsalted butter. We looked for a satisfying balance of chewiness when toasted, and softness. The cross on top, we learnt, could be too much to bear if it was thick and strappy, knocking the balance out. Nobody wants to face a hot cross brick on a plate. Sydney's bakers are working with ginger, cloves, cherries, chocolate, sultanas and even apricots in their dough then gilding these stalwart Easter morsels with sticky, glossy glazes.
Adriano Zumbo Patisserie
($2.50 each or six for $14.50)
Some could argue Adriano Zumbo has been put on this earth to annoy pastry traditionalists. It's usually the twist, the outlandish, for which Zumbo is known. This year he's done some excellent chocolate buns with crosses on top but our focus was on the traditional. His sourdough-base hot cross buns are reservedly conventional, and they're some of the best in town. Zumbo's buns smell like a gingerbread house where the fire is crackling inside and somebody's toasting marshmallows. They're sweet with a balance of apricots, raisins and candied peel, a hit of cinnamon, cardamom and all-spice. They're moist and almost gooey when toasted, and the butter most satisfyingly melts in.
296 Darling Street, Balmain, 9810 7318 (also in Manly and Waverley). adrianozumbo.com
St Malo Bakery
($2.50 each or six for $14)
Tiny flecks of citrus peel are far from overpowering and give these dark wholemeal buns a festive quality. They're sticky and dense, with currants and sun muscats soaked in port for a few weeks, and have a gorgeous chewy quality. Anthony and Holly Marquette quit their jobs in marketing and publicity a couple of years ago to open this quaint artisan bakery in Crows Nest, calling on the advice and recipes of Holly's uncle, who owned Organic Republic in Bondi. But these buns are a far cry from Organic Republic's chunkier products, and are much more traditional, fragrant with cinnamon, cardamom and other mixed spices.
83 Willoughby Road, Crows Nest, 9906 6256. stmalobakery.com
($2.20 each or six for $12)
These are slightly flatter and lighter buns, with a light spice flavour of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. Raisins, currants and tiny studs of citrus peel are scattered sparingly throughout but the buns are slightly drier than many of their counterparts throughout Sydney, even when eaten untoasted. When toasted, the buns form an outer crust many others don't, adding a gentle outer crunch. Brasserie also does an excellent chocolate and sour cherry Easter bun using the same dough but these don't have that spicy, fragrant hot cross bun clout.
1737 Botany Road, Banksmeadow, 1300 966 845. brasseriebread.com.au
These large and rustic-looking buns are packed with apricots, ''sunscats'' and muscat grapes from the Riverina, which have been macerated in alcohol before they're folded through the light, yeasty dough. The heavy fruit content makes them rich and very moist, and the honey glaze takes them up another sticky notch. There's no candied citrus peel but there is enough going on already. The spices are secret but we're guessing cinnamon, cloves and all-spice, among others. As well as being organic, these buns have a low carbon footprint, since they're made of local, seasonal and fair-trade ingredients. There's no butter or oil in their dough, either, making them even more virtuous.
98/100 Glenayr Avenue, Bondi, 9300 8804.
Bowan Island Bakery
($2 each or six for $9.50)
These moist buns are heavy without being dense, and they're just what you hoped the bunny would leave this Easter. The artisan bakery has been making them for decades but now there is a spelt variety, too. These don't have that yeasty punch many buns have but they make up for that with their unique nutty flavour, created by the spelt. Buttermilk gives them a chewy texture and they have an aroma of yellowbox honey. Sultanas, mixed peel, currants, cassia, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom give these sticky numbers a kick of flavour. The peel is far from overpowering, so they might satisfy the citrus-adverse, as well as low-GI sticklers.
183 Victoria Road, Drummoyne, 9181 3524 (also in Five Dock and Chatswood). bowanislandbakery.com.au
Black Star Pastry
($4 each or six for $18)
Christopher The wanted his hot cross buns to smell like Easter, so he called on his memories of church as a child. ''Burning frankincense was thick in the air, you could smell the old church pews and aged wine - that's what Easter smells like to me,'' he says. He has given his buns a frankincense glaze, made from the sap of a tree from Saudi Arabia, which gives them a woody tilt. The dough is scented with Herbie's spices - coriander, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon, and the fruit keeps the yeasty buns moist and soft. We're not going to enter into the whole hot-cross-buns-are-only-for-Easter argument. But we will say this: there may or may not be a dozen Black Star Pastry hot cross buns stashed away in our freezer for when this holiday season is over and we can't buy them. The Easter rabbit may go hopping on his merry way but we're hoarding for the winter.
277 Australia Street, Newtown, 9557 8656. blackstarpastry.com.au