Good Food brings you the pick of this year's big-batch bakes from supermarkets and bakery chains.
Most Australians are unfussed about Christian rituals and the precise way to go about them. But although they're only vaguely religious, we take seriously hot cross buns.
Sparks can fly in conversations about the best bun around town. Some have strong opinions on whether choc cross buns are legitimate. Don't even start on the appropriate time to start eating buns. (Any time after Boxing Day? A month out from Easter? Good Friday only?) Then there's the toasted versus fresh question.
That's a lot of baggage for a little bun to carry. But at Good Food, we're ready to take it on.
On a crisp autumn morning that signalled Easter is just around the corner, four judges gathered in Melbourne to try six nationally available hot cross buns for the annual Good Food taste test.
Baking hot cross buns at the quantities required for a national retailer is no walk in the park. Coles reported at the end of February that it had already sold 25 million buns, which it began selling in December. Woolworths' bakeries needed to pump out just over 2 million buns in a week for keen eaters at the end of December, when the treats first hit shelves.
Comparing these buns to those that are hand-shaped, made with sourdough starter or free of any improving agents is a bit like comparing chuck steak with rib-eye.
Phillippa Grogan of Phillippa's bakeries says that to bake at scale, you need to find efficiencies. Baking all the buns in a single slab and then breaking them apart allows larger bakeries to cram more buns in the oven at once, a big time-saver.
Then there are all the mysterious ingredients listed on packets, which in fact do a lot of the heavy lifting in achieving consistency.
Dough can be an unpredictable thing. But wheat gluten can even out variations in the flour that will affect the final product.
Emulsifiers help achieve smooth textures and more volume in the dough, and make it easier to handle. You probably won't find them in recipes at your favourite hole-in-the-wall bakery, but sometimes they have their place.
These are the buns that virtually any Australian can get, and for many kids, this will be their first taste of an Easter tradition.
So we rolled our sleeves up, popped on the oven and sat down to a bun or six.
- We only tested traditional hot cross buns. That means fruit, spices, perhaps some peel, but no hunks of white chocolate, salted caramel swirls or the savoury buns that have been spotted this year.
- To qualify for the taste-test, the bun had to be available pretty much anywhere in Australia (sorry, small-batch bakers – but here are some of our favourites in Melbourne and Sydney). Ditto with the butter.
- We only tasted salted butter, because everyone knows that salty and sweet things are a match made in heaven.
- Most importantly, everything was tasted blind. We saw nothing more than a number on a Post-it note next to each bun and butter.
- Buns and butter were marked out of 10 for aroma, taste, texture and value for money, with the panel's scores averaged out for a final score.
- All buns were bought from the shop on the morning of the tasting and warmed in the oven for precisely 3 minutes.
The judges (from left): Michael James, Jane Wong, Roslyn Grundy and Emma Breheny. Photo: Scott McNaughton
- Michael James is a baker with 25 years' experience, best known for his time at Tivoli Road Bakery in Melbourne. He now consults for bakeries in Victoria and the UK and has co-written two books: All Day Baking and The Tivoli Road Baker.
- Jane Wong, Melbourne Royal's food and beverage awards program manager, has been a food writer, food awards judge, marketer, product developer, and hospitality and events professional. She's also a supertaster.
- Roslyn Grundy is the deputy editor of Good Food nationally, a former Good Food Guide editor and a Good Food Guide reviewer. She has participated in hot cross bun tastings for many years.
- Emma Breheny is the Melbourne reporter at Good Food, a Good Food Guide reviewer and a hot cross bun enthusiast who looks forward to trying Melbourne's best buns each year.
Sixth place: 'Emmaline', stocked by IGA
Price $9 for six
Smelling more like a pastrami roll than an Easter bun, this was the most expensive of the lot but left you feeling short-changed.
- Jane Wong: There's a spice in there that's not usually there.
- Roslyn Grundy: I think it smells like a pastrami-type spice.
- Emma Breheny: Yes! That's what I'm getting. A meaty smell.
- JW: Oh, it's allspice. That's why it smells like pepper.
- RG: I didn't get much fruit, mostly currants.
- JW: For me it was all over the place. The fruit wasn't well distributed and I had a smaller range of fruit in mine.
- EB: I had peel in mine, but it was all in one section. It didn't taste as bad as commercial peel usually does.
- RG: The flavour ends with a bitter note. The mouthfeel's not bad but it needs butter. It's spongy.
- JW: It stays a long time on the palate, and it dries your mouth. It definitely needs to be eaten with butter.
- Michael James: Great cross and classic appearance but I found it dry and doughy. It was one I didn't enjoy at all.
- JW: Yeah I didn't pass it either.
- EB: And that was the most expensive!
Fifth place: Brumby's
Price $6.90 for six
Despite an attractive plump shape, these were very inconsistent in colour and the structure didn't hold up well. A good mix of fruit was let down by the spice mix.
- JW: It's glazed and appetising to look at but it's wet and sticky in the mouth.
- MJ: There was a musky smell from the fruit, and a little bit of allspice? But it wasn't good.
- RG: I needed a bit more cinnamon to balance the allspice. It smelt a bit like commercial bread to me, not spices.
- MJ: Yes, I got that musty smell.
- EB: One side of the bun was all raisins, the other was all currants. It had a decent weightiness, but was a bit gluey in the mouth.
- RG: It's spongy but it holds up, like a Wettex.
- MJ: The bun got dry in a short amount of time, too. But I liked the appearance and the mixed fruit.
Fourth place: Woolworths
Price $3.50 for six
Most judges enjoyed the smell of fresh baking spices, but found the texture to be lacking, despite the bun's impressive rise.
- RG: It smells fresh. Cinnamon dominates.
- EB: To me it smells like mildewed newspaper or glue at a kids' craft table.
- JW: It's got nice height and an unglazed look but a metallic smell.
- MJ: Lovely spice, mild and not overpowering with hints of fruit. I love the fruitiness.
- RG: The flavour is nothing special but the fruit is plentiful and juicy.
- JW: I get very mild spice and metallic aftertaste, which could be raising agent. The texture is wet and sticky.
- RG: It's light and fluffy, but turns a bit pasty in the mouth.
- EB: Good amount of fruit but it's unevenly distributed. The texture is doughy rather than fluffy.
Third place: Bakers Delight
Price $8 for six
Best in class for looks, these plump little rounds with slender crosses almost looked like they came from a fancy bakery. The fluffy texture, crisp crust and generous amount of fruit all scored well.
- JW: Overall, this is a balanced crowd-pleaser. The crowd-pleasers need to be rewarded as well. If you think about it, this bun is spot on for its demographic.
- RG: You could put that on a table and people would say, "Oooh, yum, hot cross buns!" Whereas those previous ones, you think they've really scraped the bottom of the barrel to get the buns this year. These looked really appetising.
- MJ: The cross was straight and looked fab, and the glaze made it stand out. Best for looks!
- RG: It has a nice drum sound when you tap it. Loads of fruit, but a slight chemical aroma when it's broken open.
- EB: I get a burnt sugar smell at first, which I don't mind, but once you cut it open it smells like hand soap. The texture is good though: it's very fluffy and has small air pockets. I like the crunch of the top. It holds its shape really well.
Price $3.50 for six
Despite looking a little crumpled, these buns had a pleasant texture and were chock-full of plump fruit, earning some serious cred with our judges.
- RG: These are the sad and flat ones.
- MJ: Not great to look at but great inside. Good, dry fruit notes, subtle spice: they had the best aroma from the oven and the fruit came through well.
- RG: I could taste cloves, and I couldn't taste cloves on any of the others.
- JW: Very fruity and well-spiced in terms of flavour. Good carrier for butter.
- EB: I get an astringent flavour from the dough, which is strange because there's so much fruit. It's much better when you add butter, kind of like a fruit mince pie because it's so dense with fruit.
- MJ: They were very fruity, which is great to see.
- JW: It felt substantial too. That gives a sense of quality.
- RG: Also, the crust pulled away in one and it's properly crisp. I quite like it when there's a contrast in texture between the crust and interior.
- EB: So do I. Otherwise it just feels like baby food.
Price $2.99 for six
A fairly handsome bun, with a nice rise, gentle spice aroma and loads of fruit, this pressed the buttons of nearly every judge.
- JW: It's tall, matte and you can see the fruit. It's not sweet at all. There's a good mix of fruit, though it's unevenly distributed.
- MJ: I found the aroma very pleasing with the spice used. It's warm and fragrant.
- EB: I think it smells like your dad's aftershave.
- RG: I mainly taste juicy fruit. The spices are more a background note.
- JW: Some of the aromas are just so full on, but this one was spicy and fruity, but not overwhelming.
- EB: It would be good for kids.
- RG: It had a nice crust. I thought the contrast between the crust and fluffiness inside was quite appealing.
- EB: There's quite a nice airiness to the crumb, but it's not too soft. The fruit is sweet, plump and juicy, and the glaze is not too sweet.
- MJ: Overall, a beautiful bun. Very enjoyable.
Salted butter blocks were also put to the taste-test this year. Photo: Scott McNaughton
A hot cross bun without butter is like Easter without eggs: something is missing. Here's our ranking of eight widely available salted butters that you can pick up from just about every supermarket.
There are plenty of small dairies making wonderful butter, from cultured to hand-churned to Jersey milk examples. We encourage you to seek them out and find your favourite, alongside these solid everyday spreads.
- Winner: President (France), $4 for 200g
Whether or not this is the official butter of the Presidential residence in France, we were suitably impressed. With a faint dairy aroma thanks to cultured cream, a tangy finish and just a hint of salt, everything was in balance. It lingered and coated the mouth, although for some that might have made it feel oily. Overall, though, this was the panel's top pick.
- Runner-up: Coppertree Farms (Australia), $5.50 for 200g
Made in NSW using cultured cream and Murray River salt, this was a beautifully rich butter in both flavour and aroma. While some judges thought the culturing had gone too far, others loved its kefir-like tang. It had a good amount of salt and the bonus of a star chef endorsement. If it's good enough for Neil Perry …
- Third place: Western Star (Australia), $4 for 250g
Top marks for texture, creaminess and mouthfeel, this all-Australian butter is a solid choice for your buns. It's well-salted, which can be a plus when you're eating something loaded with fruit and spice, but might be a touch too aggressive for milder palates. It spreads well but will also hold its shape on a butter dish.
- Lurpak (Denmark)
- Westgold (New Zealand)
- Great Ocean Road (Australia)
- Just Organic (Australia)
- Kerrygold (Ireland)