Dear Roopa: On first receiving your request, I thought you were looking for a dark-in-colour bun or roll recipe, made with dark rye flour. But when you said you wanted to replace your Christmas fruitcake with it, I knew you were in search of something quite different with an unusual name that becomes a little less weird when you know its story.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, black bun is a Scottish institution and festive cake most often enjoyed at Hogmannay (New Year’s Eve). That book says this baked good has a long and puzzling history, with the name “black bun” only coming into use in the 20th century.
In an 1826 recipe for it by a person named Meg Dods, she called it Scottish Christmas bun. Back then, it was more like a bun, albeit a very large one, made with a yeast dough enhanced with dried fruit, eggs, spices and brandy. That enriched dough was encased in plain dough. In that era, Dods says, it was made by Edinburgh’s best bakers in advance of Christmas, enjoyed locally and also shipped to other parts of the United Kingdom.
Around the same time, another treat, plum cake, was also enjoyed. The Oxford Companion to Food says the term “bun” may have been introduced to avoid confusion with the meaning the Scots had for “cake” as a hard biscuit or cracker, as in oat “cakes.”
As this creation evolved, it became so rich with spices and fruit, the bread dough was replaced with just enough flour and moisteners to hold the fruit together. The fruit mixture was also encased in short crust pastry, rather than another layer of bread dough.
Because the filling became so rich with spices and fruit, it also became quite dark in colour. The story goes that famed author Robert Louis Stevenson described it as a “black substance inimical to life” and after that, the name “black bun” came into use.
Today, black bun is still a fruitcake-like mixture sealed in a pastry crust that’s baked in a loaf pan, or cake pan, as I did. Today’s recipe for black bun is one I adapted slightly from one I found in an old Time-Life Foods of the World book called The Cooking of the British Isles.
It, like many other recipes I found for black bun, contains so much dried fruit you wonder how it will all fit into the pan, but it does. Because the fruit mixture is so dense, the black bun takes a while to bake, a total of three hours, with the last 90 minutes at a low 275 F.
When the black bun was baking, the aroma that filled my home was incredible, which made me want to dig into it right after baking, but I knew I shouldn’t.
After baking, the black bun — like fruitcake — should be allowed to mature a while. You do that by tightly wrapping it and letting it stand at room temperature at least a week — or two or three — to allow its flavours to meld into something quite tasty and festive.
For display purposes, in the photo you see a large wedge of the black bun, but a thinner slice would actually make a nice portion served with a good cup of tea or fine glass of Scotch whisky.
Scottish Hogmannay Black Bun
This Scottish-style seasonal baked good sees rich fruitcake baked in a buttery crust. The dense “black bun” takes a while to bake, three hours, plus you need to rest and chill the dough, so factor that in when planning a time to make it.
Preparation time: 40 minutes, plus dough resting and chilling time
Cooking time: 3 hours
Makes: 24 or more servings
For the pastry
1/2 lb. cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ice cold water
Place cubed butter and flour in a bowl. With a pastry cutter or 2 forks (or with the paddle attachment of your stand mixer), cut the butter into the flour until you create a mixture that looks like flakes of coarse meal. Pour the water over the butter/flour mixture. Gently work in the water until you form loose, moist dough that just holds together.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into a ball. Wrap the dough. Set dough in refrigerator and let rest 2 hours.
For the filling
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground mace
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
3 1/2 cups sultana raisins
3 1/2 cups golden raisins
2 cup currants
2 cups blanched whole almonds, very coarsely chopped (see Note)
1 1/2 cups (about 225 grams) cut candied mixed peel (see Note)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup brandy
n soft butter or vegetable oil spray for greasing
1 egg, beaten
Place flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, mace, cloves, salt and pepper in a very large mixing bowl and whisk well to combine. Add the raisins, currants, almonds and candied peel and mix thoroughly until the fruit and almonds are well coated with the flour mixture.
Place the eggs in a second bowl and beat until well combined. Mix in the buttermilk and brandy. Pour this mixture over the flour/fruit/almond mixture and mix very well to combine.
Lightly grease the inside of a 9-inch round, 3-inch deep, spring-form cake pan with butter or vegetable oil spray.
Cut off 2/3 of the dough and place on a very large, lightly floured work surface. Press and form the dough into a 1-inch-thick disc. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a circle about 15 to 16 inches in diameter. Drape the pastry over the rolling pin and unroll it loosely over the cake pan. Gently press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan, being careful not to stretch the dough. Allow the excess dough to hang over the edges of the pan.
Spoon and pack the fruit and nut mixture into the cake pan. Brush the edges of the overhanging dough with beaten egg. Set the remaining piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll into a 10-inch diameter circle.
Set that piece of rolled dough over the filling. Crimp and squeeze the edges of the top and bottom dough together. Cut away the excess dough. Cut a small hole in the centre of the black bun to allow steam to escape. (No need to brush the top of the black bun with beaten egg. The pastry will turn a rich golden after the long baking period.) Refrigerate black bun 20 minutes, to allow the pastry to firm up.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Bake black bun in the middle of the oven 90 minutes. Reduce heat to 275 F and bake 90 minutes more, or until the fruitcake middle is cooked and the pastry richly golden top and bottom.
Set the black bun on a baking rack and cool in the pan to room temperature. When there, remove the cake pan’s outer ring. Tightly wrap the black bun and let its flavour mature at cool room temperature at least a week — or two or three if time allows — before slicing and serving.
Note: Blanched almonds are whole skinned almonds. They are sold at most supermarkets in bags or in bulk. Coarsely chopped means to cut each almond into 2 to 3 pieces. Cut candied peel is sold in tubs in the baking aisle of most supermarkets.
Eric Akis is the author of the just-published hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
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