I always love getting to ‘dress the set’ as it were of my books with bits and bobs from the era. Food is often one of those bits; the sights and smells and tastes of a place are so evocative, aren’t they? So I often find myself in a deep dive looking for what my characters would have been eating and what it would smell and taste like.
In my last book, one of my characters was sitting down to breakfast and the scene just screamed for a cinnamon roll—it was exactly what needed to be on the table. BUT, the big questions was whether or not such things actually existed in the day.
Naturally, the answer was ‘sort of’. Obviously, Cinnabon wasn’t around then, be apparently, there was a Georgian era doppelganger lurking about, ready to supply a cinnamon roll fix. Seriously, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the Chelsea area of London, there was the Chelsea Bun house, famous for its namesake, the Chelsea bun (as well as hot cross buns.) The place was so famous, it was patronized by Kings George II and George III.
The Chelsea Bun House appears to have started business early in the 1700’s, appearing in a journal entry by Jonathan Swift in 1711. Over a hundred years later Sir Richard Phillips wrote in A Morning’s Walk from London to Kew that the shop had been operated by the same Hand family for four generations.
Unfortunately, the last of the family died in 1839, and with him, the Chelsea Bun House came to an end.
The buns continue to be made though. They start with a rich yeast dough that may be flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon or other mixed spices. Currants, brown sugar and butter are spread over the dough before it is rolled and cut into individual buns. After baking it is covered with a sticky sugar glaze. Sounds nothing like a cinnamon roll at all huh?
Here’s a modern version of the traditional Chelsea Bun. I may just be making these for New Year’s. I’ll share pictures if I do—and you must do the same if you try them!
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• pinch of salt
• 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) yeast
• 1/4 teaspoon sugar
• 5 tablespoons butter, divided
• 1 3/4 cups milk, divided
• 1 egg, beaten
• Vegetable oil
For the Filling:
• 1 cup raisins or currants
• 1/2 cup brown sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
For the Icing:
• 4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl; make a well in the center.
Sprinkle yeast and sugar into the well. Heat 2 tablespoons butter and 1 1/2 cups milk over medium heat until the butter has melted and the milk is just warm. Cool for 2 minutes. Pour the milk into the flour well.
Mix and add beaten egg. Mix until a dough forms.
Knead by hand for 5 minutes. Coat with thin layer of vegetable oil and place in a bowl covered with a towel. Leave to rise in a warm place, until roughly doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Press down dough, and turn out onto a floured work surface. Roll dough with a rolling pin into a rough 8- by 13-inch rectangle. Melt 2 more tablespoons butter. Brush dough with butter, leaving a 1-inch border along the top (long) edge. Add raisins and brown sugar on top of butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Gently roll along to long side to form a 13 inch-wide roll. Cut the tube into 8 equal pieces.
Butter an 8- by 11-inch baking dish and place rolls in dish. Let the buns rise in a warm place until doubled again, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake in center of the oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Combine the remaining 1/4 cup milk and the confectioner’s sugar in a saucepan and whisk until smooth. Simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Pour over buns while still warm. Serve warm.