Chelsea buns are a British tradition dating back to at least the 1700s. They’re commonly filled with brown sugar, butter, currants or raisins, cinnamon, and lemon zest, and sometimes drizzled with sugar icing or glazed with diluted apricot or orange jam. The end product is delicious, sticky, and very aromatic.
Recipes for Chelsea buns abound, including ones by recent contestants on the Great British Bake Off, but in my traipsing around the internet, the recipe that most intrigued me was on the blog Cardamom and Tea because it included an unexpected ingredient: sage. Sage is often described as having eucalyptus and citrus notes, and the blogger, Kathryn Pauline, talks about how in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, ingredients such as sage are often treated as neutral, and context is what makes them sweet or savory.
Sage in a new context sounded like something I especially wanted to try for the holiday season when I crave treats with dried fruit and deep flavors. I modified the recipe that inspired me over the course of a few test runs. Foremost, I wanted to use whole grain rouge de bordeaux flour and sourdough leavening rather than white flour and yeast; and after eating the first batch, I decided to use more cinnamon and sage and to double the raisins. I also experimented with soaking the raisins in bourbon. I found this added a smoky woody note to the filling and enhanced the flavor of the sage.
I think the end product is unique and irresistible. Every time I ate one of these buns, I struggled to not immediately eat another. These buns are certainly sweet rather than savory, but the sage gives them an herbal dimension that pairs wonderfully with the mildly tart whole grain sourdough, the cinnamon, and the slightly boozy raisins.
One of my goals with this recipe was to keep the process short (in sourdough terms) by experimenting with an enormous levain aka starter build and by keeping the entire process warm. The sweet low-hydration levain in this recipe weighs 325g, which is the same weight as the flour in the final dough. The levain took 6 hours to ripen/double; the dough took 4 hours to double; and the proofing buns needed another 4 hours to expand and get puffy and be ready to bake. I used my oven with the light on to kept the entire process at 80-85F.
The large levain ended up working well for flavor and timing. The dough was strong; the buns weren’t overly sour; and everything could be done in a day. I let the buns cool overnight uncovered, and then wrapped them tightly in the morning. They reheat perfectly when you’re ready to glaze and serve.
Of course, you could instead refrigerate the dough and bake the next day. I believe the best time to refrigerate is at the end of the final proof. This way it is ready to bake, whereas you risk waiting all the next day for the dough to finish rising if you refrigerate at the end of the bulk fermentation or the beginning of the final proof.
Make sure you check out the Photo Gallery after the recipe to see the dough at various stages and how to assemble the buns.
Whole Grain Chelsea Buns with Cinnamon and Sage
Sage, cinnamon, and bourbon-soaked raisins make these Chelsea buns so delicious and perfect for winter breakfast or tea time. And the whole grain flour and sourdough leavening of the dough add a depth of flavor and a slight tartness that pair wonderfully with the filling.
2 Tbsp bourbon OR water for soaking the raisins (20-30g)
4 Tbsp salted butter, melted (57g)*
*If you have unsalted butter, simply use 1/4 tsp more salt divided between the dough and the filling
Mix the levain ingredients and briefly knead. Place the levain in a container with room for doubling, cover loosely, and keep warm, ideally 80-85F.
When the levain has doubled in size (about 6 hours in a lit oven) it is ready to use.
Dough Mixing and Bulk Fermentation
Put all the dough ingredients except for the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. Tear the levain into about 10 pieces when you add it to the bowl.
Run the mixer on low and then medium speed until the ingredients are incorporated.
Add the butter chunks one at a time while running the mixer, waiting about 30 seconds between each chunk.
Remove the dough from the mixer, working it between your hands to check for any unincorporated butter. If you find any butter chunks, smear and knead with your hands.
Place the dough in a bowl or straight-walled container, cover and keep warm (ideally 80-85F) until doubled in size (about four hours in a warm lit oven).
Do the filling prep described below, except melting the butter, while the dough is rising so the raisins have time to soak.
Prep the bun filling in three small bowls: one with the brown sugar, cinnamon, and sage whisked together (pinch of salt too if your butter is unsalted), a second bowl with the raisins and bourbon or water, and a third bowl with cubed butter (microwave it at low power just before using). I prefer to chop the raisins rather than use them whole — to get a more even spread of the raisin flavor.
Lightly oil/butter your work surface and turn the doubled dough out onto it.
Gently pat and roll the dough out into a rectangle about 12″x18″.
Brush on the melted butter, leaving about 1/2″ uncovered on one of the long edges.
Sprinkle on the sugar-spice-herb mixture, gently smoothing it even with your palm.
Spread on the damp raisins.
Roll the dough into a tube, working toward the unbuttered long edge and letting the tube rest on the seam to seal up.
Grease 9″ diameter cake pan. If not non-stick, then line the bottom with a round of parchment paper too.
Mark lines on the tube for eight buns and then cut the buns using a sharp serrated knife or dental floss looped around the tube (pull opposite ends).
Place the buns in the pan and cover loosely.
Final Proof and Baking
Let the buns rise until they almost fill the pan (see photo gallery), about four hours if kept warm. Remember to take the pan out of the oven for the preheat if that’s where you’re proofing the buns.
Preheat your oven to 350F.
Bake the buns for 25-30 minutes, until the inside of the buns is about 190F.
Remove from the oven and cool for about 10 minutes. See serving tips below.
Icing and Serving
Mix together the powdered sugar and milk. Always start with very little liquid.
If you plan to serve the buns after the 10-minute cooling period, flip the buns out of the pan and then flip them again onto your serving dish. Drizzle on the icing.
If you plan to serve the buns later or the next day. Run a flat knife or thin spatula around the inside of the pan to separate the buns from the edge. Leave them in the pan to finish cooling, then wrap with plastic. When it’s time to serve them, flip them out of the pan and drizzle with icing.
You can reheat the entire batch or one at a time. For one bun on a plate, I heat for 30 seconds in the microwave.
Large sweet stiff sourdough starter, 6 hours to double
Final stage of mixing: adding the butter in chunks
Fully mixed dough
Whole grain windowpane
Bulk ferment, 4 hours to double
Melted butter, brown sugar, chopped soaked raisins, sage, cinnamon, and mature dough
Combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and sage
Press out and roll the dough on an greased countertop, brush on the butter
Sprinkle on the dry mix
Spread on the raisins
Roll and mark for 8 buns
Cut with serrated knife or dental floss
Place in a greased 9″ cake pan (line base with parchment if not nonstick)