Chelsea Buns - Bite into History

Cookery and recipes are all about people, not just about how and what they ate but how they lived, what they felt and how they amused themselves in their daily lives. The Chelsea Bun is no exception, it grew out of a time of  great upheaval and social change in which whole rural populations were displaced to search for work and lodgings in factory towns and overcrowded cities.

One is never enough.....

Enclosure Acts, the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Industrial Revolution meant that country dwellers who had once grown, raised and cooked their own food and could walk from their front door to commune with Nature now bought their food at the Pie and Bun Shops and paid half-a-crown to walk under trees in the pleasure gardens.

 A Chelsea Bun is no fancy pâtisserie but delicious just the same

A Chelsea Bun recipe does not figure in any of my old cookery books from the 18th century onwards but as a 'shop-bought' comestible, no doubt secrecy or maybe even snobbery precluded its appearance in print. Another indication of their being commercial baked goods is the shape. A second rising takes place within the baking tin and they are so spaced to use the maximum area of the tray and thus oven to maintain a compact appearance and fluffy texture.

The Chelsea Bun ~ History

No business was better suited to thrive than the Old Bun Shop at Chelsea in London, at one time famous for its Hot Cross Buns, which had caused a near riot on Good Friday in 1792. On that day 50,000 people turned up to buy and the shop took £35,750 at today's value! Traditionally Hot Cross Buns were only baked on one day of the year, at the time of Elizabeth I this had been written into law. Thus, it had been a stroke of genius to come up with a similar recipe, though without the symbolism and mystique which made the former so popular but with the advantage of sales on a daily basis. Doubly so, as on Good Friday, 1793 the shop owners were obliged to give notice that due to the previous year's disturbances, no Hot Cross Buns would be offered that year but with the addendum: 'Chelsea buns, as usual'.

The Chelsea Bun had first been offered for sale around 1700. In 'The Journal to Stella' April 28th, 1711, the Irish writer Jonathan Swift wrote scathingly of this latest craze:
Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one today in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it, as the man said, etc.
The author of Gulliver's Travels however was in the minority, Chelsea Buns were 'in' and the bun shop was patronised by Royalty with both King George II and King George III and their respective wives being enthusiastic devotees.

When in 1742, the Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens opened its gates to the public, its celebrated Rotunda allowed for visitors to see and be seen even in the rain. The gardens proximity to the Bun House, assured the latter's continued success.

As the English writer and socialite Horace Walpole wrote of Ranelagh:

It has totally beat Vauxhall...You can't set your foot without  treading on a Prince, or a Duke of Cumberland.
All of which goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun, from fast food to a fascination with royalty and celebrities. However, with the transitory nature of fame and fashion, once Ranelagh closed in 1839, so did the bun shop.

The Chelsea Bun ~ To make

This following amount makes 9 buns but I am convinced you will need more, even though I have just eaten two of them fresh from the oven, writing this up has made me convinced I will need to revisit the kitchen.

For the Dough

4 cups (455g) white bread flour
1 teaspoon of sea salt
3 tablespoons (40g) raw cane sugar
2½ teaspoons active dry yeast
¾ cup (170ml) lukewarm milk
1 extra large egg (or 2 bantam)
4 tablespoons (60g) butter - melted
extra flour for dusting

For the Filling

3 tablespoons (40g) butter - melted
½ cup packed (70g) raw cane sugar
1 cup (140g) mixed dried fruit - raisins, sultanas, (these I plump up in a little warm water) candied peel (home-made) recipe link at end
You will also need an 8" to 9" square cake tin 1½" to 2" deep - greased

To Glaze or Not to Glaze

Traditionally Chelsea Buns were covered with a sugar glaze but I find this makes them too sweet for my liking. All I do, is to retain some of the butter and sugar from the above recipe and then brush and sprinkle this on to the buns before putting them in the oven. One of the joys of childhood however was unrolling these carefully contrived buns, getting your fingers stuck together with the sticky glaze and then delicately picking the fruit and sugar from the bun before wolfing down the dough. Actually in my next batch I will try for a glaze of sorts as these buns I did not find too sweet and they would actually be fine with a simple sugar frosting or glaze.


400°F (200°C) - Preheating the oven to this temperature means the yeast is killed quickly, so will not have the potential to over-rise or continue to rise in cooking.


For the Dough

In colder Winter temperatures, I usually like to pre-heat my flour before I start mixing. I do this by just placing it in a large earthenware bowl at the side of our cooker.

Add the lukewarm milk to the yeast and half the sugar. Leave until the yeast has started to 'work', you will see a head of foam on the top of the liquid (approximately 5 to 10 minutes).

Mix together the sifted flour salt and  the remaining sugar.

Make a well in the centre of the mix and pour the yeast mix into it.

With your fingers, add just a little flour from the walls of the well to the centre, enough, when mixed with your fingers to form a thick batter. This is called the sponging method.

Leave for around 10 minutes or until it becomes spongy.

Beat the egg and the melted butter into the spongy mixture in the well and then incorporate the rest of the flour.

Knead for 5 to 10 minutes until the dough feels and looks smooth and has a silky surface. I actually favour near to 5 minutes).

Form into a ball.

Oil the bowl and place the ball in the centre, cover with a damp cloth and leave in the open kitchen away from draughts until it has doubled in size. This takes about an hour.

Knock back or punch down the dough and turn out onto a floured board.

Using a floured pin, roll out the dough to form a rectangle, approximately 16" x 9" (40cm x 23cm)

For the Filling

Brush the dough with the melted butter, taking care to leave a ½" (1cm) border around the edge.

Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the dough and then do the same with the dried fruit and peel.

Take the dough firmly in both hands along one long edge and and begin to roll towards the opposite edge.

Cut nine buns from the roll and place them in the prepared bun tin.


Brush with remaining butter and sprinkle with sugar.

Cover and leave to rise on the chafing area of your oven until they have doubled in size.

The buns will spread to fill the tin.

Place in the oven and bake for around 30 minutes but check after the first 20.

The buns are cooked when the tin is turned upside down and they release easily from it.

Put them onto a wire rack to cool.

Now bite into a piece of History.

Try not to eat the whole lot at once! I really tried hard.............................

Link for making your own candied peel

If you enjoyed this recipe then please feel free to comment and share it with your friends.

Hope to see you here again for another recipe from an old farmhouse in Normandie,

All the very best,
©  Sue Cross 2019
Additional Images Thanks to the Pinterest boards of:
The Chelsea Bun House in the early Victorian Era:
Ranelagh House and Gardens (1745) T. Bowles after J. Maurer
Canaletto. The Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh (c1751):

No comments:

Post a Comment