Spiced Elderberry Buns

There's nothing more rejuvenating than the swing from August to September. The chaos of summer - of breeding and courtship, greenery and endless heat - fades. Suddenly the wind blows cooler, the woods swell with decay, and with each shortening day we begin our repose into autumn. 

This morning I spent a peaceful morning with the horse, listening to buzzards mewing in the Hangers. At this time of year I should be at Birdfair in Rutland with my friends, but I've been struggling with a bad back and realised I couldn't make the three hour drive without crippling myself. I was gutted at first, but I think the universe knows what's best in its own strange way - turns out my exhaust pipe was dangling off so it would have been an intense journey if I'd attempted it. 

One of my Birdfair traditions is gathering sloe berries in the fields around the campsite, which I use to make my annual batch of Christmas gin, so today I headed out to find the first of the hedgerow berries ripening in the late summer sun around home.

Elderberries are one of my favourite fruits to forage at this time of year, and I knew where a thicket of elders grew nearby that would be heaving with berries. They're small and deep purplish-red, and although they can be eaten raw in small amounts, they're better fermented in mead or boiled into jam and jelly. I gathered a few clusters in a bag, and later added fresh blackberries picked with my parents that evening, out towards Steep where sand martins nest. 

Elder trees can be found everywhere in Britain, but often grow around rabbit warrens because rabbits eat the berries and help germinate the seeds. The berries ripen from leftover elderflowers, which is why it's useful to resist picking all the blossoms in spring - although it's good to do this anyway as pollinators like the flowers!

Today's berries are all in the freezer now - the glory of modern technology. I'll probably simmer the blackberries down into jam with a handful of crab apples, but the elderberries will be reserved for my favourite early autumn treat - sticky buns with sweet lemon icing and a pot of tea.

The following recipe was developed before I went vegan, but with a little experimentation I'm sure the ingredients could be substituted for plant milk, vegan butter and a flax egg. One of my favourite things about going vegan is trying to reinvent my favourite recipes using plant-based alternatives - I'll soon be tackling our family Christmas cake recipe!


SPICED ELDERBERRY BUNS

This recipe is from my first book Food You Can Forage - available to buy online, on the high street, and in my shop here.

For the filling:
200g fresh elderberries
75g demerara sugar
2 tsp mixed spice
25g unsalted butter
225g icing sugar
2-3 tbsp lemon juice

For the dough:
500g strong white flour
Pinch of sea salt
7g dried yeast
300ml whole milk
50g salted butter
1 medium egg

Method:
Sift the flour, salt and yeast together in a bowl and make a well in the middle using a spoon. In a saucepan, heat the salted butter until it has melted and add to the flour mixture, as well as the milk and egg. Using your hands, stir the whole mixture together until it forms a soft dough; you may need to add a little flour or milk depending on the consistency. Sprinkle a little flour onto a clean surface and spread out to create a non-stick area, then tip your dough mixture out. Knead the dough for five to ten minutes (depending on arm strength - it takes me ages) until the consistency is smooth and elasticated, but no longer sticky. Return the dough to the bowl and cover with a teatowel, then set aside at room temperature for an hour.

Meanwhile, pour the elderberries into a preserving pan with a little water and simmer until the berries have softened to a juicy mush. Remove from the heat, add the sugar and mixed spice and stir well. In a separate pan, heat the unsalted butter until it has melted and leave aside.

Once the dough has risen to twice its size, lightly flour a surface and tip the dough out. Roll out into a rough rectangle around ½ cm thick and brush the exposed surface lightly with the melted butter. Then tip the elderberry mixture onto the surface and spread out evenly across the rectangle. Carefully roll the rectangle into a sausage so that the elderberry mix forms a spiral through the middle and, once secured, slice the sausage into 4 cm slices.

Place each slice on its side onto a greased baking tray and cover them all with a teatowel. Preheat the oven to 190°C and leave the slices to rise for 30 minutes. When risen, bake the slices for 20 minutes until they are golden brown and transformed into swirly buns, and leave to cool.

In a separate bowl, mix the icing sugar and lemon juice to form glacé icing, and drizzle over every bun until well coated.