Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Praise of the Bun

The humble 'bun' seems to have fallen out of favour. Baked (and burned) by generations of Irish mammies, it has been all but forgotten since Carrie Bradshaw arrived, brandishing it's bigger, swankier, tarted-up American cousin, The Cupcake.

 Old Fashioned Buns (recipe at end)

Though originally denoting a larger, lighter, version of the traditional Bun, (albeit one piled high with  butter-cream) many of us here in Ireland now use 'Cupcake' to refer to pretty much all of our paper-case-baked goods. And I think that's kind of sad. Baking is so incredibly popular but you will rarely hear anyone declare that that they have just baked 'buns' nowadays, perhaps with the exception of TV3's more-than-slightly-terrifying force of nature, Catherine Leyden (...have I just admitted to watching Ireland AM?....Moving swiftly on...)

 A really versitile, light cupcake(recipe at end)

In any case, I don't consider a bun and a cupcake to be the same thing. They are different, each with their own merits.  For me, a bun is a heavier, richer, butter-based mixture whilst a cupcake is only slightly bigger, an altogether airier affair, generally made with oil rather than butter.

Growing up in Mayo, we referred to fairy-cakes, queen-cakes and buns interchangeably, even though my mother always and ever used the same recipe from her dog-eared old domestic science book.(On reflection, this may have been a wily attempt to convince us that we were being given something different each time). However, if you're a stickler for accuracy, which certainly wasn't the case in our house, I have learned since that queen cakes do traditionally contain raisins. Nevertheless, 'Buns', it seems, have now come to refer to various different (often American) bread-based goods rather than little cakes. 

                                          Blueberry Streusel Muffins (recipe at end)

Muffins only entered my radar in the early noughties as visually- impressive (but strangely bland)pillow-soft monstrosities (made, at that time, almost exclusively by Cuisine de France). They were much like a larger version of my beloved bun but with much of the flavour removed. However, it seems the meaning of Muffin is now changing too and is coming to denote what is more often than not a breakfast item (often savory and including bran or something similarly virtuous) and not just a giant cake. 

                                                     Lots of Paper Cases 

I am presently going through a bit of a bun/muffin/cupcake phase, sparked, I think, by the predictably kitsch mini cases my Korea-based brother sent me a couple of months back. Though they turned out to be that bit too tiny to deliver even one whole satisfying mouthful(and are probably more suited to chocolate/sweet making) my thoughts turned to all things paper-case related and the seemingly endless scope there is for experimentation.

Here's some of what I have been making recently

Old Fashioned Buns

This is the good, solid, old-fashioned bun recipe I have used for years and very like what many of us in Ireland would have eaten as children. The most important thing here is to have your butter super-soft.


150g soft butter
150g caster sugar
175g plain flour, sieved tgether with 3/4 tbs baking powder
2 large eggs


1)Beat butter and sugar together until pale and creamy.

2) Add a tbs of the flour and mix before adding the first egg and beating.

3) Continue to add the flour , mixing to ensure it's evenly incorporated.

4) Spoon the mixture into 12 standard cases or 24 minis.

5) Bake in an oven preheated to 140 ' (fan) for approximately 20 minutes (standard) and 12 (mini).

Super light and Airy Vanilla Cupcake

I'll admit that I didn't have to do a huge amount of work to perfect this recipe. Scrap that, I didn't do any at all. I came across a great site called where an American blogger named Stef tests and recommends a huge range of cupcake recipes. This vanilla cupcake recipe is all hers and damn good it is too, light as a feather and really moreish. The only changes I made were to omit the vanilla beans and replace the sour cream with Greek yogurt which worked brilliantly. I won't give you the recipe for the strawberry buttercream as, to be honest, it was a bit of an ill-judged experiment, too sweet, and not something I would make again.

Blueberry Streusel Muffin

This recipe comes from the wonderful Joy of Baking and is about as far from a generic, wet, plastic-wrapped blueberry muffin as you could get. It also fits in well in terms of my perception of what a muffin should be, delivering much more of a bite than the cupcake above, for example. They are also not overly sweet, making them a good breakfast option.

In conclusion 

But what does it matter, you might argue, if we describe these little treats as buns, muffins, queen-cakes, fairy-cakes or something else entirely? Well I think it does matter. Ireland's food culture (though now well on the up), is still poor enough without us surrendering elements of it so freely. We don't have the rich food history of the Italians or the French but they certainly wouldn't rename some of their baked staples so easily. And neither should we.

So, if you do decide to bake the above,  I hope you enjoy them, as much as I did - the Cupcake and the Muffin, certainly, but also, that thing of simple beauty that is a Good Old (Irish) Bun.


  1. Hi A - I am with you in praise of the bun. We too called them fairy and queen cakes when I was young. Interesting what you said about queen cakes containing raisins - my other half does not like raisins so I have to go to other people's houses to enjoy them. Our favourite at home are chocolate buns made by substituting 1-2 oz of the flour with cocoa - sometimes we add chocolate chips but they are lovely in any case. In summer we add a raspberry or two to vanilla or lemon buns . Like the blog so far ........

  2. Thanks to you whoever you are for stopping by :) The simple things are often the best for sure!