The Emperor’s Buns

Here’s a perfect recipe for those days when you wake up early and just can’t get back to sleep. Make some of Emperor Friedrich III buns for that wonderful sense of achievement. In 1487 Kaiser Friedrich of Austria is said to have had these buns baked with his portrait on them. I have to say that in the modern version it doesn’t look much like his face and more like his… never mind. That’s him on the right there. Not much fun at dinner, I’d say.

The dough is very much alive and behaves in a very strange but quite entertaining way. I’ll show you what I mean later on. Then there is the Austrian folding, which should result in a perfect 5 fold, star shaped bun. I have not ever managed it, but I enjoy the basketful of misshapen buns I get. They still taste great.

This one here looks just too perfect to be made by man (or woman). The Emperor buns are best eaten on the day you’ve made them, in fact within two hours is ideal, so I like to made a big batch, buy some smoked salmon, cured ham, mortadella and some good butter and have friends over for a Sunday Brunch. I’m a bit crazy, so I made this type as well as the polenta version I have given you in the note below. Mortadella and Polenta Emperor Buns is possibly the best thing you will ever eat. Don’t be shy with the butter and slap the mortadella on like there is no tomorrow and the gates of heaven will open for you. Possibly quite literally because of the sheer volume of fat each little bun will add to your arteries. Let’s get started with our….


For the Poolish Starter:

  • 120g plain, local flour
  • 10g dried yeast
  • 120ml water at room temperature

For the starter, sift the flour into the bowl of your mixer and add the yeast. Pour in the water and mix well. Cover with a cloth and leave to rest for 20 minutes. At the end of this time, your starter should have risen nicely. If you are wondering how to get the sticky dough off the fork without getting your hands dirty, just tap the fork against the dough slowly a few times and that will do the trick!

For the Semmeln (that’s buns in Austrian):

  • 380g plain, local flour
  • 5g fine sea salt
  • 200ml milk, plus extra to brush on
  • 40g butter

While the starter is starting, sift the flour into a bowl, add the salt. Put the butter into a saucepan and melt it over low heat. Pour in the milk and heat until it is just at blood heat. Once the starter has risen, set your mixer to the lowest speed, add in the flour and salt and slowly pour in the milk and butter. Knead for 3 minutes, then increase the speed one notch and leave it to knead for another 8 minutes.

By the end of this time, you should have a beautifully smooth and pretty relaxed dough. Use a scraper to shape this dough into a rough ball inside your mixer. Dust with a little flour, cover with a cloth and leave to rest and rise for 20 minutes.

For the Shaping:

  • 40g plain flour
  • 40g cornstarch

This dough is great fun to work. It’s a bit like playdough. You can cut it into pieces and put it together again and it will still forgive you. Let’s get started: Mix the plain flour and the cornstarch and sift it onto your work surface. This is your flour dust for rolling, shaping and dusting. Set up your weighing scales and cut 75g pieces off the dough. I got 11 and a bit.

Now for the fun part! Press one portion of dough tightly between the palms of your hands while rubbing your palms together in a circular motion. Excert as much force as you can for a few seconds and something strange will to happen. The dough will start to resist you and you can actually feel it starting to push back. I’m not kidding here! As the dough pushes back, release the pressure and cup your hands more and more, to form a nice, smooth ball. This should take about ten to fifteen seconds. Roll the ball in your flour dust and put it on a towel. Fold the towel over to cover the dough. Repeat until all 11 balls have been formed. Leave the dough to rest for about 10 minutes, then start the shaping.

I have tried to fold these semmel 5 times, as one should, but I have failed miserably. So as I made the last one, I decided to fold it just 4 times and lo and behold; the bun didn’t look like it had been made by a blind drunk. It’s still not an easy process and trying to explain it in words is not very useful, so here are the pictures:

Dust your buns generously with the flour dust you made earlier, put them generously spaced on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and leave them to rise another 20 minutes. Preheat your oven to 220ºC, preferably at top and bottom heat rather than fan forced setting. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 220ºC, brushing the buns with milk after about 10 minutes.

I like to put a tray of boiling water on a rack at the top of the oven, to generate a good amount of steam and improve the rise and crispness. Note all the bad shapes I made. And here are two truly bad ones:

If you can’t be bothered with all that folding, you can just cut a deep cross into the top and that will look nice too, though of course Kaiser Friedrich would not have been to happy. As promised, i will also give you the recipe for Polenta Buns. Proceed just like above, but brush with olive oil rather than milk.

Polenta Buns

For the Poolish Starter:

  • 120g plain, local flour
  • 10g dried yeast
  • 120ml water

For the Polenta Buns:

  • 380g plain, local flour
  • 80g polenta flour
  • 1 pinch fine sea salt
  • 10g malt (if you can find it)
  • 200ml milk
  • 60g olive oil
  • ½ Tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped

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