These fluffy buns use an Italian technique for pre-fermentation called a biga, which adds flavour and texture. The lightness of the enriched bread is complemented by the creamy crème pâtissière centre and the sweetness of the apricot. These make a delightful breakfast treat, but do remember that you’ll need to start the biga at least a day in advance.
First, make the biga. Tip the flour and yeast into a medium mixing bowl and add 150ml of room-temperature water. Mix the ingredients together, then cover the bowl with a damp tea towel and leave the biga at room temperature for 12–16 hours, until ready to use.
When the biga is ready, make the dough. Pour the milk into a heatproof jug and heat it in the microwave for 10 seconds on full power (alternatively do this in a pan over a low heat until the milk is just warm). Add the warmed milk to the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle over the yeast, mix with a spoon and leave to stand for 5 minutes.
Fit the stand mixer with a dough hook and add 270g of the biga (you will have some left over – it will keep, covered in the fridge, for up to 2 days). Then, add the flour, salt, sugar, eggs and vanilla paste to the bowl. Mix on low speed for 2 minutes, until the dough comes together as a ball. Then, increase speed to high and knead for 5 minutes until the dough is smooth.
Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter in small quantities, mixing well between each addition. Once you have added all the butter, mix on high for another 3–5 minutes to a very soft dough.
Divide the dough into half and place each piece in a large freezer bag, flattening out the dough inside the bag. Chill it in the fridge for 15 minutes, then turn the bags of dough over and chill for another 15 minutes. Once chilled on both sides, the dough should feel firm and is ready to work with.
Working quickly on a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll out one piece of chilled dough to a 1cm thickness. Using one of the greased tart rings, cut out 6 circles of dough to create 12 discs altogether. Repeat for the other piece of dough.
Place the greased tart rings on the lined baking sheets and put one dough circle inside each ring. Using your fingertips, create a round indent in the centre of each circle, stretching the dough outwards slightly. Place the baking sheets in proving bags (or any clean plastic bag) and leave to prove in a warm place for 2 hours, until risen until 2mm from the tops of the rings.
Meanwhile, make the crème pâtissière. Pour the milk into a large saucepan, and place it over a medium heat. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer, then remove it from the heat.
Add the egg yolks, vanilla, sugar, cornflour and custard powder to a large mixing bowl and mix until well combined. Using a balloon whisk, whisk continuously while slowly pouring the milk over the egg mixture. Pour everything into a clean saucepan and place it over medium heat. Stir continuously for about 5 minutes, until thickened.
Pass the crème pâtissière through a sieve and into a clean bowl. Cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin forming and place the crème pâtissière in the fridge to cool for 20–30 minutes. Once cooled, add the cognac and butter and, using a hand-held stick blender, blend until smooth. Cover the surface with cling film again and set aside until ready to use.
Make the crumble. Tip the flour and salt into a medium mixing bowl and, using your fingertips, rub in the cubed butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Then, stir in the sugar. Chill until you’re ready to use.
Make the apricot glaze. Gently heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan until just bubbling (or microwave it on full power for 30 seconds). Pass the jam through a small sieve into a bowl and set aside until ready to use.
Once the dough is ready, heat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/Gas 6.
Spoon 1–2 tablespoons of crème pâtissière into the indented centre of each piece of dough and place a drained half an apricot on the top.
Make an egg wash by combining the egg yolk with the milk in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush the mixture around the outer rim of the dough, then sprinkle some crumble over the rim. Bake the buns for 15–20 minutes, until golden brown, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool a little. Remove the buns from the rings (if they stick, carefully run a knife around the inside of the ring to release them). With a pastry brush, carefully brush each of the apricots with the apricot glaze, then serve warm.