It is elderflower time now in England: on a sunny day if you come across elderflower bushes, you are hit by their unmistakable, intensely floral, sweet smell. Sambuco (elderflower) is the star ingredient of these very old, crumbly, perfumed Milanese buns, centuries ago made with millet flour, later with corn (polenta) flour. Traditionally, in Milan until the post First World War years, pàn de mèj buns were eaten on the 23rd April, St George’s day, the patron saint of lattai, milkmen. On that day, lattai used to offer single cream to their customers, knowing that they would later on customarily pour it over the pàn de mèj .
It is not certain why this tradition came about. A likely explanation is that once upon a time, St George’s day was when contracts for the supply of milk and cream between cattle keepers and lattai were signed and when the cattle would leave the flat lands of Lombardy for the mountain regions. The end of April is also when elderflower blossoms and it is abundant: it is thought that pàn de mèj buns were made to celebrate the event.
I like to nibble pàn de mèj with my morning coffee or with afternoon tea, but they would also go very well as a dessert with strawberries prepared Italian style (sliced and dressed with lemon juice and sugar) and cream, of course.
Pàn de mèj/Elderflower and polenta sweet buns from Milan
for 12-14 buns, the size of a tangerine and slightly squashed
The sponge, to be prepared the night before
Plain flour – 100g
Instant dry yeast – 2.5g or one scant teaspoon
water, room temperature – 50g
Mix the flour, yeast and liquid. Cover and let it prove for about 12 hours at room temperature.
plain flour – 250g
fine polenta flour – 100g (it is called fioretto in Italian, otherwise use normal polenta flour and grind it in a coffee grinder)
coarse polenta flour – 100g
caster sugar – 100g
eggs – three
softened unsalted butter – 100g
fresh elderflowers – 3 tablespoons
pinch of salt
granulated sugar and icing sugar to finish the buns
Next day add the plain flour, the polenta flours, sugar, eggs, elderflowers to the sponge, stir well and let the mix rest for half an hour. Add the salt and knead in the softened butter. Knead gently on a lightly floured surface. Let it rest for half an hour. Repeat the knead & rest three more times over one and a half hour. Transfer the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling film and let it prove in the switched off oven, where you have placed a mug full of freshly boiled water.
Transfer gently to a lightly floured surface and divide into 12-14 pieces. Shape them into small, slightly flattened buns, and let them prove for another hour, in the oven, with fresh steamy water.
Preheat the oven to 200° C.
Brush the buns with water, sprinkle with granulated sugar and dust them liberally with icing sugar.
Cook at 180° for about 20-30 minutes: the buns should not be completely dry inside because the corn meal will dry more when they are out of the oven (tip from Carol Field’s The Italian Baker). The sugar on top will have cracked into an irregular design. Let them cool on a rack.
They keep for a few days. You can reheat them or toast them.
For a simple and equally delicious pàn de mèj, check this, Anna Del Conte’s version: I found it a little too sweet and I would reduce the sugar by 20%, but otherwise very good and quicker than my version, if a little less complex in flavour – they are the paler one in the pictures, which I dusted with elder flower (and icing sugar) before baking, as recommended by other Italian recipes.