The 'ultimate vegan bun' - made in Norwich
- Credit: Mike Sweetman
If you follow Norfolk’s food scene on social media, you will no doubt have drooled over Random Buns of Kindness’s delicious looking bakes on their Instagram feed.
Plump, perfectly laminated buns, bursting with flavours including cinnamon, chocolate, almond cream and more.
What may come as a surprise is that they’re totally vegan.
The artisan bakers behind Random Buns of Kindness are Mike Sweetman and Natalie Stringer, who ran the city’s much-missed Timberhill Bakery.
Keen to work on other projects, Mike and Natalie moved on from Timberhill, which specialised in vegan bakes and sourdough bread, at the beginning of 2020.
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But, like everyone, little did they know what they year would have in store.
And that was the start of Random Buns of Kindness.
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“Like a lot of people, the lockdowns of 2020 kind of destroyed my plans, which were to run vegan baking and workshop classes,” says Mike.
“So I was using the time to write my recipe book, Beating Eggs and Butter, and work on a few other recipes I'd never had the time to perfect.
“One of these recipes was for the 'ultimate vegan bun' which I imagined as like a cross between a croissant and a brioche.”
Mike is a perfectionist, so developing the buns involved a lot of experimentation – and that’s when they become Random Buns of Kindness.
“Mastering it meant baking a ton of buns, more than I could ever eat myself, so I started giving them away to anyone and everyone I saw during lockdown, just as a way to say ‘hang in there’,” says Mike.
“I don't know if it was just doing something nice at a time when people were feeling a bit isolated, or that the buns were really good, but everyone I gave them to seemed to really, really appreciate the little act of kindness.
“I started getting a few freebies, a few favours and discounts on things in return - it got to the point where I was almost paying for haircuts and coffee with buns.
“So I started thinking that maybe 'kind buns', ones that were made without animal products, might be my route out of lockdown.”
As Mike explains, he started experimenting with vegan baking after he and Natalie went vegan themselves.
“I'd been baking professionally with organic eggs and butter since 2007, but around seven or eight years ago my partner Natalie and I wanted to make the leap from vegetarian to vegan.
“At the time there were lots of barriers to going vegan but the main one for us was the thought of missing out on delicious sweet treats!
“All the vegan cakes, cookies and pastries we'd tasted really didn't hit the spot so we started experimenting ourselves and we started with vegan brownies.
“When we started to get our heads around baking without eggs and butter, we started converting our bakes at Timberhill Bakery to vegan recipes and that's when it started snowballing.
“By 2018 Timberhill Bakery was the first artisan bakery in the UK to convert everything it baked to vegan.”
As well as perfecting the taste of their bakes, the texture is all important too – the buns need to have light, flaky layers. How do they achieve that lamination without eggs and butter?
“The honest answer is trial and error,” says Mike.
“We learned during the hot weather that temperature control and technique are totally key to getting those lovely laminated layers.
“Eggs and butter play their part in helping to keep brioche moist, so to replace this we borrowed inspiration from our sourdough days at Timberhill and ended up using our 20-year-old rye starter in the dough. This means our buns keep really well and you get a real depth of flavour from adding rye culture, but there are always trade-offs.
“Adding rye sourdough to an already wet dough means laminating a very sticky dough, which is, let's say, challenging - so I'd say patience is also a key ingredient!”
About six months ago they moved into a unit in Anglia Square in Norwich, which they’ve converted into a micro bakery – look out for the pink neon bun in the window.
“It’s a really interesting part of the city – with all the little start-ups, workshops and studios it feels a bit like the Hoxton and Shoreditch of Norwich,” says Mike.
Currently they bake three types of buns that they call their classics – cinnamon, chocolate and cardamom.
“The kind of thing you could have as a delicious treat for breakfast,” says Mike.
They also bake four types of ‘stuffed’ buns filled with salted caramel, almond cream, custard or lemon cashew cream.
“These are more of a dessert or afternoon treat and very indulgent,” says Mike.
Plus, there are other flavours in the pipeline.
“The next new bun flavour will be peanut butter and chocolate after our lovely customers demanded it."
The buns are sold online at randombunsofkindness.com and at St Giles Pantry and Ancestors Coffee in the city.
And once a month they open up the bakery for a pop-up which they call Random Bun Club.
“It's probably the least glamorous retail experience you'll ever see,” laughs Mike.
“It's literally a stainless steel table full of freshly baked buns inside a working bakery, and er, that's it. It really is all about the buns.”
Follow @randombunsofkindness on Instagram to find out when their next Random Bun Club pop-up is.