The sultana-packed, coconut-dusted Boston bun has been a staple of “fancy”-but-still-a-bit-bogan Australian morning teas for decades. It’s one of the safest options you can bring to a shared brunch – no big flavours, it’s sweet and bread-like and, in general, as inoffensive as an episode of Bluey. Or so we thought.
Beneath the thick Boston bun icing lies a starchy little secret. A secret from the depths of the earth (or maybe, like, 10 centimetres underground). It contains mashed potato. Mashed potato! What in the absolute hell is going on?!
Deep breaths. As someone who has eaten approximately 2000 Boston buns in my time, I was visibly shaken when I found this out. Just the concept of one of the greatest gifts in life – salty, buttery mashed tubers sidled up next to plump and sweet dried grapes – is enough to make your stomach want to crawl out your eye sockets. This isn’t the 1970s! Combining potato and sultanas is basically illegal.
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One of the most commonly cited Boston bun recipes comes from the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (they’re also a big deal over the ditch). First ingredient listed? One cup of mashed potato – there’s nothing to hide here. Other ingredients include sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, milk and dried fruit (mostly sultanas).
But why the potato? Look, it’s a valid question. What did mashed potato do to deserve being baked into a sweet treat? It’s thought that the Boston bun dates back to the early 20th century when times were tough and mashed potato was commonly used as a flour substitute to save money. This checks out because when I tried to blow my mum’s mind by telling her that Boston buns traditionally contain potato, she told me she knows and has made this almost exact recipe for me as a child multiple times. I’m sorry, has my entire life up to this point been a lie?
Mum whipped out her food notebook from the 1990s where she’d handwritten a recipe for Ruth’s Potatoe Boston Bun (apparently the 1990s were ye olde times and “potato” had an extra letter). In the audio equivalent of recipe notes, she added that our neighbour Ruth was very frugal and used to fill up the bath with about three centimetres of water for all four of her kids to bathe in. So the potato as flour substitute (anecdotally) checks out.
Yes, some people make their own Boston buns, but I’m sure by far the most popular way to consume one is by handing over $7.50 to the 15-year-old repping your local Bakers Delight. So do these hallowed god-sent buns also contain potatoes? No! (Cue audible sigh of relief.) No vegetables were harmed in the making of Australia’s most iconic version of the Boston bun. But even still, we have to try the potato version now.
So for the Boston bun episode of Ingredipedia (Australia’s most unhinged food podcast) we made the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly recipe. And surprisingly, it was quite good. The main positive being it didn’t taste like sweet, mashed potato (even though creaming the sugar and mashed potato was highly disturbing). It was moist and fluffy, and that’s got to be partly due to the potato, right?
The potato thing isn’t the only mystery surrounding this iconic treat. There’s also the name. Why is this exclusively antipodean baked good named for a city on the other side of the world? And exactly which part of Boston is the Boston bun from? Is there a deleted scene from Good Will Hunting where Will shares his old potatoey family recipe with Skylar? Are we meant to dye it green for St Patrick’s Day? It’s here that it gets complicated.
In most of New Zealand, the exact same bun – studded with fruit, a little spiced, covered in a thick layer of icing and desiccated coconut – is called a Sally Lunn. Even more complicated is the fact that the name is stolen from a recipe developed at an English eating house from the 1680s. It was thought to have been invented by a Huguenot refugee called Solange Luyon, who became known as Sally Lunn. But this Sally Lunn bun was completely different – it looks more like a massive brioche hamburger bun. What’s our point here? Well, there’s not a lot of logic to the naming conventions of this iced treat.
So how did it become known as a Boston bun? The answer is… we don’t know. Yes, it’s an unsatisfying ending. But so was Serial. One thing we were certain of is that Boston buns do NOT come from Boston in any way. Its link to Boston is debunked in a number of scholarly articles. And on some sort of pre-Reddit word nerd discussion board on the Macquarie Dictionary website, we have this:
“I am originally from Boston, Massachusetts and have never encountered this treat before moving to Australia. I am not sure if Boston was selected to give it a more international appeal.”
So it’s not from Boston. And it weirdly contains both potatoes and sultanas. But it’s ours.
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