Sweet Bread for Easter and Long After
This all started because for those of us who love baking, Easter is an ideal holiday; it’s just so doable. Instead of the glorious but daunting Christmas panoply: cookies, tortes, cakes and breads all clamoring for time and oven space, there’s only one thing you absolutely have to make: sweet yeast bread with eggs in it.
Among my food world friends on facebook, hot cross buns were this year’s hot topic and that’s where I started out – refreshing my memory by reading up in Elizabeth David’s wonderful English Bread and Yeast Cookery.
Once refreshed, however, I decided I wanted something richer, eggier and lighter than hot cross buns. Much recipe reading ensued, in bread books and in French, Italian, Greek, Polish and Russian cookbooks.
After a while, they all blended together into one airy, fragrant golden loaf, lightly studded with raisins and candied citrus peel, way too good to bake only once a year. Try it for breakfast with strawberries and mascarpone, lightly toasted with sweet butter at tea time, cut thick as sandwich bread for lemony chicken salad …
Hybrid Spring Celebration Bread
After all the reading and synthesizing I didn’t stray far from the Russian Kulich that I’ve been baking for years, but being a hybrid it also has some dna from Italian Columba Pasquale.
Making it is a lot easier than the length of the instructions suggests, but there are Three Warnings:
1.) The dough starts out heavy and sticky, difficult to mix and knead. Although it can be done by hand (see instructions at the end), doing it with a heavy duty stand mixer is a lot easier and faster.
2.) The multiple risings that give the bread its light, tender crumb and easy sliceablility take many hours, but timing is very flexible. It can be stretched out over a couple of days if that’s what fits your schedule.
3.) The dough can be baked in almost any shape, but because it’s very soft it does need support. Braids and similar sculptures spread unattractively in rising and baking.
For 2 very large round loaves, 3 tall (Kulich-shaped) loaves made in 2 lb. coffee cans or 4 standard loaves:
- ½ c. golden raisins
- ½ c. Marsala or Madiera
- ½ c. tepid water
- 1 envelope dry yeast (2 rounded tsp.)
- 1/2 cup bread flour
- 3 eggs *
- 2 egg yolks
- ¼ c. (vanilla) sugar
- 3 tbl. honey
- 2 c. bread flour
- 1/2c. tepid milk
- 1 envelope dry yeast (2 rounded tsp.)
- ¼ c. (vanilla) sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp ground cardamom
- 5 egg yolks
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- 2 tsp. orange flower water
- 1 lemon, preferably organic
- 1 large or 2 small oranges, preferably organic
- 4 ½ c. all purpose flour
- ½ lb. soft (room temperature) butter, cut in 12 chunks
- 1 c. candied citrus peel (try home made and you’ll never go back), any combination of orange, lemon and/or grapefruit, cut in small dice
Finishing and Topping:
- butter for the baking pans
- ½ – 1 c. sliced almonds
- ½ c. whole almonds
- ½ c. sugar
- 2 egg whites
- scant ¼ tsp. almond extract
1. Put raisins in a small bowl, cover with the wine and set aside, covered.
2. Make the sponge: put the tepid water in a large mixer bowl, sprinkle on the yeast and let it soften, about 10 minutes. Beat in the flour. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until tripled and foamy, 45 minutes to an hour.
3. Using the whisk attachment, beat 1st dough ingredients into the sponge. You will have a sticky mixture somewhere between stiff batter and soft dough. Use your fingers to scrape everything clinging to the beater into the bowl, then cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise double, about 2 hours at room temperature or 8 hours in the refrigerator. Dough may remain in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours if that’s more convenient.
4. Put the tepid milk in a small, wide bowl, sprinkle on the yeast and let it soften, about 10 minutes.
5. Scrape the yeast and milk onto the dough. Mix the salt and cardamom with the sugar and add, along with the egg yolks, vanilla and orange flower water.
6. Position a grater over the bowl and shred in the zest of the lemon and orange. Hold a strainer over the bowl and dump in the raisins and wine. Shake to get off as much liquid as possible, then set the raisins aside. Return the bowl to the mixer and use the paddle attachment to stir in and thoroughly mix all the additions.
7. Slowly beat in 3 cups of the flour, alternating with 8 of the butter chunks. The dough will become extremely thick and start crawling up the paddle spindle. Just push it down from time to time and persevere.
8. Remove the paddle, pushing off the dough. Almost all of it should come away fairly easily. Switch to the dough hook and use it to incorporate the last 1 ½ c. of flour and the last 4 chunks of butter. Continue to knead with the hook until the dough is smooth and shiny. It will again crawl up the spindle. Again push it down from time to time and push it off at the end.
9. Again cover and let the dough double, 2 hours or so for room temperature dough at room temperature, a bit longer if the dough was cold to begin with. As in Part 2, this rising can be done in the fridge for roughly 8 to 24 hours.
10. Heavily butter your baking pans. Sprinkle with sliced almonds, tipping out any that don’t cling. Lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough out on it. Knead just enough to deflate, then roll out into a sheet roughly ½ inch thick. It will probably stick here and there; resist the impulse to add more flour.
Spread on the reserved raisins and the candied zest, then roll up the dough, using a bench scraper or chef’s knife as a pusher in the sticky spots. Fold the roll in thirds, then knead until the fruits are evenly distributed. The dough will be smooth, soft and silky.
11. Shape the dough into balls, rings or logs, depending. They should fill the pans a scant halfway. Cover and let rise until almost at the tops of the pans, a bit less than 2 hours.
Topping and baking:
12. Put a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 375 degrees. Combine whole almonds and sugar in a processor and grind quite fine. Beat the egg whites to a soft foam and stir in the nut sugar and extract. Spoon the topping onto the loaves, starting in the center and gently helping gravity to spread it to the edges. There may be a bit left over.
Large wide shapes: bake 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake until the bread shrinks from the pan and a long skewer comes out clean (or an instant read thermometer measures 185 degrees), 25 – 40 minutes more, depending on size. Check after the first 20 minutes and cover lightly with foil if the topping is browning too fast.
Small and/or narrow shapes: turn the heat to 350 as soon as you put the loaves in the oven and start checking for doneness after 25 minutes.
Partially cool on wire racks before turning out of the pans, then finish cooling completely before slicing. Bread will stay fresh tasting for close to a week. It also freezes well, but only if thoroughly wrapped. First freezer cling wrap, then a freezer bag will keep it in good shape for several months.
To Make By Hand
It’s a lot like making brioche. Plan to use the slow refrigerator risings; they’ll make the mixing and kneading a lot easier. Steps 1 through 6 are the same. Use a heavy bowl so it doesn’t slide around, and a sturdy wooden spoon to do the mixing.
The wooden spoon will also work for about the first 2 cups of flour in step 7, but then the dough will be so thick and sticky that stirring will be impossible. Set all of the rest of the flour and butter where you can get at them easily; turn off the phone and lightly flour the work surface. Scrape the dough onto it and start mixing with your hands.
They will be completely covered with/immersed in sticky dough. Don’t fight it, just keep adding and mooshing, occasionally lifting as much of the dough as you can and then letting it fall back . After all the flour and butter are in, keep kneading and lifting (do not add more flour).
Eventually, the stickiness will fade and the dough will become smooth and shiny. This brings you to step 9 and from there on the instructions are the same again.
Update: Recipe corrected 4/10/10
The post was published with instructions in step 3. calling for “2nd dough ingredients.” This should have been ” 1st dough ingredients,” and now it is.
* Concerning quality: Another facebook thread, started by baking expert/cookbook author Nancy Baggett, has been discussing whether food writers should specify “best,” when calling for ingredients, given that not everything can be the best, and if everyone keeps insisting on “best,” what will become of everything else?
My position is that everyone already wants the best they can get without having to be told, so if you’re going to specify it pays to be specific. I said nothing about the eggs and butter although I used fresh local pastured eggs and my favorite everyday butter: Kate’s, from southern Maine, available here in the Hudson Valley at Hannaford’s supermarkets.
Were the breads better than if they had been made from bland, slightly fishy tasting battery eggs and flat, stale generic butter? Yes. Did you know that before I said so? Also yes.
“I had an excellent repast – the best repast possible – which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed. ‘La plus belle fille du monde”, as the French proverb says, ‘ne peut donner que ce quélle a’; and it might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can reasonably be expected of it. But there was a bloom of punctuality, so to speak, about these eggs of Bourg, as if it had been the intention of the very hens themselves that they should be promptly served. ‘Nous sommes en Bresse, et le beurre n’est pas mauvais,’ the landlady said with a sort of dry coquetry, as she placed this article before me. It was the poetry of butter, and I ate a pound or two of it; after which I came away with a strange mixture of impressions of late gothic sculpture and thick tartines.”
from A Little Tour in France, by Henry James, first encountered by me in one of Elizabeth David’s books, I no longer remember which.