Bread-making Ideas for the Coming Holidays
To speak of holiday baking usually elicits thoughts of delectable pies and delightful sweet cookies. It’s the time of year when “visions of sugarplums (dance in your head).” Many sugary delights come to mind during the holidays; however, bread — especially bread leavened by yeast — is seldom the first sweet treat that comes to mind.
Many quick breads — often flavored with fruit and spices, and with a texture similar to breakfast muffins — find their way onto holiday buffets in tempting slices of sweet indulgence that always seem to share the spotlight with a wide array of fanciful decorated cookies. These small sweet loaves are quick and easy to prepare and perfect for sharing with family and friends during the holidays.
However, the primary focus for this holiday recipe talk is the art of bread making. Holiday bread baked from scratch. Yeast bread, prepared at home, in your very own kitchen. So, enjoy a slice of warm apple pie or a candy cane-shaped sugar cookie while you roll up your sleeves and start rolling in the dough.
Bread is often overlooked during hustle-and-bustle times of the holiday season. A variety of fresh-baked breads are readily available and easily selected from the shelves of local groceries and bakeries. Usually, very little thought is given to actually preparing such baked goods at home. From breakfast brioche, to heat-and-serve dinner rolls, there is seldom a need to consider the effort required to bake these meal accompaniments from scratch. But when you do, everyone remembers.
An unmistakable event is witnessed when homemade bread is in the works. Most likely, it’s an unusual scene with large bowls, mixers and stirring spoons and lots of flour. And eventually, the most heavenly aroma wafts throughout the house and inevitably directs all attention to the kitchen when a loaf of bread is baking in the oven.
Knowing that homemade bread is forthcoming offers a comforting atmosphere at any time of the year. During the cooler fall and winter seasons, bread-baking creates a genuine sense of warmth in the home; a kind of comfort for the entire household to embrace.
Bread Making Basics
Bread is truly a work of art. Yes, bread making is science, and requires patience and a bit of elbow grease. But making bread is also a creative process with truly artful end results. Follow the science, but create a masterpiece.
The art of bread making may seem tricky — there is a lot of information to keep in mind — but just know that practice makes perfect! You need to allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. It is a matter of literally getting the feel for the techniques, so get your hands in the flour and let’s get started!
This is the key to successful bread making: the process of proving that the yeast is alive and capable of leavening a bread. Yeast is available in dehydrated granule form (known as “active dry yeast”), fresh and perishable (compressed fresh cake yeast) and in fermented yeast starters (mixture of flour, water, sugar and yeast), such as those used for sourdough breads.
For all practical purposes, use an active dry yeast for beginning bread making activities. It is available in packets (usually three packets to a package) with an expiration date to take note. Always store yeast packets in a cool pantry and use before the expiration date for the most effective results. (Fresh yeast should be refrigerated and used as soon as possible for the best results.)
To proof the yeast, measure the amount of warm water (105–115 degrees) that a bread recipe calls for in a measuring cup and sprinkle the yeast on top. Add 1/4 teaspoon of sugar and stir. The sugar feeds the yeast. The mixture will begin to bubble and foam. Let it stand for 5 minutes. The foaming action and a fermented odor indicates that the yeast is alive and working. If nothing happens, the yeast is not active and should be discarded. It is very important that the water is between 105 and 115 degrees; use a culinary thermometer to measure the temperature. If the water is too hot, it will kill the yeast. If the water is too cool, the yeast will not activate. If the water temperature is correct and the yeast does not proof, the yeast is bad, so start again.
Forming the gluten provides the framework for a bread. Soft wheat flours, such as all-purpose and bread flours, have high gluten and protein content and will produce breads with the largest volume. Whole-wheat and rye flours have less gluten and produce loaves that are more dense. Often, lower gluten flours are combined with higher gluten flours for lighter-textured breads.
Measuring the flour is important. Lightly spoon flour into a “dry measure” measuring cup (as opposed to a “liquid measure” measuring cup) and level off the scoop using a flat edge, such as a pastry scraper or the back edge of a large chef’s knife. Do not pack the flour into the measuring cup; this could result in too much flour and a heavy, dense loaf.
Other ingredients affect bread results. Sugar is food the yeast thrives on to produce gas bubbles which helps the dough rise. Salt controls the yeast by slowing the rising time, and salt brings out flavor. Fats, such as butter and oil, help the dough to stretch and keep it tender.
When mixing the bread ingredients, use a sturdy spoon by hand in a large bowl, or preferably, use a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. A food processor works well for mixing bread dough, as well. A strong, consistent mixing forms the gluten.
Once the bread ingredients are mixed well and become a dough, form the sticky mass into a ball. To avoid sticking, dust a thin layer of flour over a flat surface (a clean countertop or a large cutting board). Also, lightly coat the dough ball (and your hands) with flour. With the dough ball sitting on the prepared surface in front of you, reach over and fold the front of the dough back toward you, pushing the dough into itself. Rotate the dough one-quarter turn and repeat the process, bringing the front over the top and back down into the dough. Use the heel of your hand to push the dough into itself. Turn the dough and repeat this kneading process until the dough is smooth and elastic, usually several minutes.
The kneading is complete when you can press the dough lightly with your fingers and it starts to spring back. Add sprinkles of flour throughout the kneading process as needed (to prevent sticking), but be careful not to add too much extra flour. The dough will begin to feel tough and very dense if it is over-kneaded or if it contains too much flour.
Humidity plays a big role in how your bread turns out. The kneading portion of the same recipe might require more flour on some days, or much less than usual on other days. This is where you begin to use your own judgment based on your experience with the feel of the dough. Practice, practice, practice!
Let It Rise
The dough needs to rest and rise until doubled in bulk. If the yeast was proofed properly, the dough should rise in just about any place free from drafts. Depending on the recipe, lightly grease a large bowl with vegetable oil, olive oil or shortening for the dough to rise in. Use a kitchen towel or plastic wrap to cover the bowl. This will prevent a skin from forming on the dough. Set the bowl in a corner, away from drafts. The first rise generally takes an hour.
To check that the dough has doubled in size, place two fingers in the dough near the edge of the bowl. If the indentions stay, the dough has doubled; if not, let the dough continue to rest for a short while longer. When the dough has doubled, use a fist to punch it down and allow it to rest for five more minutes.
Shape the dough into the preferred loaf design (according to the chosen recipe). Do not knead the dough. Simply shape and place the dough on (or in) a prepared baking pan (as called for in a recipe). Cover the loaf once again. I like to use plastic wrap during the second rise to easily check on the progress. Set the baking pan away from drafts and let the loaf rise, usually about a half hour.
Preheat the oven, according to the recipe, while the loaf is rising. When the oven is at the correct baking temperature, set the pan on the middle rack and bake the bread as directed in the recipe. This is when the kitchen begins to fill with curious noses and you can rest assured that a delicious treat will soon make an appearance, hot from the oven!
To test whether the bread is done, remove the pan from the oven and give the bread a tap. If it sounds hollow, it is done. Remove the bread from the pan immediately and place it on a wire cooling rack. Allow the bread to cool for at least ten minutes before cutting. Use a serrated knife to slice, spread on a favorite topping and enjoy — you deserve it!
Bread for the Holidays
If you are new to bread making, a simple loaf of white bread is the best recipe to start your bread-baking adventures. Pizza dough (or a focaccia) is also easy and offers a great opportunity to get used to the mixing and kneading processes. For a holiday twist, I like to make a traditional German favorite. Stollen (see recipe) is a rich, yeast bread, filled with dried fruit and topped with a powdered sugar glaze. A large, thin slice of this half-moon-shaped sweet loaf is perfect with a cup of coffee for a holiday breakfast-brunch, or just as tasty on a dessert buffet next to bites of fresh fruit and gourmet cheese.
A braided challah (egg bread) formed into a wreath shape makes for an elegant presentation at a holiday dinner with its tanned egg glaze and light and airy texture. Homemade cinnamon rolls are always a hit for breakfast, but seem extra special during the holiday season. And as I mentioned above, quick breads should be in everyone’s holiday baking repertoire.
Quick breads are simply that: breads that are very quick and easy to prepare. They don’t require kneading or rising because quick-acting baking powder (and/or baking soda) is used for the rising process. Simply mix the ingredients and bake. Quick breads range in flavors that are only limited by your imagination, but holiday spice variations always seem to top the list of favorites. Orange cranberry, cinnamon pear and pumpkin spice are always on my holiday baking wish list.Bread may not be the first homemade taste treat that comes to mind during the busy holiday baking season, but don’t discount the effect that a warm, fresh loaf of bread makes on unsuspecting family, friends and holiday guests. This is the season for traditions and spending memorable times with loved ones. There’s no better time to begin a tradition that can last many lifetimes — just start with bread.
Written by Carol Ritchie
Makes 1 large loaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup warm water (105°–115°F)
1 packet (1 scant tablespoon) active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar (for proofing yeast)
3 cups bread flour (or all-purpose flour), plus up to 1 cup extra during kneading
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried citron
Powdered sugar (to dust on top of baked loaf)
1/4 cup halved candied or maraschino cherries, for garnish (if desired)
Place salt, sugar, butter, and milk in a small saucepan. Stir and heat on low (do not boil), until mixture is warm and butter is slightly melted. Remove from heat and reserve while proofing the yeast. Measure warm water into a large mixing bowl. (Make sure the temperature of the water is between 105 and 115 degrees F.) Sprinkle active dry yeast over the water, add 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and stir lightly. Let stand (for yeast to proof) for 5 minutes. If the yeast is foamy and has a fermented odor, continue with recipe. (If nothing happens to the yeast, start again with a new packet of yeast and the correct water temperature.)
Add 3 cups flour, cardamom, egg, and the reserved warm milk and butter mixture to the yeast mixture in the large mixing bowl. Using a large, sturdy wooden stirring spoon, stir and mix the ingredients until combined and the mixture becomes a dough. (When it is thoroughly mixed, the dough should begin to pull away from the sides of the bowl.) Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and using your hands, knead the dough (fold, press, turn, repeat) until it is smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes. (Use only enough extra flour—about 1/2 to 1 cup—to keep the dough from sticking to your hands or to the countertop.) Place the dough in a large, lightly greased bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, and let it rise in a place free from drafts until it is doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Punch down dough and transfer to a large clean surface (cutting board or kitchen counter). Pull and flatten the dough into a large oval shape, about 12 by 16 inches. Sprinkle the golden raisins, dried cranberries, and dried citron evenly over the surface. Fold the dough in half lengthwise, enclosing the dried fruit. Fold the dough end-to-end and lightly knead the dough to distribute the fruit throughout the dough, about 15 seconds. Pull and flatten the dough once again into the large oval shape. Fold the oval in half lengthwise, bringing the top edge almost to the bottom edge, but not quite even—leave about an inch border at the bottom. Lightly press the top edge into the bottom dough. This “off-center folded oval” (like a Parker House roll) is the common shape for a traditional stollen; however, any wide, long bread loaf shape of your choice will do.
Place the prepared dough on a lightly greased (vegetable oil-sprayed) large baking sheet (a jelly roll pan works well for this large loaf). Cover the dough with a kitchen towel (or plastic wrap that has been lightly sprayed with vegetable oil to keep it from sticking to the dough) and let it rest (and rise) once more, for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°F. Remove towel (or plastic wrap) from dough and place baking pan on the center rack of the oven. Bake bread for 30 to 35 minutes. (Bread is done when it sounds hollow when tapped and the crust is golden. The inside temperature of the bread should read 190°F on a kitchen thermometer.) Remove bread from baking pan and place on a wire cooling rack. When bread is cool and ready to serve, dust the top with powdered sugar and garnish with candied cherries. Cut into thin slices to serve.
You can use a kitchen stand mixer or a food processor to mix and knead the dough for this bread. Simply follow the standard recommended manufacturer’s directions for the proper attachments, equipment speed, and time length for mixing and kneading.
Cardamom is an aromatic spice, related to ginger, native to India, and quite popular in Scandinavian cooking. It adds a warm, spicy-sweet flavor to dishes and is very distinct in this traditional German holiday bread. It is often sold in seed form and needs to be ground to release its flavor before using in a recipe. Use a mortar and pestle to grind cardamom seeds.
Citron is a large, sour, citrus fruit. It is used almost exclusively for its thick, lemon-flavored peel, which is commonly candied (for long shelf life) and used in holiday baking. Many stollen recipes call for citron as the only dried fruit in this bread (and sometimes sliced almonds). My mom bakes this bread during the holidays as an annual tradition, and she likes to add the golden raisins. I’ve added the dried cranberries, not only for flavor, but for a touch of holiday color. Choose any [chopped] dried fruit to substitute in this recipe (1 1/2 cups total) for your own “custom-designed” holiday bread.
Rather than dusting powdered sugar on top of a loaf of stollen, you may opt for a sugar glaze: Combine in a bowl 1 cup sifted powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons hot water, and 1/2 teaspoon butter, stirring well. (Adjust water as needed for consistency.) Drizzle (or brush) sugar glaze over warm bread before slicing.
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