I just glanced at my calendar and realized that Christmas will be here in less than a week: five days to be exact. Yikes. Normally at this time I’d be running around like a mad woman, taking care of last minute shopping, wrapping gifts with one hand while stirring something on the stove with the other. Oh, and continuously removing dry needles from all around the house. I love to have live tree at Christmas, but I swear the amount of needles it always brings with itself is somehow far greater than the sum of needles on its branches. And they must have feet, too, because they are all over, from the living room through the bathtub to my bed even – like tiny green pointy soldiers trying to take over the world.
This year has been strangely different. I have almost no gifts to wrap, and I haven’t caught the bug that usually sends me into the pre-holiday cleaning frenzy. We don’t have the tree up yet, either – my men decided a small pre-lit tree will do just fine, but none of them is in a hurry to actually take it out and set it up. The way I see it – we might even have one of the big photo light stands that we use when photographing my food take place of the tree this year. It’s been towering in the middle of the living room for months, and if it’s still there on the 24th, I might just hang some ornaments on it and call it good.
But the surprising thing is that none of this bugs me too much – nor the dust bunnies, nor the dirty sinks, not even the lack of a tree. Yes, I’ve been baking for weeks now, but not because of the holidays approaching, or at least not because I need to have fifteen kinds of cookies by Christmas as it used to be the case not too long ago. I’ve been baking – procrastibaking you could say – because it allows me to connect with the traditions I grew up with or people that shared their cherished recipe with me, and that need to connect always grows stronger around the holidays in me. Baking is my Zen, and while I’m rolling out that dough and pressing the cookie cutter into it, I tune out the world around, all is well, and nothing can make me to lose my cool. Well, almost nothing 🙂
This braided egg-enriched bread is traditionally baked back home around Christmas time. It’s similar to brioche or Jewish Challah, and can be braided in many different ways. Unfortunately, I haven’t been gifted with any spatial skills whatsoever and the thought of having to braid nine or ten strands of dough makes my head hurt… so I leave the elaborate preparations for professionals and stick to simple three-braid bread. Vianočka is slightly sweet and mighty tasty with its buttery taste and poppy seed or almond crunch. If you’re lucky and still have some left after a day or two, it’s also said to make a great French toast and wonderful bread pudding. It never lasts more than a couple hours around here, though! This recipe makes two loaves, so I’m hoping to hide one away in the freezer for Christmas morning.
At the height of holiday stress I’d like to wish us all may our Christmas and the days leading to it be peaceful. After all those years of pre-holiday craziness I used to for the most part bring upon me myself, I’m finally starting to really *get* that Christmas isn’t about the spotless house nor the scrumptious goodies… and it’s not about what’s under the tree, either. It’s who’s around it that matters, and if you think about it that way, you probably already have all you need. Enjoy.
Braided Christmas Bread (Vianočka)
(adapted from Nick Maglieri’s Bread)
- 112g water, lekewarm
- 14g (0.5 oz.) active dry yeast
- 100g (3.5 oz.) unbleached bread flour
- 800 g (28 oz.) unbleached bread flour
- pinch salt
- 100g (3.5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
- 65g (2.5 oz.) light brown sugar
- 3 large eggs + 1 egg yolk, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- all of the sponge
- 225g milk, lukewarm or room temperature
+ 1/2 cup raisins, soaked in 1/2 cup water & 1/2 cup rum
– 2 egg yolks, mixed with 2 tablespoons water – for egg wash
– poppy seed, slivered almonds, and pearl sugar – for sprinkling the top of the loaves
- To make the sponge, combine water, yeast and flour in a bowl, and stir with a whisk until no dry flour remains. Cover and set aside in a warm spot for 20 minutes until the sponge has doubled in size.
- Place flour, salt, butter, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, lemon zest, and vanilla in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. Add in all of the activated sponge, turn the machine on a low speed, and gradually pour in the milk. Knead the dough on a low-medium speed for about 8 minutes until the dough is fairly firm, smooth and elastic (If the dough seems to be too wet, add in a couple of tablespoons flour, one tablespoon at a time; if it is too dry, add in some more milk, one tablespoon at a time). At the end mix in the rum-soaked raisins, making sure they are evenly distributed in the dough. Transfer the dough into a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
- Once the dough has doubled, turn it onto a lightly floured board. Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, cut off 1/3 of the dough, then cut that third into thirds again. Take the larger piece of dough (the remaining two-thirds) and cut that into thirds as well. Let the dough rounds rest under a dish towel for about 10 minutes.
- Assembling the breads: Start working with the three larger thirds – roll each portion into a rope about 14 – 15” (35 – 38 cm) long. Place the three strands together, pinch them at the top and braid them fairly loosely together, pinching the strands at the bottom end. Set the braid on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Take the three smaller dough balls and roll each into a strand that’s about 2″ (5 cm) longer than your braided loaf. Braid these three strands together, pinching the ends to seal. With rolling pin or your hand, make a small indentation in the center of the loaf on the baking sheet, and brush the indentation with a little water. Place the smaller braid on top, and tuck its ends underneath. Set aside.
- Make the second loaf in the same way, placing it on a second baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Cover both loaves and let them rise in a warm spot until they become puffy, about 30 – 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 °F ( 175 °C).
- Just before baking, brush the loaves with egg wash (I used two coats to achieve dark golden color), and sprinkle them liberally with poppy seeds/almonds/pearl sugar, if desired.
- Bake the breads for about 45 minutes, until they’re golden brown, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. (Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and if they seem to be browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil.)
- Cool the loaves on the baking sheets for couple of minutes, and then transfer them onto a wire rack to cool completely.