Chocolate Cherry Braided Bread

Meditation it’s the new hip thing to do, the cool buzzword you hear everywhere you go these days. It’s supposed to reduce stress, relieve pain, improve sleep, and have host of other benefits, all of which sound really good. Carving out ten minutes of your time to just sit and breathe and do nothing seems easy enough, right? Well, yes and no. Actually, not at all. You see, I’m not someone whom I’d call a meditative type. More like “OMG, there is so much to do and so little time to do it all” overwhelmed panic type. So even though I could arguably use more of that blessed peace in my life, I’ve never been able to make the meditation a part of my day. The few times I’ve tried, it usually went somewhat like this:

Om.
Keep those eyes shut, ’cause you know you’ll otherwise see a lone sock under the couch or pillows that need to be straightened!
Om.
Am I in the moment? How do I know if I’m *really* in the moment?
Om.
My stomach is growling. It’s a good thing I’m home, otherwise everyone at the yoga class would hear it, and I hate when that happens! I didn’t have breakfast. Speaking of breakfast… what will I make for dinner? Shoot, I forgot to buy broccoli! Will have to stop by at the store when I go pick up offspring # 2.
Om.
My foot is itchy. Am I allowed to scratch it, or should I just notice the itchiness and not try to do anything about it? Will have to look that up when I’m done.
Om.
Breathe in, breathe out. Come on, it’s really not that hard! Om, darn it!!!

I was under a lot of stress trying to meditate properly and fruitfully, which I’m sure kind of defeats the whole purpose of meditation. I felt defeated; I was afraid I was never going to find peace and would be condemned to a life of no sleep, and chock full of anxiety and nervous tics.

But then, baking and specifically bread making came to my rescue. Thankfully I’m old enough to know there isn’t one and only right way to do things in life, and while some folks swear by yoga and are able to meditate an hour a day, I’m probably not one of them. But hand me a sack of flour, some yeast, and pinch of sugar, and I can stand at the kitchen counter for hours. Suddenly, I don’t see the dust bunnies and don’t feel that my back is killing me. The rhythmic humming of the mixer kneading is my om. In that moment, I don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow, and I’m able to give my full attention to the bread and keep my focus on the task on hand. When I’m checking on the dough that’s coming together and listening how it moves around in the bowl, I don’t need to wonder if I’m truly in the moment; I know I am: I’m patiently adding one spoonful of flour or water at a time, and then wait until the yeast wakes up and does its magic. Baking as meditation? It works for me!

And the by-products work for my perpetually starving men, too. Recipe for this bread is similar to my Braided Christmas Bread (Vianočka); the method stays the same, but I kicked it up a bit by adding chocolate and chopped cherries into the dough. I wasn’t sure how it’ll turn out at first; the jarred cherries were rather juicy, and even after soaking up the extra moisture with paper towel they were a bit hard to roll up in the dough. But the end result was well worth the effort – the bread was soft and buttery and there were bits of cherry and chocolate in every bite. Next time, I want to try to roll up some apricot jam into the dough before braiding it, or maybe finely chopped dried fruit with cinnamon… The possibilities are endless 🙂

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Chocolate Cherry Braided Bread

Sponge:
  • 55 g lukewarm water
  • 7 g (2.5 oz.) active dry yeast
  • 50 g (1.75 g) strong bread flour
Bread dough:
  • 400 g (14 oz.) unbleached bread flour
  • pinch salt
  • 50 g (1.75 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 33 g (1.25 oz.) light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs + 1 egg yolk, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • all of the sponge
  • 110 g whole milk, lukewarm or room temperature
Filling:
  • 125 g (4.5 oz) dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 270 g (9.5 oz) jarred cherries in syrup (drained weight)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

+ 1 egg yolk, mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash
– poppy seeds and pearl sugar for sprinkling, if desired

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Method:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Chop the chocolate and set it aside. Drain the cherries, chop them roughly and pat them dry with paper towel. Set aside.
  4. Making the bread: When the dough has doubled, transfer it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 5 equal portions (if making a 5-strand braid), or 3 portions (if making a simple 3-strand braid). Form each portion into a ball, and let the balls rest under a dishtowel for 10 minutes. Line a big baking sheet with parchment paper.
  5. Roll each piece of dough into an 35 x 12 cm (14 x 5 inches) oblong. Spread the dough with 1 tablespoon of softened butter, and sprinkle it with 1/5 of the chocolate and 1/5 of prepared cherries. Sprinkle the filling with some cinnamon and roll it up tightly starting from the long side; pinch the edges to seal. Braid the ropes together, tuck the ends under, and transfer the bread onto the prepared baking sheet. Cover and let the bread rise second time until light and puffy, about 30 – 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 °F ( 175 °C).
  6. Brush the bread with egg wash (I used two coats to achieve dark golden color), and sprinkle with seeds and pearl sugar if desired. Bake the bread for about 45 minutes until golden brown in color. (Check the bread halfway through baking and give it another coat of egg wash in places that have become exposed due to oven spring. If the loaf seems to be browning too quickly, cover the top with aluminum foil.)
  7. Let the bread cool on the sheet for 10 minutes and then transfer it to a cooling rack to cool completely before slicing. It’s also possible to slice it and freeze it; the slices reheat well in a toaster. This bread also makes a wonderful French toast or bread pudding.
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Three Jam Crostata

My summers growing up were pretty simple. The school was out, and since my parents and their siblings were working, they used to pack up their troubles and send them off to grandma’s.  All the cousins met up at the rural house in the country and we had a great time together. If we wanted to have fun, we had to come up with something fun to do. Nobody was driving us places, hovering over us fretting if we used sunscreen and if our young brains were stimulated enough. Grandma gave us something to eat three times a day and if we fought too hard and there was blood, I *think* she washed us up and slapped a Band-Aid on. That was it. Aaaah, memories.

Grandma also made sure we weren’t just wandering around doing nothing all day, and had no problem taking advantage of free child labor she had awaiting her pleasure. She had a big garden with fruit trees, and since it was summer, there were always cherries and apricots to process and preserve. We were in charge of pitting/halving the fruit and I positively hated this part of my summer vacation. To my child’s eyes the sea of fruit seemed bottomless, and just as we put away all the fruit one day, there was always more when we woke up.

It’s funny. How often we eventually get to like what we hated as kids? I used to despise spinach, and now eat so much of it my blood should be green, and preserving fruits and veggies is one of my greatest summer pleasures. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing those neat rows of jars filled with summer abundance in the pantry; plus, I get to play with flavors and combinations, and make each batch a little different.

This crostata (tart in Italian) showcases three kinds of jam at once, and manages to do so gorgeously! If you’re not a jam making fanatic as I am, you can just use your favorite store bought jam, and be done in no time. Playing with decorations and painting is totally optional, but so much fun 🙂

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Three Jam Crostata

(inspired by http://www.findyourcake.it)

Crostata:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 50 g (1.5 oz.) potato starch
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 125 g (4.5 oz.) cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2 egg yolks, cold
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest

+ 1 egg yolk to paint the dough decorations; assorted food colors
1 egg yolk + 1 tablespoon water for egg wash

Quick Strawberry Jam (makes 4 cups)
  • 1 ½ pints (1 ¼ lbs., 560 g) fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon framboise liqueur (optional)
Quick Cherry Jam (makes about 1 ¼ cups)
  • 3 cups cherries (24 oz., 675 g)
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon Kirsch liqueur (optional)
Quick Apricot Jam
  • 1 kg (2 lbs.) apricots, pitted and halved
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon rum (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the jams, prepare clean glass jars with lids by running them through a dishwasher sanitizing cycle, or sterilize them by submerging them into a clean boiling water for 10 minutes.  You’ll need to warm them up before filling them with hot jam.
  2. For each of the jams, pulse the fruit in a food processor couple of times to break it up a little, and then transfer it to a deep saucepan. Add the sugar and the lemon juice/zest, and cook on a medium heat until thick to your liking (10 – 15 minutes, for thicker consistency cook longer). Check the consistency by putting one drop of preserves on a cold plate that has been in the freezer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add rum/liqueur if using.
  3. Ladle the hot jam into the preheated jars, and screw the lids on. You can either can the jars by submerging them into boiling water for 10 minutes, or just turn them upside down on a clean towel, let them cool and keep them in the refrigerator. (This is what I do when I preserve small quantity of fruit such as in this case – the jams are gone within a week anyway 🙂
  4. To make the crostata: Place the dry ingredients in a bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S – blade; pulse to combine. Add the cold cubed butter and pulse until the mixture resembles peas (you should still see small pieces of butter, that’s what makes the pastry tender and flaky.)
  5. One by one add the egg yolks and the zest, mix just until combined and the dough comes together in a ball. Wrap the dough in a saran wrap and chill it for 30 minutes, so it will be easier to roll.
  6. On a floured surface, roll the dough into a circle a little bigger than your tart pan with removable bottom. Transfer the rolled out dough into the pan and press it up the sides of the pan. Roll out three pieces of dough into a rope about ¾ cm thick and braid them together. Place the braid onto the dough in the pan, dividing it into thirds.Chill the dough while you preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C). Reserve the scraps of the dough for decorations.
  7. Place sheet of parchment paper on the surface of the dough, and fill it with pie weights or dry beans. Parbake the crust for 15 minutes. Remove the beans/weights, lower the temp to 350 °F (175 °C), brush the crostata with egg wash and bake for about 10 minutes more, until the crust is golden brown. If the edges are browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil. Remove the tart from the oven and let cool completely.
  8. Roll out the dough scarps, cut out the decorations and chill them for 20 minutes, so they will be easier to paint. Place an egg yolk in the center of a plate and place 2 – 3 drops of desired colors on the edge of the plate. Mix a little of the egg yolk with the color you’re using and paint the cut out decorations. Place the painted decorations on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake them at 350 °F (175 °C) for about 5 – 7 minutes. Let cool completely.
  9. Fill the crostata with jams, using about 2/3 cup of each strawberry, apricot, and cherry jam. Decorate with the painted prebaked decorations and serve.
Note:

The original recipe instructions said to fill the unbaked crostata with jam, decorate it with unbaked painted decorations and bake it that way. I chose to brebake both the crust and the decorations, because I was worried the crostata filled with jam wouldn’t bake through and the crust would be soggy, and the bubbling jam would mess up the painted fruit decorations. This method took slightly longer, but I think the crostata looks better.

Chocolate Cake with Cheese and Cherries

I love clearance sales. I won’t pay a full price for anything if I can help it, and I proudly refer to myself as a crazy coupon lady. I love playing with coupon codes, combining them, and then getting a $140 dress for $40!  But it’s not just dresses, shoes, and purses. When I see a yellow sale sticker at the grocery store, my eyes light up, and quite honestly, I often stop thinking. There is no other explanation of why I would otherwise come home from the store with two gallons of milk this past Friday. For my European friends, that’s 7.5 liters of cow-produced white liquid. Yes, I should probably talk to a doctor. But it was organic! And 50 % off, gosh darn it! What was I supposed to do, just leave it there?!

Not even an hour later I had a pound and a half of white cheese from said milk sitting on the counter and was left pondering what to do with it. (If you’ve never tried making your own cheese, you should absolutely give it a try. It is a very rewarding experience, and farmers’ cheese is the easiest of them all. Here is the recipe I use; for this cake you’ll need to double it). So this dessert was created by a lucky coincidence: I had the cheese, and I also picked up fresh cherries from the farmers market. The combination of vanilla and lemon scented sweet cheese and luscious cherries seemed like such a taste treat, and I added a chocolate cake base for a visual contrast. Granted, it isn’t the most sophisticated and elaborate cake I ever made, but it disappeared within a day just between my two teenagers, so I’m guessing it must’ve been good. Besides, sometimes you just need something quick and easy to satisfy the craving, and if you’re in such situation, this baby fits the bill perfectly. Honestly, the hardest part was to pit the cherries!

Run to the store and get a gallon of milk (sale sticker or not), and make it. You won’t be sorry, it’s sweet and juicy, and with the red cherry sticking out of each piece it’s also sassy and playful. A perfect forerunner of upcoming sunny days!

Cheese - cherry cake

Chocolate Cake with Cheese and Cherries

Cake:
  • 250 g (9 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 250 g (9 oz.) white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 5 large eggs, room temperature
  • 250 g (9 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 50 g (1.5 oz.) dark unsweetened cocoa powder
Cheese Filling:
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 140 g (5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 90 g (3 oz.) vanilla pudding powder (or cornstarch)
  • 750 g (26.5 oz.) fresh farmers cheese (you can buy it or make your own – see link at the beginning of the post)

+ 1 ½ kg (3 lbs.) fresh pitted cherries
cherries with stems for decoration (optional)
cherry - cheese cake detail

Method:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Line your half-sheet cake (11 x 15) pan with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. First, make the cheese filling: Cream butter with sugar and vanilla. Gradually add egg yolks, mixing well after each addition. Mix in fresh lemon zest, vanilla pudding (cornstarch), and farmers cheese. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form and fold them into the cheese filling. Set the cheese filling aside.
  3. For the cake, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and lemon zest, and gradually add eggs, mixing well after each addition. Mix dry ingredients and add them to the butter/sugar mixture, mix just until combined. Spread the batter evenly into the lined pan.
  4. Cover the batter with pitted cherries. Spread the cheese filling over the cherries, covering them completely. Decorate the cake with cherries with stems so that there is one cherry in the center of each future slice.
  5. Bake the cake in a preheated oven for about 50 – 60 minutes until the cheese filling is almost set (it can still be a little moist), and the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Let the cake cool, cut into square slices and serve dusted with powdered sugar.

cherry cheese cake