Ladies and gentlemen, stop what you're doing, put down the Sunday papers, and go to your fridge. Do you have any cream cheese? Jam? Lemon curd, nutella, that kind of thing? Basically, anything you could spread on toast? Great. You should definitely make this braided bread this afternoon.
This is, without a doubt, one of my favourite things I've ever made. Let me list its attributes for you in over-emphatic exclamation marks: it's a proper bread! It's so pretty! It's delicious! It's really not that difficult! It looks incredibly impressive! It can be filled with anything tasty, whether sweet or savoury! It would make a surprisingly sturdy picnic food! Are you getting the picture? I LOVED this.
I have to admit, my intentions were shallow in the extreme. I'd spotted it online a while ago (where else? Smitten Kitchen), thought it looked pretty but assumed it was difficult. Then, a few weeks ago, I picked up a box of pearl sugar in our friendly local Swedish shop. Not for any particular reason, just because it looked cool. I wanted to give the sugar an outing, and rather than reprising the cinnamon buns (yummy though they were), I thought of the braided bread. Who cared if it tasted nice? I'd get to use my dough hook and my pearl sugar, and I had an open pot of cream cheese in the fridge that needed using up. I love it when a plan comes together.
All the way through, I thought it wasn't really going to work. I wasn't too concerned about the braiding bit - my mum and I have made an apple faux-strudel with puff pastry and this exact technique since time immemorial - but the yeast. My packet was really old and even though it said it was still in date, I was convinced that it was dead as a dodo. But there wasn't any yeast in my local shop so what the hell, I used it anyway. My fears were confirmed when my dough didn't really seem to rise at any stage of the process. The recipe gave it all this chat about "till puffy", "till doubled in size" and I'd look at mine and think, nope, nothing happening there. When I rolled it out, I honestly thought about just chucking it away and trying again another time.
I carried on anyway, mostly so I could play with the sugar - and lo and behold, it was beautiful! Delicious! Not hugely high, no, but it looked just like the one on Smitten Kitchen (and then again on another lovely site called Poires au Chocolat, whence I nicked the metric measurements). And when we tried it, warm from the oven - ah, it was heaven. My mum happened to be round and she and I ate about a third of it without even trying. We immediately started brainstorming alternative versions (apple? rhubarb? chocolate and pear? savoury, leaving out the sugar and vanilla, scattering flakes of sea salt on top? filled with cheese? onion? olives? sundried tomatoes?). It only means one thing when you're immediately inspired to try out about eighty different versions. This is seriously good bread.
So, to specifics. Although both recipes on t'internet use lemon curd I went for jam, mostly because we had it in the house and partly because Mr Dine at Mine doesn't really like lemon all that much (which might explain why we never had lemon curd around). With the jam it tasted very European - just like my Granny's home made doughnuts, which is a good thing. Beyond experimenting with different fillings, next time, I'll check it a lot sooner - this baked for less than the time she said, and still came out slightly more bronzed than I'd like. Other than that, it's a winner. What am I saying? It's a winner anyway. I can't wait to try all sorts of different flavours. And next time, I'm making two. This one disappeared far too quickly for my liking.
Filled, Braided Bread
- 6 tablespoons of warm water
- 1 teaspoon of caster sugar
- 1.5 teaspoons of instant yeast
- 25g plain flour
- 75g yoghurt or sour cream (I used yoghurt)
- 50g unsalted butter, soft
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 45g caster sugar
- half a teaspoon of salt
- a teaspoon of vanilla extract or half a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
- 265g of either plain flour (which I used) or strong bread flour
- 65g cream cheese
- 2 tablespoons of caster sugar
- 25g of sour cream (I used yoghurt again)
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
- 15g of plain flour
- any jam, lemon curd, nutella etc. Fruit compote? Chunks of fruit? See other ideas above
- 1 egg, beaten
- either demerara sugar or pearl sugar
Start off by making the sponge - mixing everything together well, then leave for 15 minutes, loosely covered in clingfilm.
In a big electric mixer with the paddle attachment, mix together the sponge, sour cream/yoghurt, butter, egg, sugar, salt and vanilla. Chuck in the flour and mix until it looks like a rough, shaggy ball. Then swap to the dough hook and knead it for 5-6 minutes or until smooth and springy. Cover with cling film and put the bowl in a warm place to rise, in theory until doubled and puffy (I just left it for a couple of hours then got impatient and carried on).
While it's rising, mix together the cream cheese, caster sugar, sour cream/yoghurt, lemon juice and flour until smooth and lump-free. Decide what else you want to use as a filling.
When the dough has risen, squash it down in the bowl with your hands then tip out onto a clean, floured surface. Roll it out into a large rectangle, about the size of a baking sheet - it'll be quite stretchy and annoying so just do your best. At this stage, shimmy the dough onto a big piece of baking parchment.
Using the side of your hand, press two lines on the dough dividing it into three lengthways - not cutting through, just marking it out so you have three equal long rectangles. Do the same thing with your hand to mark off about 5cm in from each short end. All this marking with the side of your hand should leave you with an inner rectangle surrounded by a frame (you can see it in the photo above, covered in cream cheese). Cut off the four corner squares with a sharp knife and roll them around any kind of filling for a cook's treat (I used cinnamon, brown sugar and butter in two, and nutella in the other two).
Spread the cream cheese mixture over the inner rectangle, then dollop the jam/curd/nutella/whatever on top of it. Cut the long side rectangles into strips as in the photo above, so that the inner rectangle looks fringed on either side. The strips should be about an inch thick and as symmetrical as possible (so that there are the same number on each side).
Fold the short end rectangles up and over the creamy jammy filling. Then start at one end and fold the fringey strips up and over the filling diagonally, one at a time and alternating sides, so that it looks like a braid. This is so much easier to see in the photo than to explain in words. Keep going all the way down until you've "braided" each strip. Then move the braid, on its parchment, onto a baking tray, cover it loosely with cling film and leave to rise for an hour or so. (NB: this is a good opportunity to put it in the fridge or freezer if you want to bake it another time. If so, let it come to room temperature and do the second rise before glazing and baking as normal).
Preheat the oven to 190C. Brush the braid with the beaten egg, sprinkle with pearl sugar and bake for 20-25 minutes, until burnished and bronzed. Yum.