Braided (Or Not) Sweet Bread
I could take a moment to complain, again, about my small kitchen; how it’s poorly equipped but not worth any investment because I’m broke and leaving Spain soon; how it’s barely big enough for two people to stand, let alone try to cook together; how it’s got no exterior windows and is thus cave-like even under the best of circumstances; or how the lightbulb fixture decided to break at the beginning of a very long weekend here in Madrid, which means we’ve been cooking in the dark for nearly a week.
Instead, I’d like to claim a small victory f or poor students and say, take that! So what if I have no mixing bowl, no parchment paper, no plastic wrap, and definitely not a real oven? The results were still pretty darn tasty.
As an added bonus, I think that the reading lamp made for some really dramatic kitchen lighting. I just may pull it back out one day if I make something terrifying and/or delicious that needs to be photographed immediately.
This sweet bread is one of my favorite recipes. It is beautiful and should therefore be difficult to make, but the truth is that it’s much easier than you might think. (Pssst… it’s a mock braid!) If you sit down with the original instructions and take your time on the first go-round, I guarantee it will become a favorite in your kitchen, too.
As is true for many of my favorite recipes, I would recommend reading the Smitten Kitchen version, which comes complete with thorough instructions and pictures. If you’re not very experienced with bread baking, the original King Arthur recipe offers very detailed instructions for beginners, but I like Smitten Kitchen’s proportions better.
The best part about this recipe is its versatility. I’ve never actually made the lemon version because it lends itself well to pretty much any filling, and all of the combinations I’ve tried have worked out great. Even when circumstances were difficult (read: an oven too small for almost any pan), I was able to divide the dough to make one small braid with cream cheese filling and plum jam (see above) and one circular loaf with cream cheese filling and raspberry jam (see below.) I had to swap out the beautiful mock braid for a strange circular layered pattern, but I think that turned out just fine, too.
I will say that Spanish repostería flour, which is supposed to be the best for baking, makes a nice and fluffy dough but doesn’t seem to preserve baked goods very well. This bread, for example, was best when it was warm but got stale the same day, which is a problem I’ve never had in the States. Both in the US as well as Spain, however, this bread always disappears fast enough that it isn’t really a problem.
Isn’t that nice?
Braided Lemon Bread
Adapted, just slightly, from Smitten Kitchen
Yield: 1 large or 2 small braids
6 Tbsp. lukewarm water
1 tsp. granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
6 Tbsp. sour cream or plain yogurt
1/4 c. butter, softened
1 large egg
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla, or another extract (recommended: almond extract)
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. cream cheese, softened
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. sour cream or plain yogurt
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice (optional if you’re swapping out the lemon curd)
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. lemon curd, or another jam (recommended: cherry jam to pair with the almond extract)
1. Make the sponge: in a small bowl, whisk together the water, sugar, yeast, and flour. Cover loosely and set aside to proof for 10-15 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the sour cream, butter, egg, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Once they are well combined, stir in the sponge. Add the flour and stir as well as you can.
3. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured counter and knead it until a soft dough forms, approximately 5-10 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover, and allow to rise until nearly doubled in size, approximately 60-90 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugar, sour cream, lemon juice (if using) and flour. Mix until smooth. Set aside.
5. When bread has risen, gently deflate the dough. On a very well-floured surface, roll the dough out to a 10 x 15 rectangle. Transfer the rectangle to parchment paper.
6. With the side of your hand, lightly press two lines down the dough lengthwise, dividing it into three equal columns. Being sure to leave the top and bottom 2 inches filling-free, spread the cream cheese filling down the center section. Spread the lemon curd (or other jam) over the filling.
7. With a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut each of the outer columns into 1-inch strips, making sure that there are an equal number of strips on each side. Remove the four corners of the rectangle. To “braid,” begin by folding the top and bottom flaps up over the filling. Then bring each side strip diagonally across the filling, alternating strips all the way down. You can tuck the last 2 strips beneath the loaf.
8. Carefully transfer the parchment paper to a baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for another 45-50 minutes or until quite puffy.
9. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375ºF (190ºC). If desired, you may brush the loaf with an egg wash immediately before baking and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 15-20 minutes before serving.