Though the New Year has arrived, making Christmas a distant memory, I'm still lingering over my holiday baking. Normally, having focused on cookies, I'd have wrapped everything up by now and given the last crumbs to hungry friends. This year, though, I spent more time baking bread than cookies, and I've only just finished.
Why this change in routine? A number of factors inspired me to shift gears: the astonishing early gift of a mixer from my parents, the visit of several family members, the breakfasts I planned to make for guests at my friend's inn during her vacation, and a handful of local friends who always appreciate homemade bread fresh from my oven.
Most of all, though, the wide variety of traditional and new Christmas breads that I wanted to bake offered an excellent way to showcase a number of local baking ingredients that I had stashed away for the season: flours, butter, eggs, milk (fresh and dried), maple sugar, fruit (dried and canned), and even dried herbs.
Dough to the world
When I was very young, I had a fascination for books that told how other countries celebrated Christmas, including what foods they ate. In scouring my cookbooks (and the Internet) for sample recipes from other countries, I discovered that yeast breads containing dried fruits or exotic spices appear in many European traditions. For example, the one traditional bread included in my usual holiday baking – julekage, the Norwegian Christmas bread introduced to me nearly a decade ago by friends – contains ground cardamom for the added spice and raisins for the fruit.
In Sweden, a similar formula appears in the Saint Lucia buns (photo at top) made for Saint Lucia's Day early in December, though some recipes include saffron. The graceful shape of the rolls delighted those friends who received them, and I found more sheer enjoyment in making them than I did in almost any other of the breads.
Other recipes called for a more lavish use of jewel-toned dried fruits and rich nuts. The Greek celebration bread known as christopsomos (as found in "The Bread Baker’s Apprentice") used both dried cherries and raisins soaked in water and an orange-vanilla extract (since I didn't have brandy). In addition, shaping the bread gave me a new challenge: two lumps of dough taken from the whole have to be rolled into ropes, then criss-crossed on top, split, and curled up to make an ornate cross. While I enjoy adding decorative touches to breads, I'd prefer a little more practice on that one.
The same fruits and flavor extract, combined with slivered almonds, dotted the whole wheat landscape of my variation on Germany's stollen (another recipe from "The Bread Baker’s Apprentice," modified to fit my desire to use local whole wheat flour). I'm sure it wasn't wholly authentic, but I've enjoyed slices of it for my own breakfasts once the guests at the inn had their fill. Since I decided to make the stollen, I chose not to bake panettone (Italian Christmas bread) or rosca de reyes (Mexican bread for Twelfth Night) with their similar formulas – though I was tempted!
For my final international bread, I decided to try something very different: a poppy-seed and raisin-lined loaf from Hungary. I'm not crazy about poppy seeds, but I wanted to see if the recipe I had found resulted in something similar to what I can find at the local Hungarian pastry shop. It developed a good flavor and a surprising juiciness in the middle (thanks to the raisins), but it resulted in an inelegant split down the middle. The dough, being drier than the others I worked, resisted my efforts to shape it properly, though it tasted much like the poppy-seed roll found at the local pastry shop.
O come, all ye bake-full
While I happily shared all the fruit-filled loaves and rolls with friends, I knew I wanted some simpler breads for myself or for serving at the inn. And though I realize that Chanukah is no substitute holiday for Christmas, I thought that a loaf of whole wheat challah would give me a modest break from the Christmas cookie and bread baking. It may be an enriched bread (with sugar, oil, and milk), and it may require extra time and care to shape the braided loaf, but challah seems like such a restful bread after all the intensely flavored and sweetened pastries I made throughout December.
I also took a few favorite old recipes and added just a touch of traditional holiday flavors or designs. Remembering my parents' annual ritual of adding fresh oranges and walnuts to my Christmas stocking, I took my pain aux noix recipe (a simpler, barely sweetened yeasted walnut bread), added orange peel and juice, and ended up with a wholesome loaf studded with my favorite Christmas flavors. It made marvelous toast, and had it lasted long enough, I'd have enjoyed making sandwiches with it. (It would be ideal after Thanksgiving, when some people enjoy piling leftover turkey and cranberry relish onto bread for quick meals.)
Spices also signify the holidays for me, so making cinnamon rolls for guests at the inn seemed a natural choice. I had envisioned arranging the spirals of dough on a cookie sheet in ever-increasing rows to create a Christmas tree shape, but unfortunately my schedule demanded that I shape the "tree" almost a full day before serving, so the rolls rose too much to remain in a neat design. Still, who can resist homemade cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven?
My other favorite spice for holiday baking is ginger, and though it doesn't qualify as a yeast bread, I couldn't resist making a pan of gingerbread. I found a recipe that suggested making an upside-down gingerbread cake, lining the pan with butter, sugar (maple sugar, in my case), and slices of pear (from the last jar of home-canned pears). I swapped the molasses for local sorghum and used some of my homemade applesauce for the rest of the sweetener, and I ended up with a deliciously moist and well-spiced breakfast cake for my guests.
Twists on tradition
Part of what I enjoy the most about Christmas baking is trying new recipes and establishing new traditions for myself and for others, so I decided to go beyond the obvious Christmas bread choices. In my family, we have always had a special breakfast on Christmas morning, either a coffeecake or pastry of some sort, and my aunt's recipe for tea rings became one of our usual celebration breads. But in the interest of doing something different, I experimented with using brewed coffee instead of water in proofing the dough, and I mixed a richer filling than the usual cinnamon and chopped walnuts, combining chopped hazelnuts with roasted cacao nibs and sweet spices. While neither nuts nor nibs were locally produced, the heavenly flavor they created together reminded me of the long-standing tradition in many cultures of indulging in such rare treats during Christmas feasting, and the coffee glaze added to the ring will help perk up any parent awakened way too early by eager children seeking presents. The recipe for my "Holiday Nut and Spice Wreath" is below.
Though candy canes often deck other people's Christmas trees, I've never enjoyed the super-sweet but powerful hit of hard peppermint candy. A milder flavor infusion of mint combined with chocolate makes a much more satisfying blend to me, and that inspired me to modify an excellent not-too-sweet cinnamon roll recipe. By adding finely ground dried peppermint (from my garden) to the dough and making a dark chocolate filling barely sweetened with homemade peppermint sugar, I baked peppermint twists (recipe follows), a low-key substitute for those people who don't want the sugar rush of candy canes. Best of all, these offer a refreshing hint of summer's treasures when baked on a snowy morning and savored with hot chocolate (possibly also infused with peppermint?) or coffee.
Sometimes, though, the sense of tradition lies not in the food itself but in the preparation. In the past few years, a friend and I have established an annual ritual of baking and decorating cut-out cookies with her sons, something that brings us all much enjoyment. This year, I took the children's book "Sun Bread" and read the story before making the sun bread recipe (found on the back cover of the book) with the boys. Since our baking day fell on the winter solstice, it provided the perfect opportunity to explain about the change in seasons and the tradition of festivals of light at this time of year. The boys had a great time shaping the loaf and decorating it with sunbeams and a goofy smile, but I think they found even more delight in tearing into the bread with their hands and filling themselves with light, just as in the story!
Next year, I doubt I will bake quite so much bread for the holidays. But after all the sweet cookies and candies that get passed around at this time of year, loaves that emphasize whole grains and dried fruits offer a refreshing change from the usual sugar rush. And whether you decide to deck the challah or sing of "We Tea Rings," making bread with local ingredients is bound to please someone who's tired of the usual Nutcracker sweets.
Holiday Nut and Spice Wreath
Makes 3-4 wreaths
1 c milk
1/2 c coffee
1/2 c unsalted butter
1 T yeast
1/2 c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 c whole wheat pastry flour
3 c unbleached flour
1/2 c chopped nuts
1/2 c sugar
2 T ground cinnamon
1/2 c confectioner's sugar
2 tsp coffee
2 tsp milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
In saucepan, heat 1 c milk, coffee, and butter until butter has melted and milk is scalded. (Do not boil.) Cool to lukewarm.
In large mixing bowl, soften yeast in warm milk mixture. Add 1/2 c sugar, salt, egg, and 1 tsp vanilla, and mix well. Whisk in whole wheat flour. Stir in remaining flour, adding flour cautiously to make a dough that can be handled.
Turn dough onto floured counter. Knead gently for 5 minutes, adding flour cautiously. (The dough should be tender, so don't add too much.) When dough is smooth and elastic, shape into a ball, cover with a clean towel, and allow to rise until double, about 1 1/2 hours.
Divide dough into three or four sections. For each section, roll out dough to 1/8" thick. Combine nuts, 1/2 c sugar, and cinnamon to make filling. Brush dough with melted butter and sprinkle with filling, leaving a strip bare at one edge. Roll up dough, sealing at uncoated edge.
Place roll onto a greased baking sheet or pie plate and join the ends, sealing to form a circle. Using kitchen shears or a sharp knife, cut 3/4 into the dough, starting at the outer edge, and cut every 1" around the ring.
Turn pieces slightly on their sides so that the filling is exposed. Let rise until nearly double. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes.
Allow wreath to cool slightly. Whisk together glaze ingredients and spoon over top of wreath. Serve warm.
NOTE: Once wreaths are shaped, they can be wrapped in foil and a plastic bag and frozen. Thaw in the refrigerator the night before serving, bring to room temperature in the morning, and bake as directed.
VARIATION: For a thoroughly decadent version of this breakfast wreath, change the filling as follows: Use toasted hazelnuts; change spices to 1 T cinnamon and 1 T ground cardamom; add 1/4 c roasted cacao nibs.
Based on a recipe for Cinnamon Rolls from "Uprisings" (so far, my favorite go-to recipe for sweet roll variations). Makes 2 dozen twists.
2 T active dry yeast
1 1/4 c warm water
1/4 c honey
2 1/2 c whole wheat flour
2 c unbleached flour
1/3 c dry milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried peppermint leaves, ground fine
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 c oil
3 T unsalted butter
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 T peppermint sugar (or 2 T sugar and 1/2 tsp dried peppermint leaves, ground)
1-2 T flour
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add honey and stir. Let sit 10 minutes, until foamy.
In large bowl, whisk together flours, dry milk, salt, and peppermint leaves. Add yeast mixture, eggs, and oil, and blend well. Mixture should still be slightly sticky.
Turn dough out onto well-floured surface. Knead dough, working in just enough flour to make the dough easily handled, for about 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. (Don't overdo it; this should be a tender, soft dough.) Shape into a ball and allow to rest on floured surface, covered with a towel, for 30-45 minutes.
In heavy saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Add chocolate and peppermint sugar and stir until mixture is melted and well-blended. Add flour to make a more paste-like consistency.
When the dough has risen, use a floured rolling pin to press out the air, rolling the dough into a long narrow rectangle (about 18-24" long and no more than 12" wide). Spread chocolate sauce over half the dough lengthwise. Fold other half of dough over the chocolate and press edges to seal.
Preheat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment. Cut dough into 1" wide strips. Lift each strip gently, twisting it into a rope before laying it on the baking sheet. Space twists 1" to 1 1/2" apart. If desired, sprinkle with peppermint sugar.
Bake at 350F for 18-20 minutes, until twists have puffed up and turned golden brown. Serve warm with coffee or hot chocolate.