Rising time: 2 hours (2 x 1 hour)
Baking time: 40 minutes
Christmas bread dates back to the 16th century. Beginning in the 18th century, country people were in the habit of making a number of braided loaves, the first of which was given to the farmers, since they believed this would ensure an abundant harvest. At the end of the Christmas meal, the biggest loaf was sliced and, on some farms, little pieces given to the livestock to keep them healthy and protect them from evil forces.
Since making a good braided loaf isn't easy, women were careful to put luck on their side by observing numerous superstitions meant to ensure success. First, they'd put on a white apron and maintain absolute silence during the process. Then, while the dough was rising, they would jump up and down in place. Another tradition was to insert a coin into the dough before baking. Whoever found it would have health and wealth in the new year; however a split or burned loaf meant bad luck to come.
Whether made at home or bought from a bakery, braided Christmas bread is an integral part of the holiday season.
(1) Variations to make the loaf more festive:
- Some bakers combine both lemon and orange zest.
- They substitute apricot pieces for the almonds.
- They macerate the raisins and apricots in brandy overnight.
(2) Tip Some cooks pierce both ends of the loaf with a skewer in order to keep the piled braids in place during baking.
- Proof the yeast in the warm milk combined with 1 tbsp. of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the dough hook.
- Add all the other ingredients except the egg for glazing and the raisins and almonds.
- Knead for about 15 minutes. The dough should not stick to the sides of the bowl.
- Place the dough on a floured work surface. Incorporate the raisins and almonds. Transfer to a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
- Divide the dough into 9 pieces and form each into a strip about 50 cm (20") long.
- Make 3 braids: one using 4 strips, one using 3 and one using 2 (the latter is simply twisted).
- Place the 4-strip braid on a buttered floured baking sheet.
- Press down in the centre slightly and place the 3-strip braid on top, followed by the 2-strip braid.
- Press both ends of the loaf slightly (2) to round them. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise again in a warm place for 60-90 minutes.
- Brush the loaf with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the chopped blanched almonds. The egg glaze will give a nice color to the bread and will also allow the almonds to stick to the loaf.
- Bake in a preheated 200° C (400° F) oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 180° C (350° F) and continue baking for 25 minutes longer.
- Remove from the oven and let cool.
Chef's notes from Radio Prague
Photo above: Czech Republic
Photo velox: ID 48722290 / peteers / MSCOMM
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