Monday, January 9, 2012

the Scent of Bread Baking on a Chilly Sunday...

The process of baking bread is something that I find incredibly calming.  The repetition of kneading the dough until it's soft and smooth, watching it rise to billowy proportions, punching it down and shaping it into loaves, letting it rise again, and then seeing the beautiful golden sheen on a freshly baked loaf.  The warm, yeasty scent filling the house.  The soft bread on your tongue.

Baking bread is sexy, I think.

The summer of 2004, my last year living in China, some friends and I took a trip to the Sichuan province, then Tibet, and lastly a 2-day boat trip down the Yangtze River.  The hot, still air lingering over the murky river water didn't offer much relief from the humid summer.  At that time, a project to dam parts of the river was underway, and many towns along the riverbank had been abandoned, since they would soon be completely and permanently flooded.  The riverboat stopped periodically at some of these towns to let us get off, walk around and find something to eat.  We were lucky to get anything to eat other than instant noodles on the boat.

Seeing those towns broke my heart, especially since there were still a few people living there in the shambles, clinging to their homes until the end.  Stray dogs and cats that had been abandoned ran around freely and most of the buildings had been ransacked for anything valuable left behind.  It was a depressing sight.

For some reason, the sight of a pretty Chinese woman kneading dough in a small bakery lingers in my mind.  Wearing a flowered, summer dress, her hair knotted on top of her head, dark silky strands falling over her face, her feet bare, she stood at the rough wooden counter in her shop, elbow deep in flour, methodically kneading bread dough.  I couldn't help but wonder what made her want to stay in that town with so few people left to buy the bread she was baking.  She must have loved her little shop.

I love handling dough, whether it's bread or biscuit dough, pie crust or pizza crust, cookie dough...  Kneading it, shaping it, rolling it out, cutting it - it's just so fun!

Yesterday I baked bread, and the house smelled amazing.  This recipe came from a book Jamie gave me for Christmas, and as you can see in the pictures, it makes a HUGE loaf of bread.  When I make this again, I'll make two or 3 smaller loaves instead of one giant one, or cut the recipe in half.

Leftover bread like this makes fantastic french toast or bread pudding, though, or even crumbled up and used for a coating on baked chicken or fish, so it won't go to waste.

The original recipe, called "Figgy Cardamom Bread" calls for cardamom and dried figs, just like the title suggests.  Using what I had in the cupboard, though, I substituted lots of dried plums and apricots for the figs, and the dried fruit and cardamom tasted wonderful in the bread.  The other significant change I made was to add a lot more flour than what the recipe called for - it was just way too soft and sticky to handle as written.

This makes an impressive looking loaf of bread, while being really easy to make, with very little hands-on time - most of the time spent is simply allowing the bread to rise.

After the bread was out of the oven and cooling on the counter under a towel, we did some cleaning and then the grocery shopping for the week.  It was so cold last night, but Jamie manned the grill anyway so we could enjoy a dinner of some grilled seafood - a little salmon, shrimp, and stuffed scallops - and some broccoli mushroom risotto, finished with lemon and Romano cheese.

Every Sunday, we take turns planning the menu for the week and making the grocery list, so if I can remember, I'll start sharing the weekly menu plan with you all, which I write on a little chalkboard in our kitchen...

Baked Crab and Green Onion Wonton Cups
zucchini and Tomato Salad with Green Goddess Dressing

Grilled Chicken
Quinoa with Butternut Squash, Parmesan and Toasted Almonds

Cornmeal and Cheddar-Crusted Catfish
Baked Sweet Potato Wedges

Lamb and Dried Plum Stew with Parsnips, Potatoes and Leeks
Brown Rice

Pasta with steamed Mussels and Asparagus, and an Herbed Lemony White Wine Sauce
Roasted Figs with Ricotta, Honey and Cinnamon

Apricot, Plum and Cardamom Braided Yeast Bread
printable recipe
  • 1 cup skim milk, warmed
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, granulated sugar, divided
  • 4 1/2 - 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into chunks
  • 1 cup dried plums, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped

In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the milk, yeast and 1/3 cup sugar.  Let stand for 10 minutes until foamy.

In a separate bowl, combine 4 cups of flour, salt and cardamom.  Add the flour mixture and 2 of the eggs to the mixing bowl.  Using the dough hook, combine on medium low speed until the flour is mostly incorporated.  Add the butter and knead to combine.  Continue kneading for 8-10 minutes, adding the remaining cup of flour, as needed, 1/4 cup at a time.  Dump the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Dump the dough out onto a floured surface.  For one very large loaf of bread, divide the dough into 3 "ropes" about 16 inches long.  For two to three smaller loaves, divide the dough into 2 or 3 equal pieces, then divide each of those pieces into 3 ropes.

Place the ropes of dough side by side and braid them from one end to the other.  Set on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat.  Tuck the ends of the dough under.  Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise until puffy, about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350.  Whisk the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water and brush the egg wash over the surface of the dough.  Sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons sugar.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown.

The bread is delicious warm from the oven, and is best eaten the day it's baked.  Leftover bread can be used for french toast or a custardy bread pudding.

Yields 1 big loaf or 2-3 smaller loaves.

Adapted from Figgy Cardamom Bread, page 68, Williams-Sonoma "Home Baked Comfort".


  1. This Braided Yeast Bread looks amazing!!!!!!!! :)
    I want to make one as pretty as yours! Buzzed Ya!

  2. Your story of the woman baking bread in her soon to be abandoned shop is moving. And the sight of your fresh-baked bread makes me want to carb-load. :D

  3. I HAVE to make this challah bread. It is so beautiful and I am on the search for the perfect challah recipe.


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