Peter Reinhart and I have a very different idea of what it means to celebrate. Now, keep in mind that I’ve never even met Peter Reinhart, let alone celebrated with him, but I’m basing my statement on substantiated evidence. In The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Reinhart has a recipe for Cranberry Walnut Celebration Bread.
Now, I like bread as much as the next person (maybe even more, as evident by the fact that I’m doing this challenge in the first place) but when I celebrate, I want to be celebrating with a rich, decadent dessert like my favorite chocolate cake.
I admit my initial skepticism but when I pulled the finished loaf from the oven, those hard feelings were instantly replaced by awe: why had I not started baking braided breads sooner? Not only are they elegant and impressive but the fat, floppy braids hide mistakes quite well.
Now, I’ve never been accused of being perfect, but I dare you to tell me where the mistakes are in that loaf of bread. (And since I moderate comments, if you do tell me, I’ll probably just delete you. The world will be none the wiser).
While I probably won’t start baking Cranberry Walnut Celebration Bread instead of birthday cakes, I’m glad I took another go at braiding bread. It was a fun recipe to work with. And if you have a celebration that calls for bread? Let me know and I’ll be there.
Cranberry – Walnut Celebration Bread
Days to Make: 1
15 minutes mixing
3 1/4 hours fermentation, shaping, and proofing
50 to 55 minutes baking
3 cups (13. 5 ounces) unbleached bread flour
3 tablespoons (1.5 ounce) granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon (.19 ounce) salt
3 1/2 teaspoons (.39 ounce) instant yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons (.75 ounce) orange or lemon extract
2 large eggs, (3.3 ounces) slightly beaten
1/2 cup (4 ounces) buttermilk or any kind of milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 to 1/2 cup (2 to 4 ounces) water, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (9 ounces) dried sweetened cranberries (I used a 6 ounce package of craisins)
3/4 cup (3 ounces) coarsely chopped walnuts (I only used about 1/2 cup. It didn’t really need more)
1 egg, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
Make Dough: Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in a large mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer). Add the orange extract, eggs, buttermilk, and butter. Stir (or mix on low speed with the paddle attachment), slowly adding just enough water to make a soft, pliable ball of dough.
Sprinkle flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead (or mix on medium speed with the dough hook) for about 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and only slightly tacky, but not sticky. It should have a soft pliable quality, not stiff and resistant. If it is too stiff, knead (or mix) in small amounts of water until it softens; if the dough seems too sticky, sprinkle in small amounts of flour as needed.
Add the dried cranberries and knead (or mix) for another 2 minutes, or until they are evenly distributed. I kneaded the cranberries in by hand. It was rather tricky but I did get them all mixed in. It would probably have been easier if I had used a mixer.
Knead: Then gently knead (or mix) in the walnut pieces until they are evenly distributed. I didn’t use the full 3/4 cup of nuts. There were just too many to get them all in the dough. I ended up using about 1/2 cup and it worked fine.
Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Ferment at room temperature for about 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size. Transfer the dough to the counter.
Divide it into 6 pieces. 3 pieces of 10 ounces each and 3 pieces of 4 ounces each. Roll out the larger pieces into strands about 9 inches long, thicker in the middle and slightly tapered toward the ends. Roll the smaller pieces into strands about 7 inches long and similarly tapered.
Braid the large strands using the 3-braid technique, and then braid the small strands in the same pattern.
Use the 3-Braid technique: The 3-braid technique begins in the middle. First you place 3 strands of equal weight and length perpendicular to you and parallel to one another. The easiest way to do it is to number the strands from the left, 1, 2, 3.
Beginning in the middle of the loaf and working toward you, follow this pattern: right outside strand over the middle strand (3 over 2); Left outside strand over the middle strand (1 over 2). Repeat until you reach the bottom end of the dough. Pinch the end closed to seal and rotate the loaf 180 degrees so that the unbraided end is facing you.
Continue braiding but now weave the outside strand under the middle strand until you reach the end of the loaf. Pinch together the tips at both ends to seal the finished loaf. Now repeat the 3-braid technique with the smaller loaf.
Line a sheet pan with baking parchment. Place the large braid on the pan. Then center the smaller braid on top in double-decker fashion. Brush the entire assembly with half of the egg wash and refrigerate the remaining egg wash to be used later. Proof uncovered at room temperature for about 90 minutes, or until the dough nearly doubles in size. Brush the loaf a second time with the remaining egg wash.
Bake: Preheat the oven to 325° F with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Bake for approximately 25 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees for even baking and then continue baking for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until the loaf is deep golden brown, feels very firm, and sounds hollow when thumped on the bottom. The internal temperature at the center of the loaf should register between 185° and 190° F.
Remove the bread from the pan and transfer it to a cooling rack. Allow the bread to cool for at least 1 hour before slicing or serving.