Every family has taste traditions around different holidays they celebrate together. Be it a particular aunt’s potato salad that always made it to a summer picnic, or even your mom’s awful overcooked, over-buttered green beans that no one ever said anything about at Thanksgiving – but for those who grew up celebrating Christmas, there is almost always an annual sweet treat kids and grownups alike look forward to when the days are at their shortest (speaking from the Northern hemisphere, of course.)
My family couldn’t possibly have imagined Christmas without our Grandmother Joyce’s Christmas Bread. It’s sort of like challah bread, sort of like Finnish pullah – but if you try to call it anything else to my cousins, aunts, and uncles – we don’t want to hear about it. Christmas Bread is just Christmas Bread.
Like snow that had fallen on the bread, she’d decorate the soft buttery loaves with a simple white icing. The chopped red and green candied cherries on top were like little elves’ sleds skiing down the slopes of the buttery braided bread. The bright red, white, and green holiday colors always showed through the wax paper bags that she packed them in, folded and sealed with care with a name tag for each family.
At the peak of her Christmas Bread baking career, Grandma Joyce would prepare over 25 loaves during the month of December. She’d photocopy her recipe and make a list on the back of all the people she planned on giving a loaf to. On the grease-stained and torn copy I have, the lists on the back are from 1991 and 1993.
The original recipe comes from a copy of Parade magazine from a December long gone – not sure which one – and Grandma modified it slightly over the years, I have modified it still.
I’ll be eating some tomorrow morning, as I always have on December 25, and as I always will.
Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread
Makes three loaves
2 packages active dry yeast (or one cube, 42g, of fresh baker’s yeast)
½ cup warm water (110F/43C, I’m never particular about it)
1 ½ cups lukewarm milk
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
4 eggs, beaten
8 cups all-purpose flour (approximately; slightly less than 1kg)
½ cup (115g) melted unsalted butter
Start with two large mixing bowls, and pour the flour into one bowl (in France, I simply pour one bag of a kilogram of flour.)
Pour the warm water in the other bowl. Sprinkle the yeast on top and allow a few minutes for it to activate. Stir to blend, and then add the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, and eggs. Once incorporated, stir in two cups of flour. Mix until smooth. Note: I usually do not use a mixer, however you could, using a dough-mixing attachment. I use a wooden spoon and then transition to a plastic baking spatula when it gets too sticky.
Gradually add in three more cups of flour until smooth.
Stir in melted butter. Once incorporated, gradually add “enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough which can be handled” (Parade Magazine, year unknown.) Note: in general, I find I end up adding 2-3 more cups, until the dough is sticky and consistent.
Cover the dough with a clean dishtowel for about 15 minutes. Then turn it out onto a floured surface, and knead until smooth and elastic – about 10 minutes.
Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn greased side up. Cover with a clean damp dishtowel, place in a warm room and let rise to double its size, about one hour (can be longer in cold temperatures.) Punch down, cover again, and let rise another half an hour – it should have almost doubled in size again.
After the rising process, divide the dough into three equal parts. With each portion of dough, divide again into three, and roll the dough out on a floured surface to form three ropes about one foot in length (30cm.)
Braid the ropes together and tuck them under at the ends. Place them on a board, or on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper, and cover with a dishtowel again for about 20 minutes. Once they are puffy (but not doubled in size,) proceed to baking.
The oven should be pre-heated to 375F/190C (I usually turn it on when I am braiding the first loaf.)
Brush the bread with egg wash, and cover the top very loosely with foil. Bake for 15 minutes – checking every few minutes to be sure that the foil doesn’t stick.
Remove foil, bake for another 10-12 minutes.
Notes: Grandma Joyce says to bake on the lowest rack, but in my tiny Parisian oven, this always burns the bottom – I bake on the middle rack.
I also usually put the foil back on for the last minute or two of cooking; I don’t like the breads to get too browned. They should be golden-brown and, once semi-cooled, you should be able to poke the loaf with your finger and feel that it is cooked inside.
To decorate: I pour a small amount of milk (2-3 Tbs.) into a bowl and whisk in confectioner’s sugar until I reach a thick, syrupy consistency. I drizzle the icing over the loaves and then sprinkle on top with toasted almonds. You can skip the decoration altogether and just enjoy the bread as is, or you can experiment with other variations: candied cherries, candied orange peel, thicker icing, dried cranberries, powdered almonds, etc etc.