Dramatic stories of celebration are woven into the season of spring, and as is often the case, they're honored with the rites of food. Elaborate breads were historically formed...
Dramatic stories of celebration are woven into the season of spring, and as is often the case, they’re honored with the rites of food. Elaborate breads were historically formed and baked as a tribute to the end of sparse winter meals and religious fasting.
In Greece, the Easter festival of resurrection and transformation is honored with Lambropsomo, a golden braid twisted around a crimson-colored egg symbolizing the passion of Christ. (Another Greek bread bearing a Turkish name, Tsoureki, is a variation.) In Russia, ingredients for Kulich, studded with dried fruits and baked in tin cans, were hoarded throughout the year to celebrate the Orthodox Easter. And Hot Cross Buns set on Easter brunch tables are embellished with frosting piped in the shape of a cross.
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These celebratory breads are leavened with yeast, lightly sweetened and glazed to a soft sheen. They may be laced through with marinated dried fruits and toasted nuts and are lighter in texture than the dense, whole grain breads of winter.
A recipe often gives fairly detailed instructions about mixing and kneading, but knowing why a particular flour or a special technique is used may help to understand its place. Let’s begin by taking a look at some of the recipes’ foundation ingredients.
All-purpose flour blends hard and soft wheat. Unbleached flour ages for several months, and oxidation causes it to whiten naturally. According to authors Linda West Eckhardt and Diana Collingwood Butts in their book “Bread in Half the Time,” this process preserves protein and vitamin E, and improves the character of gluten. And in “Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book” we also learn that bleached flour is chemically whitened, leaching out some of the vitamins and protein. Because gluten is weakened, bread doughs will not be as elastic and will not rise as high.
Bread flour is made from hard wheat and has a higher protein and gluten content. It forms a strong web that holds carbon dioxide gases released by the yeast, so breads will rise higher. Bread flour holds more liquid, so if substituting with all-purpose, reserve a little of the liquid used in the recipe and add it only if the dough seems dry.
Active dry yeast can be purchased in 0.25-ounce packets measuring about 1 scant tablespoon, in jars or in bulk. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator and discard once past the expiration date. Proof yeast by combining with lukewarm liquid around 110 degrees and a little sweetener. If the mixture doesn’t begin to bubble and expand within 10 minutes, your bread probably won’t rise. Start over with a new batch of yeast. It may be tempting to increase the amount of yeast, but adding more will make the bread sour and unbalanced, similar to a quick bread with too much baking powder.
Fresh compressed cake yeast is sold in 0.06-ounce cubes equal to a 0.25-ounce packet of dry yeast, or in 2-ounce packages. Look for the yeast in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Fresh yeast is perishable and should be wrapped in plastic, refrigerated and used within 2 weeks. Dissolve cake yeast in liquid with a lower temperature of about 95 degrees.
Many of the celebration breads use a sponge starter or batter, giving them a wonderfully rich, complex flavor and even texture. Sponges are made with yeast, liquid and a small amount of flour to start fermentation. Its rising time can range from 30 minutes to 6 hours, and should at least double in volume before other ingredients are added. These doughs are supple and easy to work with because the yeast is distributed evenly.
(Novice bakers beware. Be sure to buy baker’s yeast. Brewer’s yeast is a nutritional supplement, not a leavening agent.)
The type of liquid used in a dough will affect its texture, color and flavor. For instance, French bread made with water forms a crisp crust and grainy texture. But the absence of fat also causes it to dry out quickly. In sweeter yeast breads, milk is often the liquid of choice because its higher fat content keeps them moist and fresh. (The process of pasturization has made scalding milk obsolete.) Breads made with cultured dairy products such as yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk will be finely textured with a tangy flavor.
Yeast feeds off the sweet stuff, helping it to develop flavor and texture. Granulated and brown sugars, honey, molasses and maple syrup each mark the bread with a characteristic flavor.
Straight substitutions can be a problem, so some juggling of ingredients is in order. A cup of sugar can be substituted by ¾ cup of a liquid sweetener such as honey, and the liquid used in the recipe should be reduced by ¼ cup. Make notes on your written recipe to avoid confusion.
Not only does it balance flavors, keeping the bread from tasting flat and dull, but its presence also strengthens the flour’s gluten strands and controls the activity of the yeast. The amount can be reduced slightly if necessary, but don’t leave it out completely. After all, a teaspoon of salt in a dough won’t amount to much once the bread is sliced into 12 pieces.
Some of the techniques used for yeast breads can be confusing. How long should a dough rise? And how do you tell if the bread is really done in the center?
The dough is mixed and kneaded, and it’s ready for its first rise. Place the dough in a large, lightly greased ceramic or plastic bowl, turning the dough over to grease the top. (A dry, crusted surface will inhibit the rising action.) Cover with a lid or piece of buttered plastic wrap, which is better for holding moisture in the dough. Let the dough rise in a warm place to at least double its volume. If your kitchen is cold or drafty, turn the oven to its lowest setting for a few minutes. Then turn the oven off and place the dough, only if it is in a ceramic bowl, in the oven with the door ajar.
When the first rising is complete, gently deflate the dough and knead on a lightly floured surface for about 1 minute. Cover with a kitchen towel for 10 minutes. Then shape the dough and place in baking pans, covering loosely with a piece of buttered plastic wrap. Place the pans in the refrigerator overnight. The flavor and texture of yeast doughs will improve with a long, slow rise in the refrigerator, and in fact, they can be refrigerated at any point during the rising process. When removed from the refrigerator, count on 3 to 4 hours for the dough to reach room temperature and finish rising.
A glossy coat is one of the defining characteristics of sweeter yeast breads. Use a soft, clean brush to apply egg glazes to doughs before baking. Whole egg beaten with a tablespoon of water will produce a shiny, medium-brown crust. If beaten with milk, the glaze will produce a darker sheen. Egg yolk whisked with a tablespoon of milk will give a shinier, deeper brown crust, and egg white mixed with a tablespoon of water a clear, caramel-colored shine. Or brush melted butter or oil on the bread before or after baking for a crust that is soft and tender. Powdered sugar can then be sifted over the warm bread, melting it to a soft sheen.
Baking and cooling
Plan on a minimum of 1 inch around all sides of your baking pans for even air circulation. Rich doughs with a higher percentage of butter and additions of dried fruits and nuts should be baked at 350 degrees. The finished crust will range from gold to dark brown in color. Test by inserting a long cake tester, or a metal or wooden skewer into the center of the loaf. (A toothpick is too short to use as a tester for yeast breads.) If it comes out clean, or with a few crumbs attached, the bread is done.
Remove the loaves from the pans immediately, which will keep the crust from softening too much. Cool on wire racks for at least an hour before slicing.
Sources: “The Bread Bible” by Beth Hensperger (Chronicle Books, 1999); “Bread in Half the Time” by Linda West Eckhardt and Diana Collingwood Butts (Crown Publishers, 1991); “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press, 2001); “Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book” (W.W. Norton & Co., 1981).