January 3, 2009
These bread wreaths, plump and golden, sat at each place on my Christmas table. I plaited the dough as if it were schoolgirl hair late on Christmas Eve, and let them rise slowly in the fridge, baking them briefly on Christmas morning. You can see that my sizing wasn't at all consistent - my plaiting improved as I went along - but this irregularity was part of the charm.
I used a recipe for a Swiss braided bread called Zopf, or Zuepfe, which may refer to a traditional custom in which widows buried a braid of their hair with their husbands. Zopf, when shaped correctly as a large braided loaf that doubles back on itself, should be eaten on Sundays with butter and jam, and not left to sit ornamentally on a Christmas table. But its soft dough plaits perfectly. I cooked my wreaths for 20 minutes, watching for them to turn gold and testing them by tapping the undersides. They should sound hollow.
Adapted from Zopf recipe here.
2 1/4 lbs plain white flour
1 tbsp salt
1/2 oz dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
4 1/2 oz butter
1 1/2 pints milk
1 egg yolk
Melt the butter and allow it to cool. Heat the milk to the temperature stated on the dried yeast packet (this is to make sure the yeast activates. Add the yeast to the milk and allow it to sit for 10 minutes, until the surface begins to froth and bubble. Add melted, cooled butter.
Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl, make a hollow in the center, and add the yeast/milk/butter mixture, mixing to create a soft dough. This will take 10 minutes by hand, or 4-5 minutes by machine.
Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour. Knead until smooth.
Take a small handful of dough. It's hard to judge how much you'll need at first, but you'll soon have a feel for the size you want. Divide this handful into three equal pieces and roll each piece out into a long rope. For my thinner wreaths, each of these ropes had the thickness of a sharpie/permanent marker. I found it easiest to twirl the dough quickly between my floured hands as if starting a fire with sticks (something, I should mention, that I've never actually done!). When the three ropes are of equal thickness and length, pinch them together at one end and plait them as you would hair. When you reach the end of the plait, create a circle, pinching the join together. The soft, strong dough will keep the wreath from breaking apart. Repeat for the rest of the dough. I made 8 wreaths from this amount of dough, but the number you stretch it to will depend on the size and thickness you're after.
Put the loaves on a cookie sheet lined with baking paper. Leave to rise again for between 30 minutes and 1 hour (or do as I did, and place them in the fridge overnight). When you're ready to bake the wreaths, preheat the oven to 400F / 200C. Whisk the egg yolk with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush the wreaths with this egg mixture. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the wreaths are golden and sound hollow when tapped.