An entirely simple, entirely quaint, and entirely satisfying Easter bread lightly flavoured with a hint of nutty almond. Better late than never is the motto as we head into May without a single holiday themed post, so I am bringing out a family favourite that is as in demand during Easter time as it is the rest of the year. Put aside about 20 minutes preparing and working the dough plus another 3 hours idle time, including baking, to craft some exquisitely tasty, stylish loaves of slightly sweet bread that play well with all the condiments.
This egg-washed bread is actually a take on a traditional Ukrainian holiday treat called paska. When I was young Easter was the time when our family would provision our wood panelled station wagon with colouring books and 8 track cassettes for the long journey northwards to visit my Ukrainian veleka baba, or great grandmother. Between our home and hers was nothing but empty highway and empty stomachs, so when we were finally ushered to the table for dinner we were absolutely ravenous. The centrepiece was always a large, golden brown paska that was as sweet and rich as the stories of the homeland that accompanied it. I have tried to recreate some of that homey feel with a largely authentic recipe drawn from centuries of pioneer tradition.
Almond Easter Bread
350 mL milk
1 kg flour
7 g instant yeast
4 eggs at room temperature
60 g melted butter
100 g granulated sugar
10 g salt
50 g chopped almonds
50 g ground almonds
1 egg plus a teaspoon water (for egg wash)
Begin by scalding the milk, heating it in a saucepan to just below boiling before removing from heat and cooling until “warm to the touch”, around 28-32ºC. Now proof the 7g of yeast in a small cup or bowl with a pinch of sugar and approximately 20 mL of the milk, stirring well and allowing to sit for about 5 minutes.
Fill a medium sized mixing bowl with 350g of flour and the remainder of the warm milk. Mix. When the yeast has finished proving add it to the milk and flour mixture, stir again and leave it to sit for 30 minutes at room temperature. During this process amylase enzymes in the very wet dough will be breaking down the starch into smaller sugars and gliadin and glutenin proteins will be hydrating to give gluten. This gooey mass will serve as our bread sponge, a pre-fermented portion of the dough that helps to develop taste as well as gluten structure.
Beat the eggs and set aside. Now fill a large mixing bowl with the ground almonds, the sugar, and the rest of the flour. Pour the melted butter over it, working everything together with your fingers to incorporate the butter as well as possible. Scrape the sponge out of the medium mixing bowl with your hands and place it in the large mixing bowl in the middle of the mass of flour, butter, sugar, and ground almonds. Slowly work the dry ingredients into the wet sponge, adding portions of the beaten eggs at intervals until you have a large, sticky mass of dough. Cover and let it sit for 15 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough well for about 5 to 10 minutes, stretching it until the point of breaking, folding it over and beginning again. Your fingers and wrists may be buckling, but not in vain, as this will continue to develop the gluten structure. When you are finished, form it into a rough ball and place it in a large bowl with lightly oiled walls. Cover and let sit for 1 hour, until the size of the dough has doubled.
Set your oven to 350ºC. Remove the dough from the bowl and transfer to your lightly floured work surface. Punch down the dough to remove part of the gas and shape it into a rectangle. Divide it along the longest axis into three equal portions that you then roll out into three long pieces, about 50 cm each. Braid them together, cover with a wet towel and leave them to proof for 15 minutes. Portion them according to the size of your baking form and then cover for another 30 minutes. Brush with egg wash, top with chopped almonds, and bake for 50 minutes or until dark golden brown. Remove and cool on a baking rack.
The best grilled cheese I have ever eaten was made from this bread. Any other ideas to bring out its best?