Tuesday, October 18, 2011
A few days ago, as I sat in the same spot where I am now, windows open and the cool autumn air breezing in, I could hear my younger son's high school marching band practicing in the distance. They were already outside the school at 8 a.m., their band class well underway, polishing things up for their next performance. Though at least half a mile east of my house, I could clearly hear the telltale thump of the percussion players and the brassy wail of the trumpets.
I love this kind of thing.
I love the fact that I live in a city small and compact enough that this is even possible. From the other direction, to the northwest just a couple of blocks, I can also hear little kids squealing at recess later in the day, outside of the elementary school my boys attended years ago. Then, each evening precisely at 6pm, bells reliably ring out from a church nearby. It's a cozy feeling.
This comparatively tiny community that we occupy just north of Detroit is, in fact, remarkably unlike the huge suburb where I grew up, which was sprawling and seemed to me, back then at least, to be a rather characterless place that had no discernible center.
It's comforting living in a small place, especially when bigger cities and all they offer aren't far away. You never have to feel lost here, either literally or figuratively. It's practically impossible to go outside without seeing someone you know well enough to chat with or, at the very least, someone you recognize. This little metropolis isn't fancy by any means but, as corny and cliche as this must sound, it's loaded with heart.
And what does that preamble have to do with today's recipe? Well, if I hadn't been alone in my kitchen with the windows open, working quietly on this chocolate almond braid, I wouldn't have heard that music or the joyous shrieks and squeals later in the day. Nor would I have had yet another opportunity to experience the simple satisfaction of actually liking where I live.
And, so, once more I realize that baking offers benefits beyond the obvious. It can be calming and contemplative, sort of like gardening or taking a long walk. I don't think it would be stretching it to say that I find the activity of baking restorative. I seem to turn to it for all sorts of reasons.
Is it like that for you, too?
About this recipe . . .
Remember the collapse of that giant bookshelf I told you about in my last post? That event catalyzed my husband and I to do long overdue sorting, discarding, and reorganizing. (Let's just say the garbage man must be wondering what the heck happened around here, and my paper shredder is considering joining a labor union.) Anyway, while sorting this and that, I found a faded magazine clipping bearing this recipe among a pile of stuff I'd saved in an old file cabinet. From the February 1989 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, this is the kind of baked good that many such magazines don't seem to print anymore. It's beautifully old-fashioned, like something one of your favorite aunts would famously bring to big family parties when you were a kid. It's a not-too-sweet yeast bread filled with a mixture made of cream cheese, almond paste, and semi-sweet chocolate.
I changed very little in the recipe, but substantially reworded it to reflect exactly how I customized its preparation. I used an instant yeast specifically designed for rich, sweet doughs vs. regular active dry yeast (though I have no doubt it would be fine with the latter). Part of my almond paste was homemade vs. purchased, because I only had about 5 oz. of the store-bought stuff on hand. (I do think professionally produced almond paste tastes better, is more concentrated, and has better texture and color than most homemade versions. I haven't yet perfected making the stuff at home.)
Beware: This makes a really large loaf! You will get at least 16 very generous slices out of this baby, easy. And it's not shaped into a real braid--it's just a faux braid, so don't get scared; it's really easy to make. The loaf I made was probably 18" long and 7" wide, after baking. Next time, I might cut the dough in half and make two smaller loaves, though the big loaf is certainly impressive in its own enormous way!
Chocolate-Almond Coffee Braid
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Makes one large 18" loaf (at least 16 thick slices).
For the dough:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt (I used coarse kosher.)
1 and 3/4 tsp. instant yeast (I always use instant, but it's fine to use 1 pkt. active dry yeast instead.)
Approx. 5 cups all-purpose flour (I used unbleached.)
3/4 cup milk (I used 2 percent.)
5 Tbsp. butter, unsalted
2 eggs, large
1 egg white (to mix with water and brush on the unbaked loaf)
2 oz. semi-sweet baking chocolate (to melt and drizzle on the baked loaf)
For the chocolate-almond filling
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
7 to 8 oz. almond paste (not the same thing as marzipan, just fyi!)
1 egg yolk
3 oz. of semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped into very small pieces
For the streusel topping:
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
3 Tbsp. sliced almonds
To prepare the dough:
In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment on low speed, combine the sugar, salt, yeast, and 1 cup of the flour.
In a microwave safe bowl, or on the stove top in a saucepan, slightly warm the milk, butter, and 1/4 cup of water until just lukewarm. You don't need to fully melt the butter. With the mixer on low speed, pour the liquid into the dry ingredients; beat only until blended. Now at medium speed, beat for about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape now and then. Beat in the eggs, along with 2 more cups of the flour; blend for 2 minutes.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add in 1 and 1/2 cups more of the flour, stirring by hand with a wooden spoon or a dough whisk (I love my dough whisk). The dough will be pretty soft.
Flour your work surface and dump the dough onto it.
Keep 1/2 cup of flour close at hand. Knead the dough until its texture is smooth and elastic, adding more flour to your surface and to the dough as needed; this could take up to ten minutes. (If you decide to do this step on your mixer, using the dough hook, cut the kneading time in half. Be watchful, in any case, not to overwork the dough. You'll know you've gone too far if the dough suddenly seems slack, lifeless, and lacks elasticity; if this happens, the dough can't be salvaged and there is nothing to be done but to start over. Over-mixing is more likely to occur with a rich dough like this than with a lean dough like that for a simple white bread.)
Round the dough into a ball and place it into a well-greased or oiled bowl, or spray the bowl with vegetable oil spray, like Pam--that's what I use. Turn the ball over in the bowl so it's coated. Spray/grease a sheet of plastic wrap on one side and put that, sprayed side down, over the bowl.
Cover the whole thing with a lightweight dish towel and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise. The dough should approximately double in size within about one hour.
While the dough is rising, make the chocolate-almond filling and the streusel.
To make the chocolate-almond filling:
Put the cream cheese, almond paste (broken into chunks), and 1 egg yolk into the large bowl of your mixer. Using the paddle attachment, blend together until on low speed until the mixture smooths out. Add the chopped chocolate and blend it in. Store the filling in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.
To make the streusel:
Mix the flour, sugar, and butter together in a small bowl using your fingers. You want the streusel to look like big, coarse, uneven crumbs. Add in the sliced almonds last, being careful not to break all them into bits. Store the streusel in the fridge until ready to use.
When the dough has doubled in size:
Dump the risen dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and press it firmly but gently with the palms of your hands. You are just trying to deflate it (or "de-gas" it as a baking teacher would tell you!). Lightly cover the deflated dough with the greased plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Prepare your workspace for rolling out the dough. You can roll it right on a large baking sheet if you prefer, but I wanted to roll out my dough on the piece of parchment on which it would actually bake (you can then just slide the whole thing, paper and all, right onto your baking sheet). To keep the parchment from sliding around, I clipped the edge of it to my worktable with a big, strong, binder clip.
Flour your rolling pin. Put the rested dough onto your surface and roll the dough into a rounded rectangle about 16" long and 12" wide.
Remove your filling from the fridge, give it a good stir, and spread all of it in a 4" strip down the center of the dough, lengthwise.
Using a pizza/pastry wheel, cut slits in the dough on each side, almost up to the point of the filling (the strips created by the slits can be narrow or wide, as you prefer; my strips were slightly over 1/2" wide).
Then, starting at the top, lifting the strips one by one alternately from each side, fold them over the filling. Do this for the whole length of the loaf, then pinch the two far ends tightly closed with your fingers.
Cover the loaf again with greased/sprayed plastic wrap and cover it with the dish towel. Let it rise again (ie., let it "proof") in a warm spot; this time for 30 minutes. It will expand, but not necessarily by much. Don't wait for it to double in size.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Mix the egg white in a little bowl with a tablespoon or two of water. Using a pastry brush, gently and lightly coat the unbaked loaf when it's done proofing (that is, when it's done with its final rise).
Sprinkle all of the streusel evenly in a strip down the center length of the loaf.
Bake the loaf on a large sheet pan (it will expand in the oven, so plan accordingly!) for about 30 minutes, until it's golden all over. Check it about 20 minutes into the baking time and, if it's browning quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Also, reverse the pan from back to front for more even heat and color.
When the loaf is done, let it cool on the pan for a few minutes, then move it to a cooling rack. When the loaf is cooled, melt the semi-sweet chocolate carefully in the microwave (chocolate burns really quickly), and pour it into a zip-lock sandwich bag. Using a sharp pair of scissors, cut an extremely tiny hole in one of the corners of the bag. Cut it just enough to let a dinky little stream of chocolate flow through when you squeeze the bag. Drizzle the chocolate back and forth over the entire loaf.
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