I learned how to braid hair as a kid, but I wasn’t very good at it. I could never make the three strands the same size, and I always seemed to miss little pieces of hair as I wove my way over and over, over and under. I could never get the hang of French braiding – that was way too complicated.
I haven’t worn braids in years. Every so often I attempt a single braid in what I hope looks like a casual, sophisticated hairstyle, but usually it just ends up looking messy and old-fashioned.
So when I attempted to braid my first bread a few weeks ago, I was a little nervous.
The bread recipe was a chocolate-chip pumpkin loaf that I came across while browsing some food blogs. I had some leftover canned pumpkin sitting in the fridge, but I wasn’t keen on turning it into a sugary treat (for once!) so this seemed perfect.
The dough came together nicely, and smelled spicy and aromatic. I discovered that kneading dough with chocolate chips in it isn’t the easiest thing in the world – they kept popping out and rolling to the floor.
After the first rise, it was time to braid. I divided the dough into three pieces and rolled each into a long, thin strip. I positioned the strips in a convenient place on our desk-cum-island, where I could get at them from both sides, took a deep breath, and began.
It went surprisingly well. The recipe tells you to start braiding from the middle and do both sides separately, which was clearly different from a hair braid. I got a little mixed up on the second side and spent a minute or two crossing the strips over and then crossing them back. But I figured it out, and when I was all done, my braid of dough looked pretty good.
Then I had to twist the dough, which I figure out without too much trouble, so the finished product looks like a big round braid. After another rise and some time in the oven, it puffed up golden brown and tasted delicious. The pumpkin flavour was subtle, but the spices pumped it up a notch and the chocolate chips made it feel like a special treat. I especially liked this bread sliced warm right after it came out of the oven, or toasted with butter.
I’m still not a great hair braider, but I’m ready to tackle my next bread braiding project. Maybe a loaf of Challah in time for Hannakuh?
Makes one loaf
- 4 to 4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
- 1 heaping tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup low-fat milk, warm
- 1/4 cup melted butter (warm, not hot)
- 1 large egg, plus one more for the glaze
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, according to taste
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl, combine the warm milk, the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the flour. Allow to rest for 5 minutes.
Add the pumpkin puree, spices, light brown sugar, salt, egg, and melted butter. Mix until combined. Add the flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing well between additions. After you have added 2 cups of flour, add the chocolate chips, then continue with the rest of the flour. When the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl switch to your dough hook, or a wooden spoon if making bread by hand.
If using a stand mixer, knead the dough for 4 minutes, adding extra flour 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed - just enough to keep the dough from sticking to the sides of the bowl. If making the bread by hand, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 4-5 minutes, sprinkling with flour as needed to prevent sticking. The dough is done when it’s smooth and bounces back when you press your thumb into it.
Place the dough in a deep container greased with 1 tsp of olive oil. Turn the dough once to coat the top and cover with plastic wrap. Allow dough to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Spray a spring-form cake pan with baking spray, or oil lightly and lightly flour. Sprinkle the flour on the bottom and along the sides, then invert the pan and tap out any excess flour.
Divide the dough into 3 equal portions, and roll each portion out into a smooth, thick strip about 15 inches long, with the ends slightly thinner than the middle. Be gentle with the dough or you’ll tear it, which wouldn’t affect the final flavor but would influence the way the finished loaf looks.
Lay the ropes side-by-side, not quite touching. Beginning in the middle and working towards you, braid the lower half of the three ropes. To braid, alternately move the outside ropes over the one in the center - left over, right over, left over - until you come to the end. Now go to the other side of your working space and braid the other half, this time moving the outside ropes under the center one. Braid tightly - you don’t want any gaps. When you finish braiding each side crimp the tapered ends together, then tuck them under. Twist the braid around itself, pinwheel fashion, gently pressing the outside end against the larger body of dough. Transfer to your prepared pan.
Whisk together 1 egg and 1 teaspoon of olive oil, this is going to be the glaze for your bread. Gently brush the dough with it. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
About 30 minutes before baking, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Brush the dough with the egg mixture again. The dough will have stretched during rising, so be sure to get any spots that don’t have glaze on them.
Place the pan on a rack in the center of the oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until browned and the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it with your fingers. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then transfer the bread to a cooling rack. Allow to cool at least 20 more minutes before slicing.