The cutting of the rolled dough exposes a colorful filling, giving the braid a festive brightness … and looks more complicated than it actually is to make. Thickly sliced and warmed 10 seconds in the microwave, this scented bread is a traditional must-have for our Christmas morning. The recipe was original to a Sunset Bread edition from the late 70’s.
Servings: 15 to 18 slices
1 package dry yeast
1/4 C warm water (about 110°)
1/2 C warm milk
3 Tbsp sugar
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1-1/2 tsp salt
1/2 to 3/4 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp grated lemon peel
3 1/2 C all-purpose flour
THE CHERRY-ALMOND FILLING
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1/4 C all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp sugar
2/3 C finely chopped blanched almonds
1/4 C each chopped red and green glacé cherries
1/2 tsp grated lemon peel
3/4 tsp almond extract
2/3 C powdered sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
3 tsp water
Dissolve the yeast in warm water. Combine milk, sugar, butter, salt, cardamom, eggs, and lemon peel in the large bowl of an electric mixer. Beat in 1 cup of flour; add yeast and mix well. Add 1 cup of flour and beat on medium speed for 3 minutes, scraping frequently.
Work in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough. Turn dough out on floured surface and knead until smooth, about 5 to 10 minutes. Place dough in greased bowl; turn over to grease top and sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1-1/2 hours.
In medium bowl, cream the butter with the flour and sugar until smooth. Stir in the almonds, cherries, lemon peel and extract. Cover and refrigerate while the dough is rising.
MAKING THE BRAID
Punch dough down, knead briefly on floured surface to release air, then roll into a 9 x 36-inch rectangle. Crumble and smear filling over the dough to within 1 inch of edges. Starting with a long side, roll dough up tightly, jelly-roll fashion. Moisten edge with water; pinch to seal.
Using a floured serrated knife, cut roll in half lengthwise; carefully turn cut sides upward. Trim 1/3 from each cut half (12 inches) and pinch the short ends together to form a third rope. Lay the three ropes side by side and braid from center to either end (cover the join of 3rd rope), firmly pinching the ends underneath to seal. Transfer to a greased and floured baking sheet.
Cover lightly and loosely with clear wrap plus a thin towel and let rise in a warm place until puffy, about 45 to 60 minutes.
Heat the oven to 350° and bake for 18—20 minutes or until lightly browned. Run wide spatulas under the braid to loosen; slide onto a rack. Cool completely and wrap in plastic wrap for overnight (plus another layer of foil for freezing if baking days ahead). If frozen, set out before retiring on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning, mix Glaze ingredients until smooth. Drizzle from a spoon edge in lines that follow the direction of the braid sections. Slice and warm in the microwave about 10 seconds for each slice.
Of course, there is another variation as I couldn’t leave the original recipe alone. Substitute orange peel for the lemon peel and cinnamon for the cardamom in the dough.
In the filling, swap brown sugar for white, finely chopped pecans for almonds, dates or raisins or dried apples (or a mix) for cherries, orange peel for lemon, and rum extract for almond.
Assemble and bake in the same fashion as the almond braid. My family declares it a completely different recipe and delectable combined with hot cider or cocoa for a Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day breakfast.
I have also taken the rolled dough and made two braids (divide each cut half into thirds) for gifting to family and neighbors. The bread is slipped into a pretty tie gift bag with a small packet of powdered sugar as a sugar glaze never survives well inside plastic for long.
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