Easter is fast approaching, and for many of us the smell of freshly baked hot cross buns, cinnamon rolls and other fancy sweet breads are very much a part of this upcoming Holy Week.
For Christians around the world, Easter is the first major holiday of spring. Everything centers around new birth. Eggs, green vegetables and spring lamb figure prominently in the cuisine. Also, many of the foods given up for Lent like butter, eggs, sugar and cream, reappear in a variety of rich Easter breads.
So what exactly is Easter bread? It is a braided bread, incorporating eggs within the braids. It is often made forming a ring. Eggs are usually dyed using festive holiday colours. If using raw eggs for your Easter bread, be sure to wash the eggs before adding them to the braid to prevent the rare but possible risk of salmonella from the eggshell.
This week I’m offering an easy basic sweet bread recipe that can be used for most braided breads, buns, hot cross buns and cinnamon rolls along with a recipe for bread machines that is easily altered by adding spices and fruits.
Best Basic Sweet Bread
1 cup milk
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup butter
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk, sugar and butter. Heat until slightly warm to the touch then remove from heat and stir in the yeast. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
In large bowl, stir together flour and salt. Mix in eggs, oil and the yeast mixture. Mix until dough pulls away from sides of the bowl. Turn dough out onto floured surface and continue to knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Grease a large bowl with 1 tbsp. of oil. Place the dough into the bowl and turn once to coat. Cover and let stand in a warm place until double in size, about 1 hour. Use remaining oil to grease a cookie sheet or 9×13 inch pan.
For plain rolls, punch down dough and divide into 12 equal pieces. Roll the pieces into balls and place them into the greased pan side by side. Let dough rise for 20 to 25 minutes, or until almost double. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in preheated oven, until rolls are golden brown.
For Braided Sweet Breads: Add 2 tsp. finely grated orange peel, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon to the flour and decrease the milk to 3/4 cup and add 1/4 cup orange juice. Follow instructions above. Divide the dough into 3 or 4 equal portions and roll out into 3 or 4 long strands. Braid and secure into a circle, or leave in a loaf shape. Place in a greased pan and allow to rise again until double. Glaze. Bake as above, and frost as you wish.
For Hot Cross Buns:
1 recipe basic sweet bread dough
2 tsp. ground spices (for example, 1/2 tsp. cardamom, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. allspice, 1/4 tsp. cloves, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg)
3/4 cup currants
2 tsp. grated orange zest
Add spices to the flour mixture along with currants and orange zest; follow directions above. After you have rolled the dough into balls; use kitchen scissors to cut a cross into the top of each roll. Glaze with egg and milk mixture. Bake at 375 F. until golden brown. Mix frosting ingredients until smooth. Drizzle into crosses in each roll.
1 Tbsp. milk
1 teaspoon milk
3 to 4 Tbsp. powdered sugar
Tsoureki (sweet bread)
made with a bread machine
1/3 cup of water (75-85 degrees)
1/3 cup of whole milk
3 eggs lightly beaten
1/2 cup (1 square) of butter or margarine, softened and cut into pieces
Finely grated peel of one orange
Juice of 1/2 orange
1/2 cup of sugar
4 – 4 1/2 cups of bread flour
1 tsp. of salt
1/4 tsp. of ground nutmeg or cinnamon
2 1/2 – 3 tsp. of breadmaker yeast
Egg wash (1 egg, slightly beaten with 1 tablespoon of water)
Sesame seeds for sprinkling on top (optional)
In bread pan of the bread machine, place water, milk, eggs, butter, grated orange peel, orange juice, sugar, flour, salt and nutmeg or cinnamon. With finger, make a small indentation at one side of the flour.
Mix a few tablespoons of hot water with the yeast until thoroughly dissolved and place in the indentation, making sure it does not come into contact with the liquid ingredients. Insert bread pan into bread machine; gently close lid. Then select which program will be used, i.e. sweet, basic, etc. If your machine has the option for sweet bread, choose it. If not, a basic cycle should work as well. The trick is in the rising of the dough. It will require ample time. If your machine has a crust colour selection, choose medium.
Before the bread is completely baked (about 10 minutes before baking cycle ends), use a pastry brush to lightly brush the top of the loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired. When the bread has completely finished baking, remove bread pan and gently loosen the sides of the bread from the pan with a spatula. Turn bread pan upside down onto a wire cooling rack and gently shake until the bread falls out onto the rack. Turn bread right-side up. Allow to cool 20 minutes. Yield: 2 pound loaf
To make the following recipe, simply remove the dough after the mix cycle and allow it to rise once.
For Cinnamon Rolls:
2 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup cream cheese, softened
6 tablespoons milk
3 cup powdered sugar
Mix Tsoureki dough (above) in bread machine, omitting the orange peel. Remove to a greased bowl. Turn once and cover; place in a warm place to rise until double; about 2-1/2 hours. Combine brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in medium bowl. Mix until well-incorporated. Set aside until ready to use.
Butter two 9-by-13-inch glass baking dishes. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface; divide in half. Gently shape each dough into a rectangle with the long side nearest you. Roll into an 18-by- 12-inch rectangle. Brush the dough with the half of the melted butter, leaving 1/2-inch border along the top edge. Sprinkle half the filling mixture over the dough, leaving a 3/4-inch border along the top edge; gently press the filling into the dough.
Beginning with the long edge nearest you, roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Firmly pinch the seam to seal and roll the cylinder, seam side down. Very gently squeeze the cylinder to create even thickness. Using a serrated knife, slice the cylinder into 1-1/2-inch rolls, yielding 12 rolls. Repeat.
Fill a shallow pan 2/3-full of boiling water and set on the bottom rack in the oven. Place the rolls above the pan of water. Close oven door and let rolls rise until they look slightly puffy; about 30 minutes. Remove rolls and the pan of water from the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. When oven is ready, place the rolls on the middle rack and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.
While the rolls are cooling slightly, make the icing by whisking the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer until creamy. Add the milk and whisk until combined. Sift in the powdered sugar, and whisk until smooth. Spread over warm rolls and serve immediately.