Tuesday, December 21, 2010

As Close As You Can Get To Manna From Heaven

cherry almond bread old photo

Today I did the prep work for my admission to Shawn's family Christmas celebration. My invitation comes with a condition that must be met or I risk being turned away at the door without even a bag of coal. I have to bring this bread.

I've never called their bluff because I'm pretty sure they're not bluffing. Shawn starts asking a couple of weeks before Christmas, "You are making the bread, aren't you?" When he talks to his mom about Christmas Day, she says, "Just make sure Kendra brings the bread." Even my brother-in-law whom I rarely see other than Christmas Day (if it's a year he's not on the latest extreme fad-diet) expects for the bread to be there. "Hi Kendra how have you been the past year Kendra where's the bread Kendra?"

I cannot do this bread justice with a photo. I tried last year and, in order to be prepared to blog about it THIS year, took photos of it sliced and as pretty as I could make it on a plate. In spite of spending 2 hours looking for them today, I cannot find them. So you have to use your imagination with this old photo. Imagine what a million dollars would taste like and that's what this bread is like to your mouth. Except eating dollar bills doesn't really sound all that good when I think about it. Maybe imagine eating gold. That's not really so great, either. How many people have gold dental work and you never hear anyone say, "I can't get over how marvelous these fillings taste!" I guess the best analogy would be to have you imagine eating this bread so you could understand just how good this bread is. Except if you've never eaten it, that really doesn't make any sense. So I guess you're going to just have to make this bread or you'll never understand.

If you've never made homemade bread, this is a wonderful bread to start with. The dough is not stiff yet it's not sticky so it rolls out effortlessly. It's perfection to work with. If you're an experienced breadmaker, you'll appreciate how quickly it all pulls together.

I have a couple of steps I do ahead of time, just because it helps things move along faster when it comes time to make the bread.

almond cherry bread prep
First you need dried cherries. I combined several recipes to come up with my version of this bread. The original recipe had no frosting and called for using those cherries you put on fruitcake. I'm not sure why anyone would ruin this fabulous dough with fruitcake cherries. I thought about using dried cherries but finally decided I wanted plump, sweet cherries. I buy 2 cans of dark sweet cherries, drain them, and stick them in the oven at 250 degrees for a couple of hours. This recipe makes 2 loaves of bread so use a can per loaf. If you like a lot of fruit, you can certainly use more. A can per loaf is what I used the first time I made the bread and I fear the consequences of making any changes to it.

The second thing I do is make my own almond paste. I used to buy the box of Betty Crocker almond paste in the baking section of the grocery store. One year I could not find it in any store. We lived in Kansas City at the time and even calling around left me empty handed. I was faced with making my own which seemed like a daunting task. I was pleased to find it was both very easy to make and tasted much better than Betty's, which is gritty from the sugar and crumbly from lack of moisture.

I've experimented with recipes over the years and, this week, found the almond paste recipe I will stick with. That is assuming the difference of there being no egg whites in it doesn't affect the outcome of the bread. All of the almond paste recipes I've tried in the past called for powdered sugar and can always taste the cornstarch from the powdered sugar. This recipe uses granulated sugar and honey. The flavor is much better.

The morning of Christmas Eve, I'll start my bread and by early afternoon, I'll have guaranteed myself an open-arms welcome the next day. I'll also have guaranteed a very Merry Christmas to many tastebuds!

Cherry Almond Bread

Anywhere from 1 week to 1 day prior to making the bread, drain the bing cherries for the filling. Place the cherries on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet and bake in a 250 degree oven until they are dehydrated as desired. I usually bake them around 2 hours and they look like plump prunes, slightly wrinkled but still juicy. Remove from the oven and cool. Store in the refrigerator until needed.

2 packages of active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105-115 degrees F)
1/2 cups warm milk (105-115 degrees F)
8 oz. almond paste*
1 stick butter
2 tsp. salt
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
2 tsp. grated lemon peel (optional)
5 1/2-6 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups finely chopped almonds (I use sliced almonds)

1. In a large mixing bowl, soften the yeast in the warm water.

2. Add the warm milk, almond paste, butter, salt, eggs, lemon peel, and 3 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously with a dough whisk or a heavy-handled spoon for 2 minutes.

3. Gradually add more of the remaining flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough forms a mass and begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. (I usually have to add more flour than the recipe calls for to get this to happen.) Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Or, if you are blessed enough to own a Kitchen Maid stand mixer as I am, keep it turning.

4. Knead, adding more flour, a little at a time as necessary, until you have a smooth, elastic dough and blisters begin to develop on the surface.

5. Put the dough into an oiled bowl and turn once to coat the entire ball of dough with oil. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

6. Prepare the filling while the dough is rising.

7. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into 2 balls. Working with one ball of dough, use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a 24" x 10" rectangle. Spread 1/2 of the filling all over the surface of the dough rectangle. Sprinkle 1/2 of the almonds over the filling. Place 1/2 of the dehydrated cherries evenly over the filling and almonds.

8. Starting at on long end, roll the dough rectangle into a cylinder. Cut the cylinder in half length-wise and place the 2 halves, cut-side up next to one another. Gently braid the 2 halves and move the braid to a baking sheet. At this point, you can form the braid into a wreath if you want to try and get the dough at the ends of the braid to stick together nicely. I'm not that talented so I either bend the braid into a semi-circle or if I'm feeling really festive, I bend it into the shape of a candy cane.

9. Repeat steps 7-8 with the second ball of dough.

10. Cover the breads with kitchen towels and let rise for about 45 minutes, or until almost doubled in size.

11. About 15 minutes before the end of rising, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

12. Bake the wreaths for 24-30 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove from the baking sheets and cool on racks.

13. Prepare the frosting. When the bread has cooled, warm the frosting in the microwave and drizzle it over the bread.

14. Keep the bread covered until ready to serve. This bread is best eaten warmed.

2 cans bing cherries in heavy syrup
1 stick butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp almond extract

Cream the butter with an electric mixer. Add the brown sugar, flour, and almond extract, mixing until well combined. The cherries should have previously been dehydrated and will be used when the bread is assembled for baking.

1 stick butter
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs orange juice (optional)
1 tsp almond extract
3-4 Tbs. milk or as much as needed

Cream the butter with an electric mixer. Add the powdered sugar, salt, orange juice, and almond extract and mix until well combined. Add the milk, a little at a time, until the mixture is a frosting consistency.

*If you need or want to make your own almond paste, this is my favorite recipe for it.

Almond Paste

I cup plus 3 tablespoons (250 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (75 grams) honey
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons (100 grams) water
3 cups plus 3 tablespoons (500 grams) blanched, whole, almonds
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (50 grams) Kirsch or simple syrup, optional
Scant 1/4 cup (50 grams) butter
Place the sugar, honey and water in a saucepan and bring to a strong boil. Place the almonds in the food processor and grind until coarse. Remove the boiling sugar from the heat and pour over the coarse almonds. Blend until smooth. This may take 10 minutes or more, depending on the strength of the food processor. Remember, food processors are not usually strong enough to yield the same consistency as the almond paste that you can buy. If your mixture is too thick and the food processor is straining, you can add a little Kirsch or simple syrup to the processor. Add the liquid slowly and stop when the processor is moving more freely. The quality of almond paste is determined by how smooth the consistency is.

Wrap the almond paste in plastic wrap and allow it to cool. When you are ready to use it, knead in the butter. The butter makes it smooth and not so sticky.
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LollyChops said...

This sounds like the best bread on the planet! I might just be making this over the weekend!

Merry Christmas Kendra!


Amy said...

This looks SO good!! I'm going to have to try to make it! Thank you for sharing the recipe!

Farmers 8 Daughters said...

Woah....so many steps....I'm sure this bread is amazing. My mom makes one sorta like it w/o the cherries, and it is really awesome. But I love cherries, so I bet this is a nice addition. I'll put it in my que to make sometime this winter when I'm not as busy as I have been these past couple weeks.

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