How to Make Polish Easter Bread
Baking bread for our Easter basket - a step-by-step
Every year, we do our traditional Polish Easter Basket. The main item in our basket is a loaf of bread; something special just for Easter. Over the years, we've bought the traditional babka or paska, or a hearty rye bread. In the last few years, however, we've been making a variation of our basic bread recipe. The basic recipe is available at Making a Polish Easter Basket. This year, I decided to take step-by-step photos of the variation we use for Easter.
I hope you enjoy it!
The Ingredients - Getting started.
It's always handy to pre-measure your ingredients before you start. For our version, we've got:
- 2 cups of milk
- 1/4 cup butter
- 2 tsp salt
- 2-3 Tbsp sugar
- 3 Tbsp active dry yeast
- a pinch of saffron threads in warm water
- 2 eggs (room temperature)
For a two loaf recipe, the total amount of liquid should be from 2 1/4 - 2 3/4 cups. Along with the milk pictured here, each egg counts as 1/4 cup liquid, bringing my total to 2 1/2 cups, plus there will be the liquid needed to proof the yeast.
Not pictured is the 6-8 cups of flour needed.
Do you bake your own bread?
Proofing the Yeast
This step isn't necessary if you are using one of the new fast acting yeasts. I prefer to use the older style active dry yeast, though it tends to be a bit harder to find. Don't use the yeast made for bread machines. With the newer, fast acting yeasts, you should be able to add it in with the flour. You can tell the difference between the types of yeast by the size of the granules; the smaller the granules, the faster acting it is.
You can proof the yeast in a cup or glass, but here I've just added it to the bottom of my mixing bowl with 1/4 cup very warm water and half the sugar. The sugar helps feed the yeast.
The recipe we use suggests 2-4 Tbsp yeast. I chose 3 Tbsp today because it was a bit chillier, thanks to a spring snowstorm. The less yeast you use, the longer it will take for your dough to rise. This is not a bad thing, as slower rising doughs develop more complex flavour. A dough that rises too quickly can collapse or form bubbles that are too large.
The Liquids - Preparing the milk and butter
While the yeast is proofing, heat the milk and butter together until the butter is all melted and the milk scalded, which is when you start to see tiny bubbles along the edge of your pan. Be careful not to boil the milk.
For the milk, we only ever buy homo milk. We used to buy lower fat milk but, to be blunt, we find the other types really gross tasting. Each to their own! You can use a lower fat milk, if you prefer, but it does affect the taste and texture slightly.
The Saffron - A hint of luxury
Now that the milk and butter is ready, it's time to check the saffron.
We are fortunate in having a local grocery store that sells reasonably priced saffron. Saffron is the dried stigmas from the Crocus Sativus Linneaus. Each blossum has only three of them, and they can only be harvested by hand, which is why it is so expensive!
Thankfully, very little is needed. What you see in this photo is a bit more then I usually use. The softened strands have turned the water a bright and colourfast yellow. This is one source of the distinctively coloured robes worn by Buddhist monks in some parts of the world.
In bread, this pinch of saffron lends a delicate flavour and a lovely colour.
Preparing your liquid
Add the saffron, salt and the rest of the sugar to your milk and butter mixture and give it a stir. If necessary, let your milk cool down a bit more. Too hot, and it will kill your yeast.
These ingredients all play important roles in your bread. The warm liquid activates your yeast. The sugar feeds it. The salt retards it, so it doesn't grow too much, too fast, and the fat (whether you use butter or oil) improves the texture and helps the bread stay moist longer.
Is Your Yeast Alive?
Now let's go back to the yeast. How does it look? It should be nice and bubbly. If it isn't, the yeast may be too old, or the water was too hot and killed it. Alternatively, the water may not be warm enough, and it may need a bit more time to proof.
If you're not sure about your yeast, you can test it before you start by adding a small amount to some warm water to see if it bubbles up. If you don't do a lot of baking, store your extra yeast in the refrigerator. Cold yeast will go dormant, so be sure to let it come to room temperature before you use it. Don't ever freeze your extra yeast, though, as that will kill it as thoroughly as heat will.
As you can see, our yeast is just fine and bubbly.
Now it's time to add your liquid mixture to the yeast mixture, along with about 3 cups of flour. Here, we're using All Purpose white flour. We usually use a mix of white and whole wheat flours, or some other blend, but for our Easter bread, we use just white flour.
If you have an electric mixer, you can beat this mixture on medium for about 2 minutes total. If you're using a wooden spoon, beat this batter for about 200 strokes - really work that gluten up!
No, I didn't forget about the eggs!
Though the milk mixture was allowed to cool down for the yeast, it's still a bit too warm for the eggs. After a few moments of mixing the yeast, milk mixture and flour together, it was cool enough to add the eggs.
After the batter is well mixed, start adding the rest of the flour, about a half cup at a time. If you're using a mixer and it has dough hooks, be sure to change to them now. Once the batter becomes a dough thick enough to start pulling from the sides, it's time to turn it onto your kneading surface.
Kneading Your Dough
Keep kneading your dough, working in more flour as you go, until the dough is stiff. It will take some practise to know when to stop. How much flour you will actually use will depend on things like the age of the flour, and even the level of humidity in the air. For this batch, I think I only used about 5 1/2 cups instead of the recommended 6-8. The dough should still be slightly sticky, but not so much that you need to add more flour to your kneading surface.
Getting your Exercise
Once you've finished adding your flour, keep on kneading!
It's recommended to knead the dough for about 5 minutes. The look and feel of the dough will change as you work it. Though it's possible to over knead your dough (more of a risk if you're using a machine to knead it for you), it's important that the dough is kneaded adequately. There's chemistry happening here! A well kneaded dough is smooth and elastic, which ensures the gases created by your hungry yeast will be captured into small, spongy bubbles.
It's also a very good work out!
Once kneaded, your dough will need to be set aside to rise. To do this, it needs to be put into a place that's warm and draft free. There are a number of ways to do this, but this is the way I usually do it. Place the dough into a well oiled bowl. Turn the dough until all sides are covered with oil. Cover the bowl lightly with a lid (don't seal it shut, though! The gases need to escape). If your bowl doesn't have a lid, a damp towel can be draped over the top of your bowl.
When choosing your bowl, make sure it's big enough! Your dough needs to rise until doubled in size, so make sure it has plenty of room to grow.
You can leave your bowl in any warm place to rise. With a chilly day like today, I like to pre-heat the oven to its lowest setting. Once warm, I shut the oven off, but leave the light on. Place the bowl into the warm oven and leave it. The oven light usually produces enough heat to keep the oven warm for a nice, long time. If not, take the bowl out and preheat the oven to its lowest temperature again.
Your dough will need an hour or two to rise.
A perfect time for a cup of tea.
Or if you're like me, a giant mug of tea.
I like my tea.
Tea Time is Over
Ahhh... that was a nice break, wasn't it?
Your dough is ready when it has doubled in size. It should be elastic and filled with small bubbles. Give it a poke to see if it's the right texture.
That was fun.
Go ahead and poke it again. You know you want to!
Punch down your risen dough, then turn it onto a lightly floured kneading surface. Knead it some more for a minute or two.
This being a two loaf recipe, divide the dough in half with a large knife or dough cutter. Put one half back into the bowl, cover and set aside. Knead the remaining half a little bit longer.
Now the Fun Part!
Okay, so all of it was fun, but now it's time to get creative!
You can certainly just shape the dough into loaves and bake it in a loaf pan, but for Easter, we like to do something special. Usually we make one shaped loaf for the basket, then use the other half of the dough for buns or something.
This time, we decided to go with a braided wreath, so the dough for one loaf was divided into three equal pieces.
Each piece then gets rolled into a long, snake-like rope of dough. Since we're making a wreath here, they need to be fairly rong and thin.
Join the three lengths of dough together at one end, then braid them together. The start of it can be a bit messy, so I like to turn it around, open up the top, then rebraid them to make them tidier.
At this point, you could place the dough onto an oiled baking sheet, tucking the ends under, for a very pretty braided loaf.
Forming the wreath
To form the wreath, gently manipulate the braided dough into a circle and press the ends together. Carefully move the braided wreath onto an oiled baking sheet.
The Finishing Touch
For a finishing touch - and to hide the join of the braid - take a small piece from the other half of the dough that was set aside earlier and roll it out. Use it to form a bow, or whatever shape you prefer, large enough to cover the join in the wreath.
This loaf is now done! Time to do something with the rest of the dough.
A Simple Twist
I divided the remaining dough into four equal pieces. One, I worked into a simple twist. Roll the piece out into a rope, fold it in half, then twist the two halves around each other. Finish by tucking the ends under to hide them, then place onto a greased baking sheet or dish.
The next piece got divided into 3 pieces and rolled out to make another braid. The braided and twisted loaves ended up being about the same size and shape.
A Pull-apart loaf
The next piece was cut into 8 equal pieces. I only used 7 of them, though, and the last bit went into one of the other pieces of dough. The pieces were shaped into little balls and arranged onto an oiled cast iron pan.
You can also make pull-apart buns. Tuck three small balls of dough into each cup of an oiled muffin tin. The sides of the muffin cups forces the dough to rise up instead of out, making for some very fun little buns.
With the last piece of dough, I wanted to try something different. I shaped it into a disk and placed it into my smallest cast iron pan. I then oiled the outside of a tiny, oven proof bowl and pushed it into the middle. Another oven proof dish was placed on top to add weight. I was thinking this would make a handy little bread "bowl" to tuck something into later on.
Adding an Egg Wash
Once all the loaves are formed, it's time to add a wash of some sort. There are different types of washes that have different effects on the dough. I like a soft crust, so I usually brush the top of my loaves with a light coating of oil. For our Easter bread, we prefer an egg wash - a single egg beaten with a bit of water. This gives the crust a rich colour with it's baked.
Once a wash has been applied, the loaves can be lightly covered with a clean towel, then set aside for a second rising until the dough is again doubled in size. This should take only about half the time of the first rising. That's usually just enough time for my oven to preheat. Most of the time, the bread is baked at 350F. Lower that to 325F if you're using black bakeware.
Here are all our finished loaves!
Baking time depends on the size and shape of the loaves. Our wreath took about half an hour to bake - about 15 minutes less then the same amount of dough in a loaf pan. The smaller loaves took 20 minutes (for the twist and braid) and 15 minutes (for the cast iron pan ones).
When baking the loaf with the bowl pressed into it, I kept the terracota bowl I'd been using to weigh it down on top, but added water to it. The water added extra weight, plus the steam from the water makes for a nice crust. Unfortunately, I guess things were off centre, as the dough rose crooked, tipping the weighted bowl to one side. It also rose high enough to stick to the bottom of the weighted bowl. I didn't think it would rise that high, so I hadn't oiled the bottom. The dough got stuck and tore off when I removed it. Also, the tiny bowl in the middle had dough sticking to it, even though I'd oiled the sides. So it was a failed experiment.
A tasty failed experiment!
These loaves are now ready!
I think the wreath will look really good in our basket this year. The basket we've been using for the last couple of years is round with a flat bottom, so it should fit quite well, too.
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