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Several years ago, Brinna Sands received a call from a woman in a neighboring town whose young son wanted to do a report on King Arthur. Since she's had a long interest in matters Arthurian, she was more than happy to share her accumulated material. Todd Gunnerson's final presentation was excellent and it was gratifying to see the story of Arthur spark the excitement and imagination of another generation. Glimpses of a world fifteen hundred years in the past can be as exciting to contemplate as a world fifteen hundred years in the future.
As thanks, Todd's mother presented us with a loaf of her mother's Christmas bread, which came from the edge of the Black Forest.
warm water to make 2 cups
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon or packet active dry yeast
1/2 cup non-fat dry milk
5 to 6 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
grated rind of 1 lemon
1/2 to 1 cup golden raisins
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water, for wash
sliced almonds for the top
Break the eggs into a 2-cup measure and fill the balance with water. Pour this mixture into a large mixing bowl and beat together. Add and stir in the sugar, the yeast, the dry milk and 3 cups of the flour. Cover and let this mixture bubble and expand for 15 to 20 minutes.
Stir in the salt, the butter, the lemon rind, the raisins and 2 more cups of flour. Stir until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Put the remaining flour on a kneading surface, keeping some in reserve, and turn the dough out onto it.
Knead for 3 to 4 minutes and then give the dough a rest while you clean and grease (butter or vegetable oil are fine) your bowl. Continue kneading (notice the difference in the dough?) for another 3 to 4 minutes. Then put the dough in the bowl, and turn it over so the top has a thin film of grease on it. Cover the bowl and let dough rise until it has doubled (you can stick your finger in it and it doesn't spring back at you).
Knock the dough down and let it rise again. Because there are now about twice as many yeast organisms as there were to begin with (they weren't just making hot air!), the second rise will be almost twice as fast as the first. The dough will also have twice as many little bubbles of carbon dioxide in it, which will give the loaf a finer texture -- lots of little holes instead of fewer big ones. This is an appropriate kind of texture for a festival bread like this.
After this second rise, knock the dough down, turn it out onto your kneading board and divide it into 3 pieces. Let the dough rest for a minute or two to relax the gluten. Begin rolling each piece out like snakes as far as you can. If the dough becomes reluctant, let it rest and relax again. You want 3 long strands about 1 inch in diameter, which may involve several resting periods.
When the strands are the size you want, braid them together gently and form a circle by weaving the two ends together as well as you can. Place the wreath on a large, well-greased baking sheet and let it rise, covered with a damp cloth, for 45 minutes to an hour.
Just before you place it in your oven, brush the surface with the egg wash and sprinkle on a generous handful of sliced almonds.
Place the wreath in a cold oven, turn the temperature to 400°F for 15 minutes and down to 350°F for a further 25 to 30 minutes.
After this glorious bread is thoroughly cooled, place it in an airtight plastic bag and freeze it until the morning of the day you wish to serve it.
This recipe reprinted from The Baking Sheet Newsletter, Vol. III, No. 2, December 1991 issue.