Friday, December 28, 2012

Polish Holiday Sweet Bread

My grandmother was a talented baker. Making treats for everybody, especially for Christmas, Easter and weddings, was her vocation. She made this bread for both Christmas and Easter. She was Polish, so this recipe sort of is too, although I've never found anything quite like it in a book or through any online search. 

A sandwich made with this bread, thick slices of holiday ham and nothing else is one of things I most look forward to eating. Of course, my grandmother didn't really follow a recipe when she made it. Starting with the version lovingly documented by my aunt, I've made the bread successfully in past years. Still, it was finicky stuff and the stress of worrying whether it would turn out made the cooking process overwhelming.

This year, I decided to get rid of the guess work and develop a precise version of the recipe that anybody could follow. Yes, you need some tools and lots of time, but it works! It also tastes just like my grandmother's. The closest thing I can compare it to is babka, but I believe this uses more eggs, and we would never fill it with chocolate. The filling is amazing by the way, but I love the bread plain as well, without the jelly roll-like swirl. As I mentioned, the sweet bread paired with salty smoked ham is out of this world, but I also like it lightly toasted with salted butter for breakfast.

I don't think I've ever made a blog post with so many step-by-step photos, but in this case, I think they are useful. The recipe itself is also long and very precise, but once you do it, it's not a big deal. Enjoy! 

First some essentials: An instant-read thermometer (with my green scale in the background); active dry yeast packets and candied cherries.

Activated yeast should look this foamy; checking the water temp helps. 

 After adding 7 cups of flour. Dough will still be sticky and won't pull away from sides of the bowl.

Transfer the dough to a well-oiled mixing bowl. 

After rising for 3 hours in a dry, chilly kitchen. 

 The filled dough just before rolling it up.

And we're done!

Polish Holiday Sweet Bread
Inserting an instant-read thermometer into the center of the loaves is essential to avoid over or under baking the bread. A kitchen scale lets you quickly and accurately measure the flour, so I highly, highly recommend it. If a scale is unavailable, measure the flour as follows: Fluff up the flour in its container, then lightly spoon into a 1-cup measuring cup, taking care not to shake the cup; level with a knife; repeat, fluffing the flour every time. This method will get you as close as possible to the correct weight of flour. Either way, measure all of the flour into a bowl before you start adding it to the dough.

This bread tends to stick to the pans (sugar will do that) no matter what, so here’s the ultimate fix: Buy some nonstick foil (Reynolds--it’s right by the regular foil; you will love this stuff!) and line the pans with it. Coat with cooking spray (or oil) for extra insurance.

My grandmother used melted Crisco for the filling, however, I can’t see any advantage to doing so. As a compromise, I use half Crisco and half butter. If you don’t have shortening in your pantry, feel free to use all butter. The candied cherries are the kind used in fruitcake and are easy to find around the holidays, or online; do not substitute maraschino or dried. For the very detailed bakers, the flour I prefer for this particular recipe is either Pillsbury or Gold Medal, both unbleached, all-purpose.
Update: I read a trick in this Cookie Madness post about how to prevent fillings from separating from the bread. I will try it by replacing the melted butter/Crisco with 1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water.

Yield: 2 (9” x 5”) loaves
Total time: All day, or around 8 hours, mostly hands-off


Nonstick foil
Pastry brush
Instant read thermometer


For dough:
3/4 cup milk (2% or whole)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 3 chunks
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 packets (4 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (910 grams)

For filling:
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons Crisco
1 cup (loosely packed, approx.) dark brown sugar
3/4 cup (approx.) candied/glazed cherries, quartered or chopped
3/4 cup (approx.) toasted, chopped pecans

For egg wash:
1 large egg
Pinch of salt


1. Heat the milk and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir frequently (do not boil; adjust heat if necessary) until butter is melted. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and salt and stir frequently until dissolved. Cool slightly.

2. Fill a glass measuring cup or small bowl with 1/2 cup of hot, but not steaming, water. Use instant-read thermometer to make sure water temperature is 110F to 115F. Add yeast and 1 tsp sugar and stir gently. Set aside until yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, thoroughly whisk the eggs. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup of the cooled milk mixture. Add another 1/2 cup in the same manner, then slowly whisk in the remainder of the milk mixture. Fit the dough hook onto the mixer. With the mixer off, add 2 cups of the flour and the yeast mixture. Mix on low to medium-low speed until just combined, scraping down the bowl as needed. Do this two more times, until you have added 6 cups of the flour. Add 1/2 cup of the remaining flour and mix. Dough should have an elastic, slightly glossy appearance; it should feel moist and sticky to handle, but not wet; it will not pull away completely from the sides of the bowl or form a ball. Add remaining 1/2 cup flour if necessary to achieve this texture.

4. Coat a large mixing bowl with canola cooking spray or brush with a light coat of canola oil. With floured hands, transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball. Place dough in bowl, then flip the dough over so that both sides are coated with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and drape a kitchen towel over it. Let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.

5. Line two 9” x 5” baking pans with NONSTICK foil, dull side up, and mist with cooking spray; set aside. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 1 minute. Divide into 2 pieces. Return one piece to the bowl and cover with the towel while you work with the other piece. On a floured surface, roll dough into an approximately 9” x 16” rectangle, with the shorter sides parallel to your body. Use a rolling pin as well as your hands and knuckles, picking up the dough and stretching it gently as needed. It is difficult to roll this dough evenly, and there is plenty of excess, so trim a chunk off of each short end and trim any thick edges and corners to form your rectangle. Ideally, each loaf should weigh about 1 1/2 pounds (24 ounces), so you can easily trim about 6 ounces of dough off of each loaf.

6. Microwave the butter and Crisco together in a small bowl until melted. With a pastry brush, lightly coat the dough with about 1/2 the butter/Crisco, leaving a 1” border on the short side closest to your body. Sprinkle with 1/2 the sugar and rub over the dough to coat evenly. Sprinkle with half the cherries and half the pecans (use more or less filling, depending on how sweet and chunky you want it to be).

7. Have a small bowl of water at hand. Beginning with the short end of the dough furthest away from your body, roll it up like a jelly roll. When you get to the end, dip your fingers in the water and lightly coat the edge of the dough to seal the roll. Transfer to one of the baking pans, seam side down. Repeat with the other piece of dough. Cover both pans with a kitchen towel and let the dough rise until noticeably bulkier and filling out the pans, 2 to 3 hours.

8. Preheat oven to 350F. In a small bowl, whisk the egg and salt. Lightly brush egg wash over the dough with a pastry brush. Bake loaves side by side in the center of the oven for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325F and continue baking until loaves are deep golden brown and internal temperature reaches 180F to 185F on an instant-read thermometer, 20 to 35 minutes more. If you are using nonstick or dark-colored baking pans, place the pans on a large rimmed baking sheet after the first 30 minutes to avoid over browning the bottoms. Cool on a wire rack for about 20 minutes. Use the foil to lift the bread out of the pans and cool completely. Peel off foil when cool enough to handle. Slice when completely cool, at least 2 hours.


Jocelyn + Cathy said...

Mmm thanks for sharing. Happy Holidays!!

Allison said...

emLooks really nice! I love ethnic foods for the holidays.

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Friv 2 said...

Happy holidays ! Thanks