braided lemon bread

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Braided Lemon Bread
Adapted from my favorite bakers

I made a lot of changes to the original recipe, because I’m like that; I halved it because the original recipe would make two huge braids, and even my family couldn’t go through that; I swapped some yogurt for sour cream, which I think bakes up better in doughs and allows you to get by with just one tub of “extras” needed; I’ve added a curd recipe but confess I didn’t not use it this time, buying a jar instead; I rewrote the directions so that you won’t need to spend 30 minutes trying to transfer the quickly-sticking dough off your counter and a bunch of other more boring things. I’ll spare you. All you need to know is that this recipe is a delight and it will steal the spotlight, even from a crepe cake, wherever you put it out. Lemon curd. Sweet cheese. Buttery dough. How could it not?

Sponge
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 cup (1 ounce) unbleached all-purpose flour

Dough
Sponge (above)
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) sour cream or yogurt
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs, 1 beaten for dough, 1 beaten with 1 teaspoon water for brushing bread
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
Pearl sugar* or sparkling white sugar for sprinkling

Lemon cream cheese filling
1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons (5/8 ounces) sugar
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) sour cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (2 ounces) homemade (recipe below) or prepared lemon curd

Make sponge: In a small bowl, combine the sponge ingredients. Stir well to combine, loosely cover with plastic wrap, and set aside to proof for 10 to 15 minutes.

Make dough in a stand mixer: Combine the sponge, sour cream, butter, egg, sugar, salt and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add flour and mix with the paddle attachment until the dough is a rough, shaggy mass. Switch to the dough hook and knead on until a soft, smooth dough forms, about 5 to 6 minutes. ??Place the kneaded dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until quite puffy and nearly doubled.

Make dough by hand: Whisk together sour cream, butter, egg, sugar, salt and vanilla in a large, wide bowl. Stir in sponge. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon as best as you can; you may need to get your hands in there to form it into a shaggy ball. Turn ball of dough and any incorporated scraps onto a counter and knead until a smooth, soft dough forms, about 5 to 10 minutes. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until quite puffy and nearly doubled.

Make the filling (while dough rises): Combine all the filling ingredients (except the lemon curd) in a small bowl, mixing until smooth and lump-free. Reserve the filling and lemon curd until ready to fill the braids.

Prepare bread: Gently deflate the dough and roll it out on a very well floured counter to a 10″ x 15″ rectangle. Transfer rectangle to a large piece of parchment paper, please; I did not and it led to all sorts of trouble. With the side of your hand, lightly press two lines down the dough lengthwise, dividing it into three equal columns. Spread the cream cheese filling down the center section, leaving the top and bottom two inches free of filling. (Like so.) Spread the lemon curd over the cream cheese filling.

To form the mock braid, cut crosswise strips one inch apart down the length of the outer columns of you dough (the parts without filling). Make sure you have an equal amount of 1-inch strips down the right and left sides. Be careful not to cut your parchment paper; if you have a bench scraper, this is a great time to use it. Remove the four corner segments. (Like so.) To “braid”, begin by folding top flap down and bottom flap up over the filling. Lift the top dough strip and gently bring it diagonally across the filling. Repeat on the right side, and continue down the entire braid, alternating strips (like so) until you are out. You can tuck the last couple that hand off decoratively under the end of the braid.

Carefully transfer the dough and the parchment paper to a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic and set it aside to rise for 45 to 50 minutes, until quite puffy.

Bake bread: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush the loaves with egg wash, and sprinkle with pearl or coarse sparkling sugar. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown and your apartment smells like a doughnut factory. Remove from the oven and cool for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Do ahead: When working with bread dough, you can refrigerate it or freeze it at almost any point in the process (before the first rise, after you deflate it, etc.). When you’re ready to work with it again, you bring it back to room temperature and let it resume rising from where it left off. This can take a few hours since it is cold. For this braid, my favorite way to approach it is to assemble the whole thing, braided and filled, put it on its baking sheet, loosely cover it with plastic and either refrigerate it overnight or up to a day, or freeze it for up to a week (wrapped better once frozen, of course). When you’re ready to use it, take it out, bring it back to room temperature and let it complete its second rise before you brush and bake it.

* Pearl Sugar: If you like to bake, pearl sugar is great stuff to have around. It looks gigantic but instead of each “pearl” being reminiscent of a large, tooth-breaking crystal, it has a soft crunch. It’s wonderful on baked goods and even in them, like classic Liege waffles. And it’s pretty. When it comes to baked goods, pretty always wins.

Lemon Curd
Adapted from Gourmet

Makes a little shy of 1/2 cup

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon zest, finely grated
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and egg in a 1-quart heavy saucepan. Stir in butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and first bubble appears on surface, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer lemon curd to a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 1 hour.


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