Hungarian Braided Sweet Bread or Kalács

I finally got the urge to bake bread for the first time yesterday. I decided to make a traditional Hungarian kalács that my mother and her mother before her used to make for Easter. It can be made for any holiday, but it has the most symbolism on Easter particularly because it's made with eggs. But also if the dough is formed into a wreath it mimics Jesus' crown of thorns. It can also be placed in a loaf pan if you like the Wonder-bread look. Traditionally kalács is made with milk and butter to create its brioche-like texture and is braided with three or four strands. The bread looks a lot like a Jewish challah bread too, and technically this recipe is perfect for making challah bread, but to keep it kosher simply replace the milk with water and the butter with margarine.

Since bread baking is temperamental, it's best to go with the flow of baking. Prewarm the oven, shut it off, and use it as the place to let the dough rise. Use the stovetop as a warm spot to let the yeast proof. Also depending on the weather, the dough may require more or less flour. Yesterday I used 5-1/2 cups flour, but on any other given day I could have used more or less. For me this recipe created one very large loaf of bread. If you want something smaller, divide the dough into eight pieces and create two medium-size loaves. If you're willing to share, the second loaf can make a nice gift. And don't limit yourself to braiding with four strands either. This recipe can make a very nice six-strand braided challah bread. This bread is not limited to eating by itself. Use it to make the best French toast on Easter morning.

Hungarian Braided Sweet Bread or Kalács

1-3/4 cups scalded milk
1 packet active dry yeast
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 large egg, beaten, for egg wash

In a small bowl, reserve 1/4 cup of the scalded milk and allow to cool to no more than 110 degrees F. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar and the yeast. Allow yeast to proof.

Add butter to the remaining scalded milk and allow to melt and combine.

In a small bowl, beat together eggs, egg yolk, salt, and remaining sugar.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the proofed yeast mixture, egg mixture, milk and butter mixture, and half the flour. Mix until just about combined. With the mixer on low, add remaining flour a little at a time until combined. With the mixer on high, beat the dough until it starts to pull away from the bowl, about 15 minutes. The dough should be moist but not sticky. Add extra flour if necessary to achieve correct consistency.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead for a few minutes. Form the dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 1 hour in a warm place. Dough will be double in size.

Punch down the dough, cover, and let rise again to double its size, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove dough to floured work surface and divide into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into long cylindrical strands. Attach strands at one end and begin braiding. With attached ends across from you, work from right to left, moving the right outermost strand over the second strand, under the third strand, and over the fourth strand. Then start back at the right. The second strand in the previous braid is now the first strand. Repeat until the braided bread is complete. Press braided ends tightly and tuck them under the dough.

Carefully place braided dough on baking sheet lined with oven-safe parchment or Silpat. Cover braided dough with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes.

Brush braided dough with egg wash twice, allowing the dough to absorb the egg wash in between coatings.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350-degree-F. oven until golden brown, about 40 to 50 minutes. Let cool completely before slicing. Yield: 1 large loaf braided bread or 2 medium loaves.