I love this period of the year! We’re celebrating spring and Easter, a new beginning, a new life which makes me jump for joy as I slightly suffer from the winter blues. (The official name, I recently learned is SAD, as in Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ll just stick with winter blues, SAD makes it sound overly serious.)
Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent with richly laden tables all over the world. In Hungary no Easter is complete without ham. In fact, so important it is that traditionally ham was taken to be blessed by the priest after the Easter Mass. The savory ham is served with eggs, horseradish, and fresh ’n tender spring onions, tomatoes, radishes. Other items on the traditional Easter menu would include various lamb dishes, the omnipresent stuffed cabbage, a sweet braided bread called kalács [ˈkɒlaːtʃ] and nut or poppy seed cakes.
As part of Easter preparation this year, I wanted to adventure into a rather intimidating (at least for me) area in the kitchen. With very limited bread making skills, I decided to bake a kalács! Yes, I’ve got moxie, my friends! This Hungarian bread, a light yeast bread with a golden brown crust, is similar to brioche in consistence and in appearance resembles the Jewish challah. Baked in braided form, kalács is usually made with milk and butter but I followed a recipe* using heavy cream. I slightly modified the original recipe, adding a bit more sugar on my second attempt because I found my first bread not sweet enough (it was also unpresentable, I totally messed up the braiding).
Now I’m not saying you need a PhD to make a kalács, but I think time and practice are crucial. You might say that my Easter bread presented here should undergo some photoshopping à la Kardashians (yes, one end is slightly chubbier than the other, the braiding is not even…), but the taste and texture turned out great. As my lovely – and favorite – hand model demonstrates, the texture is soft, light and thread like. (Yes, my daughter is always happy to help when bread or cookie tasting is involved.)
I have no machine so used my hands to make the dough, which is a 10-15 minute physical work that I could compare to meditation. While doing the same monotone movement over and over again, concentrating solely on the manual work, I could completely zone out everything around me. I think I’ll be baking bread more often now! Happy Easter to all of you!
What you’ll need for one large loaf of kalács:
- 100ml full fat milk
- 2 packets (10g) active dry yeast or 20g fresh yeast
- 500g all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 70g sugar plus 1 tsp for the yeast
- 1 large organic egg plus the yolk of a second one
- 200ml heavy cream (30%)
- 1 organic egg, beaten for the egg wash
- a heaping cup of new beginnings
What you’ll need to do:
- Take the eggs, cream and milk out of fridge in advance so that you’ll be using them at room temperature.
- In a small recipient slightly warm the milk (never boil, you only need to warm it to lukewarm temperature). Take off the heat, add 1 teaspoon sugar, then add the dry yeast or crumble in the fresh yeast and finally add two tablespoons of flour. Gently mix all together and let it rest for 5-10 minutes.
- Pour the flour in a large mixing bowl. Sieving the flour is a good idea as this allows you to add air in the flour. Make a dent in the middle of the flour, add salt and sugar then your wet ingredients: heavy cream, eggs and finally the yeast-milk mixture which should now have a frothy layer across the top.
- Start mixing everything with your hand and when the wet ingredients have absorbed all dry ingredients take the dough from the bowl onto your floured board and start kneading. (If the dough is sticky add some flour, if two solid add a little milk.) Spend a good 10-15 minutes kneading, letting air get in the dough until you get a shiny, elastic consistency. Form the dough into a ball, leave it on the floured board, cover with a large bowl and let it rest for 40 minutes at room temperature.
- I wanted to make a 6-strand braid to make my kalács look really festive so I divided the dough into 6 equal parts. Well experienced bakers might do this easily without any help, I did use a kitchen balance to make sure the six parts were more or less equal in weight. Form little balls, set them on your slightly flowered board, cover with a clean cloth and let them rest for another 15 minutes. Again, let the dough rise at room temperature, no need to place it on warm stovetop or slightly heated oven.
- The dough has risen again, now you’ll need to roll the six buns into six long ropes, mine were about 35cm long. (If you find resistance as you try to roll them, let them rest for a couple of minutes and try again.) Pinch the ends together and start braiding. When there’s no more dough left to braid press together the ends tightly and neatly tuck under the dough. Carefully place the braided kalács on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Now with the beaten egg brush the bread making sure you brush the sides of the loaf and get in the cracks as well. Let it rest for another 30 minutes at room temperature. In the meantime heat your oven to 180 °C.
- After 30 minutes brush the bread one more time with the egg and put in the oven for about 40 minutes until golden brown. Check if fully baked by sticking a toothpick in your bread. If it comes out clean, you’re done. Let it cool completely on a cooling rack before slicing.
Notes: I relied on the following recipe, which is in Hungarian so it will only be useful for my Hungarian readers. For my French readers, I used 2 packets of Alsa Levure du Boulanger for the yeast. For the braiding, I found this video very useful.