Friday, March 19, 2010

A Loaf of Hopeful Expectation: Spiral Cinnamon Raisin Bread . . .

Despite the fact that I have been immersed, every week since the start of January, in the making of a wide variety of yeast doughs in school, I still feel some of the old familiar hesitancy and trepidation as a home-baker when faced with a new yeast bread recipe. My fears, generally speaking, are fading, but slowly. Somehow I doubt they'll ever completely vanish. It's almost like a kind of stage fright. You know that you can do it, because you've done it successfully before. You've become fairly well versed in the typical pitfalls and how to avoid them, and yet the niggling sense that calamity may be just around the corner still lingers.

Perhaps, though, that's as it should be? Going back to the stage fright analogy, they say if you're not nervous before a performance then you're probably not a very good actor. Maybe it's the same way for a baker who feels she has a personal stake in turning out good bread. After all, overconfidence doesn't seem to be a very welcome characteristic in a kitchen--it just has no place.

Cautious optimism, I figure, is probably the best posture to adopt. And, an affection of sorts also comes into play. I've noticed that, among my fellow culinary students, those who seem to view baking as an exercise in boredom (not everyone loves to bake, just as not all bakers like to cook!) produce the saddest looking goods.

As for me, I love the way yeast dough smells, the way it feels, and the way it changes. I love everything about it. The same sense of mystery that accompanies a garden, accompanies the creation of bread. You have to approach it with a sense of hopeful expectation, and you have to be grateful for the reward when all goes well.

About this recipe . . .

Though today's recipe is one I'd never made by myself before, I can vouch for the fact that it's time tested. This cinnamon raisin bread was my mother's go-to formula; she baked bread regularly and this recipe dates back decades. At the bottom of the sheet of creased and stained loose-leaf on which she'd typed the recipe, she notes that it came from the April 1976 "anniversary issue" of McCall's magazine. I would have been 15 years old at the time she first gave this a whirl.

She also noted, "This raisin bread is very good. Have made this bread often. We like it toasted and buttered." She was brutally honest in all of her little post-production recipe notes, so that one's pretty benign. Her neat handwriting peppers the pages of her cookbooks and recipe cards. Some of the comments are kind of funny ("not good, tastes like hairspray" . . . or . . . "better than Martha Stewart version" . . .). Only if she felt something was really worth making again would she give it a positive recommendation.

I adapted the recipe by rewording it, and slightly modifying the directions here and there.

So, you heard it here. This is truly good cinnamon raisin bread. Give the dough the love and kindness it deserves, and you'll be rewarded with a couple of truly fine loaves.

Spiral Cinnamon Raisin Bread
Makes 2 standard size loaves.

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Grease 2 loaf pans, approximately 9" x 5" x 3".

For the dough:
1 and 1/2 cups milk, scalded
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, unsalted
1 and 1/2 cups dark raisins
1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
2 packets active dry yeast (this is equal to 1 and 1/2 Tbsp.; each standard packet contains 2.25 tsp.)
3 eggs, large
7 and 1/4 cups All Purpose flour (plus a little more for dusting your work surface when the dough is rolled out)

For the filling:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

To make the dough:
In a small saucepan, over low heat, bring the milk just to a simmer; don't let it boil. Add into it the sugar, salt, butter, and raisins. Stir until the butter melts. Take it off the heat and let it cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixer bowl, sprinkle all of the yeast over the warm water. Stir slowly with a spoon until the yeast has dissolved. Stir the milk mixture into this. Put the bowl onto the mixer.

Using the paddle attachment, add in the eggs, and 4 cups of the flour. Beat on low speed until smooth, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Gradually add in the rest of the flour to combine; now switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook. On your mixer's lowest speed, knead the dough for 6 minutes. When it's done it should be stiff and not too sticky.

Dump the dough out into a large, well-greased bowl.

Turn the dough over to bring up the greased side. Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap and a dish towel, and place it in a warm spot (about 85 degrees is perfect). The dough should double in bulk within about 1 and 1/2 hours. Check it early to see how it's doing. (If necessary, create a warm and moist environment to help the dough rise, using your oven. Set the oven on "warm" for a few minutes, then shut the oven off. Place a pan on the floor of the oven, and boil some water. Pour the boiling hot water into the pan. Set the bowl of dough, still lightly covered by the plastic wrap and the towel, on a middle shelf. Keep the oven door closed so the warmth and moisture stay inside.)

While the dough is rising, mix together the filling: combine 1/2 cup sugar and the cinnamon in a small bowl. Set this aside, with the melted butter in its own bowl, along with a pastry brush.

When the dough has doubled in size, gently dump it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a bench scraper, or a sharp knife, divide the dough in half.

Roll out one half of the dough into a 16" x 8" rectangle. (This dough is very easy to handle and roll out.)

Sprinkle the entire rectangle evenly with 3 Tbsp. of the cinnamon sugar.

Starting at one of the narrow sides, snugly roll the dough up jelly-roll style.

Pinch the edges and ends together to seal them. Tuck the ends under to give the loaf a nice smooth shape.

Place the loaf, seam side down, into one of the greased loaf pans.

Brush the top of the loaf lightly with a little of the melted butter. Cover the loaf with a towel while you roll and shape the second piece of dough.

Let the two loaves rise, again in a warm spot, until the sides of the dough comes out to meet the sides of the pan, and the rounded top of the dough rises above the top of the pan. This should take about one hour.

About half an hour into this rising period, preheat your oven to 375 degrees, and put a rack in the middle of the oven.

When the two loaves are ready to go in the oven, brush the tops again with the remaining butter, and sprinkle them with the remaining cinnamon sugar.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. If, after 25 minutes or so, the loaves are starting to look too brown, cover them loosely with foil and place the pans on top of a shiny cookie sheet. Keep in mind that the tops of the loaves, when the loaves fully baked, should look browned and not just golden.

Remove the finished loaves immediately from their pans, and cool them to at least lukewarm before before slicing.

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