I wasn't bred to make bread.
Well, I take that back. While baking bread wasn't part of my family's weekly (or even monthly) repertoire—besides the couple years my mom used the revolutionary bread machine—I have vivid memories of three varieties that appeared consistently year after year. I'll call them the Bread Holy Trinity: They were Irish soda bread, Polish sweet bread and Slovenian nut bread (potica).
I've already told the story about soda bread, which my grandmother learned from an Irish friend and made every St. Patrick's day. The same grandmother (Grandma Perron) also baked Polish sweet bread—a recipe I'm sharing in this post—annually for Easter. My dad's mom, Grandma Mary, mastered potica; we'd look forward to it every Christmas.
Our family can eat bread like the last-standing bakery is closing up shop. Yet, when it comes to making bread, it's definitely a special occasion process.
Every Easter, my grandma would make sweet bread. She learned it from her mother. Three generations later, my mom is still using the original pans from her grandmother (my great-grandmother). Last weekend, I was lucky enough to have a private tutorial by my mom who was featured in Cleveland's Plain Dealer in 2008 for the recipe.
Grandma's Polish Sweet Bread
Yield: 3 to 4 loaves
For the dough:
3 cups of 2-percent or whole milk
1 cup plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup margarine (yes, my great-grandmother used margarine)
2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast (not rapid rise) or 4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast from jar
1/4 cup lukewarm water (110-115 degrees)
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 cups AP flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups yellow raisins, soaked for 10 minutes in warm water and drained
For the topping:
1/2 cup margarine, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch slices
1. Add one cup sugar and 3/4 cup margarine to the milk in the saucepan, then scald over low heat. Remove from heat and cool completely.
2. Proof the yeast in lukewarm water, adding 1/2 teaspoon sugar and quickly mixing. Set aside for 5 minutes until the yeast bubbles.
3. Beat eggs, salt and vanilla. In a large, separate bowl, sift together flour and nutmeg.
4. Form a well in the middle of the flour mixture. Add a small amount of the cooled scalded milk mixture along with a bit of the egg mixture and all of the proofed yeast; mix to combine. Add the remaining milk and egg mixtures and blend well. Beat with wooden spoon until the dough becomes smooth and glossy and leaves the sides of the bowl, about 15 to 20 minutes. (This can also be done with a stand mixer, which I used. It will take about half the amount of time.) Thoroughly mix in raisins. And don't worry—dough will be sticky!
5. If using a stand mixer, transfer the dough to a large bowl. Cover the bowl with wax paper and then a towel and place in a warm spot. Let rise until doubled in size.
6. After the first rise, punch down dough with a spoon to release air. Grease 3-4 baking pans and divide the dough among them. (The dough should come halfway up the sides.) Cover with wax paper and let it double in size again.
7. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the dough has risen, make the topping. Melt the remaining 1/2 cup margarine and spoon over each loaf. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and divide it in half. Sprinkle the loaves with half the mixture. Lightly press apple slices, cored edges down, on the top of each loaf. Sprinkle the remaining half of the cinnamon sugar on top.
8. Bake bread 20 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 325 degrees and bake an additional 30 minutes or until each loaf tests done. Remove from oven and let cool in pans 5 minutes, then turn them onto wire racks to completely cool. Store in resealable bags.
I look forward to trying the recipe on my own next Easter—or maybe even prior. My goal this year is to dive into bread making a bit more. Polish sweet bread would be good practice.
After all, I just ate the last bit of the loaf for breakfast. Tip: French toast is better with grandma's bread.