I actually said “I love you” out loud to the blue and white bag of King Arthur bread flour as I pulled it down from the shelf. It just came out. I thought I was alone in the aisle. It was Monday evening in a Manhattan Whole Foods. Guess what? I wasn’t alone. I heard myself say it and then, embarrassed that my inner thoughts were out, sheepishly turned my head around just in time to catch a quizzical look on the face of a lonely looking man buying spices. I know. Lonely says the woman who audibly declared her amorous feelings for a bag of milled wheat.
It’s just that when I see that bag, I know something good is going to happen. Something comforting. Something special. I know there is homemade bread in my future. And not just that I’m going to be able to eat it but that I’m going to be able to put my hands in it. Feel it. That’s my favorite part. I love the feel of dough. Flour, milk, eggs, and butter come together into something so pillow-soft and inviting. Enriched bread buddies. Perfect little dough babies.
My friend Jessie and I have worked together for a while. She’s been my right-hand lady on many a photo shoot. I give her all of my food secrets and she gives me hers. Jessie doesn’t like to bake as much as I do. But I’ve led her elbow-deep into hundreds of sweet dough balls over the last year, and now she now really knows what’s what in the sweet kitchen. The other day she told me that she was working on a bread recipe for someone else, and as she made it, she had concerns. She said, “It didn’t feel soft like a pudgy baby and I knew something was off.” Ah. That’s right, Jessie. I’ve taught you so well.
I was thinking about Jessie when I saw a bro explaining the old steak/palm test to another bro in the checkout line at the store. You know, when you press the palm of your hand to determine how your steaks should feel when they’re done? I realized that I’ve developed a similar system for sweet bread dough.
Here’s the breakdown: If your dough feels like a pudgy, soft baby thigh, you’ve done it exactly right. It should give, but just a little. Soft and squishy but still holding its shape. Bravo! Give it a kiss and proceed with the recipe. If the dough feels soft but slack, more akin to say your grandmother’s lovely cheek (on her face, sicko), you probably need to add a little bit more flour. Overly wet dough doesn’t rise properly and can spread out instead of up. If your dough feels like what I would imagine Jennifer Aniston’s thigh feels like when you squeeze it, you need to add a little more liquid. Tight and taught is good for bikinis, but will lead to a dry bread. Got it? Aim for pudgy babies, in baking as in mothering. Easy to love.
Makes 1 loaf
1/2 cup whole milk
1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk, divided
2 cups bread flour (9 ounces), plus 2 tablespoons if necessary and more for dusting
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, divided, plus more for the pan
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped
To prepare the dough, bring the milk just to a boil over medium in a small pot. Watch closely to ensure that the milk doesn’t boil over. Transfer the mixture to a liquid measuring cup and top it off with enough water to bring the level back to 1/2 cup. Let it cool to 105° to 110°F. (It should be warm to the touch but not too hot.) Add the whole egg and stir to combine.
In a the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, combine flour, sugar, yeast, cardamom, and salt on low speed. Add milk mixture and mix just until combined
Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough on low speed, about 3 minutes. Or, knead the by hand in the bowl for about 6 minutes. Add 4 tablespoons of the butter, a piece or two at a time. It may look like it’s not getting in there but don’t worry, it will; just keep adding and kneading. (You might have to stop the mixer and knead the butter in with your hands for a minute to get it started.) Once incorporated, increase speed to medium and knead dough for another few minutes until it is smooth and elastic. Or tip the dough onto a very lightly floured work surface and knead by hand until smooth. During this stage you can add a bit more flour if the dough is too wet, but don’t add more than 2 tablespoons. The dough should just pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Transfer the dough to a lightly buttered large bowl, fold it in on itself at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, flip it over, cover it with plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm, draft-free place to double in size. This could take 30 minutes or 2 hours, depending on how warm your house is. It’s best to just keep an eye on it and watch the dough rather than the clock.
Tip the dough out onto a work surface. You shouldn’t need flour at this point. Gently press out the air and fold the dough in on itself at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Turn it over and pop it back in the buttered bowl for another rise. Butter an 8 1/2-inch-by-4 1/2-loaf pan.
Once it has almost doubled again, tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll the dough into a 13 x 10 inch rectangle. Spread the remaining 2 tablespoons butter evenly over the top. Sprinkle with the chocolate and press lightly to adhere. Starting with one of the short ends, roll the dough up and pinch the edges to seal. Using a bench scraper or a sharp knife, cut the roll in half lengthwise. Turn the pieces so that cut side is facing up. Pinch the pieces together at one end, braid them tightly, and pinch them at the other end to seal. Transfer the braid to the prepared loaf pan, cut sides up. Cover it lightly with plastic wrap, and set it aside to rise just to the edge of the loaf pan.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375°F. Whisk the remaining egg yolk with a two teaspoons of water and gently brush over the top of the loaf. Bake until deep golden brown and the internal temperature has reached 190°F, 24 to 28 minutes. Let cool on sheet on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then tip the loaf out of the pan and turn right side up to cool completely.