A Christmas tradition
Of all my Christmas memories, the ones that involve food are the most vivid, timeless and magical. There are certain scents and flavours that epitomize the holidays, of which, mine were an eclectic mix. Every year my mother made caramel pecan rolls on Christmas morning and the aroma of toasted nuts and sugar would float through the house as we opened our Christmas presents. In my stocking I would find a little bag of pistachios, a tin of marrons glacés and a chocolate covered orange. Treats that only ever showed up around the holidays. We often spent Christmas in New Mexico, where piñon smoke perfumed the dessert air and my grandmother would make biscochitos, a traditional New Mexican Christmas cookie, filling the house with rich notes of anise and cinnamon. In my mind, this melange of flavours and aromas is woven into a Christmas tapestry that hangs squarely on the wall of my memories. These are the flavours that say Christmas to me.
While traditions keep us grounded, reminding us of Christmases past, there’s nothing saying that they’re set in stone. The beautiful thing is that we are free to pick and choose our own – take the ones we loved and mix in some new traditions, recipes, sights and aromas – creating a Christmas tapestry that’s all our own. For my family, that means many things, but one is switching out the pecan rolls for pull-apart cinnamon-orange star bread on Christmas morning. It’s made with a rich brioche dough, lightly scented with orange extract and layered with cinnamon, brown sugar, orange zest and butter. The scent, while it’s baking, is unreal! When my children are grown, I hope that whenever they are met with the yeasty aroma of brioche or the warmth of cinnamon and orange peel, they will be reminded of the joys of their childhood Christmas mornings.
A digital detox
This will be my last post of the year. I’m taking the next several weeks off and giving myself the gift of a much-needed vacation and a complete digital detox. I’m looking forward to taking it all a little more slowly this holiday season, being present with my friends and family sans phone, basking in the elusive luxury of time. Long walks around the lake with my husband, board games with the kids, midday naps on the couch, a jigsaw puzzle – they’re all in the plans for the near-future. As well as writing. I want to sit by the window with a cup of tea, looking out at the snow, and write, with no deadlines or expectations. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally finish one of the books I’ve been working on. It’s a lofty goal, but without the distraction of social media, I think it can be done. The good life is not lived with a phone in one hand.
So, for now I wish you the merriest of Christmases, many wonderful holiday memories and a champagne-filled New Year.
Cinnamon-Orange Star Bread
This pull-apart star bread looks complicated, but it’s not any more difficult than making cinnamon rolls and once you get the hang of twisting the dough, it’s fun to see the star take shape. It’s a great way to get kids involved and excited about cooking. After the bread is baked, the arms are easily torn off and served warm. See the details on shaping the bread in the photos below the recipe.
for the brioche:
1/4 cup lukewarm water (100 -105 F)
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
3/4 cup warm whole milk
1 tsp orange extract
2 eggs, divided
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 tsp salt
3 1/2 cup flour (plus more for rolling)
for the filling:
3 TBSP butter, softened
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp salt
Make the brioche dough:
A few hours before making this bread remove all the ingredients from the refrigerator so that they can come to room temperature.
Gently heat the water and the milk until they are just warm to the touch (approx. 105 F / 41 C). Add the yeast to the warm water along with 1 tsp of the sugar. Stir and set aside until the yeast is frothy.
Meanwhile, whisk the milk, butter, orange extract, remaining sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add one whole egg and one egg yolk. (Reserve the remaining egg white for brushing on the bread later.) Whisk to combine.
With a wooden spoon, stir in the yeast mixture and then the flour until the dough comes together in a ball. Place on a well-floured surface and knead for 2 – 3 minutes, adding additional flour as needed until the dough forms a smooth ball that isn’t sticky. Place the dough in a clean bowl that has been brushed with a little cooking oil. Turn the dough once to coat lightly in oil. Cover with a towel and place in a warm spot in your kitchen. Let rise 1 hour, or until it has risen to about 1.5 times its original size.
Form the dough (see detailed photos below):
Preheat the oven to 375 F (190C). Line a pizza stone or round baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the orange zest, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl.
Punch the dough down and transfer to a floured surface. Cut the dough into 4 equal parts. Shape each part into a round ball. Working with one piece of dough at a time, flatten into a disk, then roll into a 10 inch round. Use a dinner plate or a template cut out of parchment to cut the dough into a perfect circle.
Place the circle on the parchment-lined pan. Spread with 1 tablespoon of softened butter. Sprinkle 1/3 of the brown sugar mixture over top and spread it out to the edges. Roll out the second piece of dough and cut into a circle in the same way you did before. Stack this circle on top of the first. Spread with another tablespoon of butter and half of the remaining brown sugar mixture. Repeat this process again for the third piece of dough, stacking it on top of the others and spreading with a tablespoon of butter and the remaining brown sugar mixture. Roll and cut out the final piece of dough and place it on the top of the stack so that you have four layers of dough sandwiching the brown sugar mixture.
Use a small biscuit cutter or the rim of a shot glass to mark a circle in the center of the stack. Press just hard enough to leave an imprint but don’t cut through the layers. Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into quarters starting on the outside of the circle and stopping at the inner circle. Do not cut through the center of the small circle – this will become the center of the star. (See photos below.) Cut each quarter in half in the same way and then cut again until you have 16 even segments that all connect in the middle of the circle.
Grab two adjacent segments and twist them away from each other two times, then press the ends together and form into a point. This becomes one arm of the star. (See photos.) Working around the circle, continue twisting and joining the segments until you have a star shape with 8 arms.
Cover the star with a towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly beat the reserved egg white with a fork until frothy.
Brush the star with the egg white and place in the preheated oven. Bake 18 – 20 minutes, until firm and golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a serving platter. Serve warm, allowing guests to pull the bread apart.
Details on forming the star: