16 October 2011

Sweet plaited bread - 'Hefezopf'

The Hefezopf (literally translated this means yeast plait) is another one of those bakery staples typical of south-west Germany, and of the region of Swabia – or Schwaben – in particular. To even call this a recipe seems kind of odd to me as it is just so basic. Every person growing up within an 80 km radius of Stuttgart can throw this together in their sleep from the age of three. I prefer having this slightly sweet and very good looking bread for breakfast, topped with butter and homemade jam or honey. I tend to make it for weekends or bank holidays, especially when friends or family are staying over and we have time to indulge in an extensive ‘continental’ breakfast. There are two basic variants of the Hefezopf: one with raisins and the other without. I am not a big fan of dried fruit, so I prefer the latter, but it is a matter of preference. Lately, I have given my Hefezopf a ‘British twist’, spicing it with some of the tasty ingredients used for hot cross buns. This is not traditional and therefore not suitable for purists, but I think it tastes great.

One slight drawback of baking a Hefezopf in the UK is the scarce availability of fresh yeast in regular supermarkets. Of course, this can also be baked with dried yeast, which I have tried. However, the fresh yeast taste is an important feature of this bread. I have been told that some British supermarkets sell fresh yeast and it can also be bought in some organic shops, especially in London. Unfortunately, I have never managed to find fresh yeast in shops that are in my vicinity. One way around this for me has been to buy yeast in bulk from a baker selling it on ebay (the price is very reasonable) and to freeze it in individual portions. Apparently, some traditional baking shops (if you can find one) are also willing to sell some fresh yeast if you ask nicely.

For one large plait:

20g fresh yeast (or 1 sachet dried)
500 g plain flour
250 ml lukewarm milk
1 egg
60 g butter
80 g sugar
1 tsp of salt
Finely grated zest of ½ organic lemon
A handful of raisins (optional) 

For a spiced version try a few of the following: infuse the milk with a pinch of saffron, a cinnamon stick, a cracked cardamom pod and/or a vanilla pod. Add a pinch of ground ginger, nutmeg and/or ground cloves.

Egg wash (one egg yolk mixed with a bit of milk to glaze the bread before baking)

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, add to all the other ingredients (apart from the egg wash) and knead until you have soft dough that is not too sticky. Cover in a bowl and leave in a warm place to rise until it has doubled in size. Divide the dough into three parts and roll each part into a string about 40 cm long and plait. Place on a baking sheet covered in baking paper and leave to rise again for about 20-30 minutes.  Mix an egg yolk with a dash of milk and brush this onto the bread (this will give it a nice shine). Bake at 200 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until the bread is a nice golden colour and sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.

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