Few memories are as dear to me as the one in which my Danish Grandmother Estrup taught me how to make bread. My Granny and I have always had a very special, unique bond. Growing up, I spent tons of time at her house helping her with her vegetable garden and flower beds, playing with her dog Phil outside, talking with her, and helping her cook. No matter how old I was, she always understood what i was going through in life and has good advice whenever I need it. When I was around 10 or 11 years old, I started staying a whole week at my Granny’s during the summertime. I so looked forward to this vacation each year! On one of those summers, I requested her to teach me how to make bread since I was no longer content with just shaping the bread rolls. My Grandma was delighted, and thus the magic of breadmaking was revealed to me in her Buenos Aires kitchen.
Baking is one of the things my Granny loves to do the most, and baking bread is still part of her weekly routine. How awesome is that? She’s over 80 and still making bread! She always looks forward to making the bread of the week, and I have a hunch that she finds the kneading and turning of the dough as relaxing and peaceful as I do. My Grandma herself learned her cooking and baking from her own mother, Gregoria Genevieve. My Grandma’s parents owned a picturesque bed-and-breakfast in the province of Cordoba, Argentina, on the scenic shores of Lago San Roque. While my Great-Grandpa engaged the guests in conversation during their stay, my Great-Grandmother Genevieve would prep and cook all the meals in her country kitchen, drawing on her repertoire of Danish, French, and other European recipes. Genevieve passed on her love of baking to my Grandma, and my Grandma in turn passed on her love of baking to me and my mother, who also makes her own bread from scratch each week in her cozy kitchen in Texas. I think this is a wonderful matrilineal connection: all the women in the family timelessly making bread from scratch across the decades and no matter what country or place they live in. You could call it a bread connection! To this day, whenever I make bread, I think of my Granny Estrup. The three of us, my Grandma, my Mom and I, still share recipes over the phone and WhatsApp to this day.
For the holiday season, my family has more of the tradition of making sweet, fruity, and specialty breads rather than baking a ton of cookies. We always have panettone for Noche Buena, the more recent addition of Star Bread with lingonberry jam for Winter Solstice, and stollen for Christmas, featuring a heart of marzipan hidden in its fruity interior. I often can’t wait for Noche Buena or Christmas Day to indulge in these wonderful sweets. It’s only once a year! And there are just so many wonderful foods to cram into two days, so I came up with a compromise: I began making marzipan bread as a way to have a special bread to enjoy in the Advent season before Noche Buena. Marzipan is one of my all-time favorite holiday foods and to incorporate it in a sweetened dough, even if it’s not as elaborate as stollen, was the perfect solution to have another special bread during the season that wouldn’t steal the thunder from pan dulce or stollen.
This recipe is easy to make and produces a rich, eggy, yeasted dough that is soft and fluffy and chewy and lightly sweet. The messiest part is kneading it on the counter, but if you have a stand mixer, it really does cut down on the floury mess of making bread in the kitchen. Using a stand mixer is also a great way to become familiar with a recipe if you’ve never made bread before. Don’t be intimidated! The only part that you have to watch for is the proofing of the yeast. The yeast is what will make your bread rise, and if you let it stand in a warm kitchen and you make sure that the liquid you mix it with is not too hot, then your yeast will thrive and grow. If the liquid you mix it in is too hot, it will kill the yeast, and that’s really the only thing that can make the recipe fail. I mix my bread by hand but you get good results using a stand mixer also. You can split the process into two days, letting the dough rise overnight and shaping it, filling it, and baking it the next day. This is my preferred method because I can have fresh bread in the morning. It’s also less stressful than doing a recipe from start to finish when it can get lengthy if you’re waiting for the bread to rise.
I hope that you will enjoy the coziness of staying home for the holidays this year; it’s been one of the silver linings of the pandemic. After all, nothing says hygge more than baking bread in the coziness of your kitchen in the toasty coziness of your kitchen while the snow falls outside.
Marzipan Advent Bread
Prep time: 2 hours plus rising
Cook time: 25 minutes
Servings: 2 small loaves
- 3/4 cups water, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for dusting
- 1 teaspoon Celtic sea salt
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 large eggs
- 6 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 7 ounces almond paste
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Egg Wash & Topping:
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 ¼ cups sliced almonds, blanched or unblanched, or sesame seeds
- 2 teaspoons pearl sugar (optional) I recommend Lars Swedish Pearl Sugar
- In a small bowl, combine the water, yeast, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Let sit for 15 minutes, until foamy on top. The foam is an indication that the yeast is active. Make sure that the water is at room temperature or warm, but not hot, as hot water will kill the yeast. If the yeast dies, the leavening process will fail. This has happened to me before, so a good way to test if the water is warm is to see if it is warm to the touch of your hand. If it is hot, it will probably be too hot for the yeast also.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the 2 eggs, honey, sunflower oil, and almond extract. Set aside.
- While the yeast rises, in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the flour and salt
- After the yeast has proofed and is bubbly, add it to the flour mixture.
- Pour in the egg mixture and mix on low speed with the dough hook until everything is combined. If the dough climbs up the hook, stop the mixer and pull it down gently, then restart the mixer. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl as needed. It should take about 2 minutes for the dough to come together.
- Increase speed to medium and knead for about 4 minutes, until the dough is soft, supple, and elastic. If your dough is too dry or tight, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water, one at a time. If the dough is too slack, you may need to add flour. This is why we have flour in reserve.
- Lightly dust your countertop or a work surface with flour and transfer the dough from the mixing bowl to the floured surface. Use your palms to push the dough away from you, then stretch the dough towards you to rip the dough slightly. Fold the dough on top of itself, give the dough a quarter turn, and repeat 3 more times.
- Sprinkle some flour lightly in a bowl and transfer the dough from the floured surface to the bowl where you will let it rise. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for at least 60 minutes, or until it increases in volume by 70%. You can also leave it to rise overnight in the fridge. Yes, I was surprised to see it will still rise in the fridge even though it’s cold! Both for proofing the yeast and rising, the warmer your kitchen, the less time it will take to rise. The best way to test if the dough has risen is the “press test”: you press your finger lightly into the dough and upon removing it, you see if the depression in the dough fills in by half. If the depression fills back in, the dough needs more time to rise. If you are planning to make the dough a day ahead from when you’re planning to bake it, this is when you would leave the dough in the fridge overnight so you can shape it, fill it, and bake it the next day.
- While the dough rises, make the marzipan filling. Break the almond paste into small chunks and toss in a large bowl together with the sugar. Combine with your hands. Mixing by hand ensures that the almond paste and sugar emulsify.
- Mix in the butter, 1 tsp at a time.
- Set the marzipan filling aside.
Assembly and Baking
- Remove the dough from the bowl with a scraper or spatula, being careful not to deflate it.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal parts. If you want to braid the bread, then divide each half into 3 smaller pieces so that you have a 3-strand braid. If you just want to coil the bread, or shape it into a circle, you don’t have to divide it further.
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a rectangle using a rolling pin. When you roll the rectangle, make sure the long end of the rectangle is facing you, or in other words, it is positioned horizontally.
- Use the marzipan filling to spread over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border free of filling.
- Roll the dough from right to left, enclosing the filling in a tight cylinder. Pinch the seams and the end shut.
- Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough and remaining marzipan.
- Grab each cylinder of dough and use both hands to roll them back and forth into a long rope.
- Lightly flour the ropes so that the strands stay separate during baking.
- IF you are just coiling the bread or making a circle, gently shape your cylinder of marzipan-filled dough into an oval or coil as you prefer and place on the parchment-lined sheet. If you are making a braid, group 3 ropes together to form a braid. Pinch the ends of 3 ropes together at the top. Lift the left piece up over the center piece, and now move the piece furthest to the right over the center piece. Continue this process until you braid all the way to the end. When you get to the end of the rope, and there is nothing left to braid, seal the ends together and tuck them under the end. You want the braid to look plump and high in the middle and more tapered at the ends.
- Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise in a warm kitchen for about an hour and a half, or until doubled in volume. Make sure there are no drafts or cold blasts of air while the bread rises!
- Once the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 350°F.
- In a small bowl, whisk the egg and water together to prepare the egg wash. Gently brush the entire surface of each bread with the egg wash. Make sure not to let it pool in the creases of the loaves. You just want a thin coating.
- Sprinkle each loaf with the sliced almonds and pearl sugar.
- Bake for 25 minutes, until loaves are golden brown. Ideally, bake them for 15 minutes, then rotate the baking sheets in the oven so they bake evenly, and bake 10 more minutes.
- Remove loaves from the oven and set aside to cool completely.
The bread is best enjoyed the same day it was made, or the next. It can be frozen up to 2 months or kept fresh for 4 days at room temperature in a Ziploc.
Make sure the bread is cool before slicing.