What I Did During Snowzilla, Part I: Cranberry Orange Braided Bread

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when Congress actually got its act together last fall and managed to keep the federal government funded without any interruption of operations.  My two-week furlough in the fall of 2013 provided me with the opportunity to take on some complicated baking projects and I used the time to tackle laminated doughs (e.g., Danish pinwheels, fruit Danishes, croissants, and pain au chocolat). I had actually started compiling a potential to-bake list for a fall 2015 furlough -- but because the government never shut down, I had to save the list for a rainy day. Or a snowy one.

When Snowzilla dumped a few feet of snow on D.C. in late January, the federal government shut down at noon on a Friday and didn't re-open until the middle of the day the following Wednesday. I was able to fight through the panicked hordes at the grocery store to pick up a few essentials before the storm hit, and as it happens, I had a fresh supply of SAF Gold instant yeast in the freezer. So I was ready to bake.

The first recipe on my list was King Arthur Flour's Cranberry Orange Braided Bread. It includes a starter that you need to assemble the evening before baking the bread -- simply a mixture of all-purpose flour, water, and instant yeast. On the second day I added the starter to more flour, salt, SAF Gold instant yeast, sugar, softened butter, eggs and an egg yolk, orange zest, vanilla extract, and orange extract (the latter two ingredients were a substitution for Flor di Sicilia). I kneaded everything with a dough hook in my Kitchenaid mixer until I got a smooth dough.

I let the dough rise until puffy, divided it into three equal parts, and flattened each portion into a rectangle. Then I sprinkled a mixture of dried cranberries, walnuts, and brown sugar on top of each piece of dough and rolled it up into a log. I braided the logs together, but they were pretty short (only 12 inches long), and I only got a few twists into the bread. I let the braid rise until puffy, brushed it with thinned egg white, and sprinkled on some Swedish pearl sugar.
I was shocked when I turned the bread halfway through baking and saw that it had blown up into a fat rounded shape like a loaf of challah. I could also see that the bread was tearing at the seams, so I'm pretty sure I underproofed it. The recipe says it should take 30-35 minutes to bake, but I needed 42 minutes to get the interior to 190 degrees. Even though my bread didn't look anything at all like the picture accompanying the online recipe, I was happy with the way it looked -- although it would have been easy to mistake it for a salted pretzel loaf from a distance.
I was also happy with the way the bread looked inside when I sliced it. Again, it didn't resemble the recipe photo at all, but it had a fluffy and fairly even crumb, with the cranberries and walnuts nicely distributed inside. And most importantly, I thought the bread was delicious. I am generally a big fan of citrus fruits in baked goods, because I love the brightness they bring. And the combination of cranberries and orange together is particularly delightful. With nuts to boot and a nice crunch from the pearl sugar, this bread has everything, including a lovely soft texture. 

The only thing disappointing about this bread was the ends, which were devoid of filling. But I carved up the loaf into a few fat slabs and shared the bread with our snowbound neighbors. One of the best parts of getting caught up in a big snowstorm -- besides having some nice quiet time to bake -- is getting the chance to chat and commiserate with our nice neighbors as everyone digs out.

I would definitely make this bread again, but I would try to make longer and thinner logs of filled dough to get a more svelte braid. And I would make sure the proof the dough for sufficient time before baking. But even my oddly-shaped rotund loaf was a great way to kick off some snow day baking.

Recipe: "Cranberry Orange Braided Bread" from King Arthur Flour.