I think this image has popped up on more than one Pagan’s Pinterest this Candlemas season, and for good reason. That’s one helluva gorgeous loaf of bread, and whoever had the idea to braid it into a Brigid’s Cross is a freaking genius.
Lately, one of the things I’ve been trying to incorporate into my own practice is signs and symbols to tie opposing Sabbats together. After all, the wheel of the year forms a spiral through time, but each arm holds strongest to its foil. Samhain and Beltane, Yule and Midsummer, Candlemas and Lammas, Spring and Autumn…part of the mystery of these Sabbats is how they complement their pair on the wheel’s other side.
For a very long time, I’ve been baking bread at Lammas to inaugurate the grain harvest (which is generally the whole month of August in the PNW)–and that’s a very typical practice for that Holiday. How great would it be to bake the same ritual bread for both Candlemas and Lammas? Since I also tend to use Candlemas to set my “New Year’s Resolutions” into place, I think I might craft it so that we ritually consume this special loaf while committing to our resolutions at Candlemas and then again at Lammas to celebrate the harvest of those intentions, to re-commit to those we’ve found useful, and to retire those we have not. To change things up, I think I might serve the Candlemas one with a custard cheese paska* that my dear covenmate V. introduced me to and for Lammas perhaps a rabbit stew. This seems right, since Candlemas–Imbolc–sees the return of dairy and eggs and the wheat harvest traditionally concluded with killing and eating the field rabbits that took refuge in the last stand of wheat.
If you do want to make a bread like this, you’ve got to start with a good, solid braiding bread recipe. As much as I love my no-knead bread recipes, those are all too loose to make cleanly defined braids such as in the above loaf. I’ve had good luck here with the Four-Strand Challah recipe I found on the King Arthur Flour website. The recipe is as follows:
1 cup (4 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 cup (8 ounces) water
2 teaspoons instant yeast
All of the starter
3 1/2 cups (15 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup (2 1/4 ounces) sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) vegetable oil
2 large eggs + 1 yolk (save 1 egg white for the wash, below)
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon water
poppy seeds (optional)
Starter: Mix the 1 cup flour, 1 cup water and yeast together in a large bowl or the bucket of a bread machine. Let the mixture sit for about 45 minutes. (This type of quick starter is called for in recipes that are high in sugar, in order to let the yeast get a head start. If you have Fermipan Brown or SAF Gold yeast — both formulated especially for sweet breads — this recipe may be prepared as a straight dough, with all of the ingredients mixed together at once.
Dough: Add the dough ingredients to the starter and mix and knead together — by hand, mixer or bread machine — until a smooth, supple dough is formed. This dough is a pleasure to work with — smooth and silky, it almost feels like you’re rubbing your hands with lotion. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning it over once to coat it lightly with oil. Cover it and let it rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until it’s doubled in size.
Shaping: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and fold it over once or twice, to expel the carbon dioxide. Divide the dough into four pieces, and roll each into a snake about 18 inches long. On the lightly greased or parchment-lined sheet pan, braid a four-strand braid (see instructions below) or fashion a simpler three-strand braid.
NOTE: How To Make A Four-Strand Braid:Lay the strands side by side, and pinch them together at one end. For instruction purposes, think of the far left strand as #1, next is #2, then #3, and the far right is #4. Take the left-hand strand (#1) and move it to the right over strands #2 and #3, then tuck it back under strand #3. Take the right-hand strand (#4) and move it to the left over strands #3 and #1, then tuck it back under strand #1. Repeat this process until finished.
Make the wash by mixing together, in a small bowl, the reserved egg white, sugar, and water. Brush the loaf with this mixture, reserving some for a second wash. Cover the loaf with lightly greased plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until it’s almost doubled in size.
Baking:Brush the loaf with the remaining egg wash (this will give the finished loaf a beautiful, shiny crust, as well as provide “glue” for the seeds), sprinkle with poppy seeds, if desired, and bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the challah is lightly browned. Remove it from the oven, and cool completely before slicing. Yield: 1 loaf, about 16 1-inch slices.
Obviously, you’ll need more than four dough ropes to make a Brigid’s cross. In fact, if I’m counting correctly, the loaf above may have used 10 strands. I think it would be best to play at this first and see how many you’ll need to create a cross that has an even square. You definitely want each arm to have an even number of strands in it so that the loaf will bake evenly, and you want the whole thing to have a sort of even thickness, too. Because of this, I think that the folding shown in the diagram to the right might adapt itself best to dough braiding, and I think eight ropes will work the best. Just remember to tuck the ends of the final rope through the loop head of the first in its round in order to have the look of the pictured loaf. Once you’ve braided, trim the cross ends so that they are even, roll out the scrap dough, and use that to bind the ends together.
*V. must have some Russian in her family line. To her, paska is a dairy custard dessert made from butter, cottage cheese, and cream cheese. To my Slovak family, paska is a sweet, raisin-studded bread. As much as I love V.’s paska, I would never make it for my Spring celebration, so this adaptation works perfectly.