There’s nothing like family traditions to remind you it’s holiday time. When I was growing up our family would make Christmas bread each December, locating a floury notecard with the recipe my grandmother jotted down in slanting cursive. Every year we tried to make it ourselves and the bread was burned on the bottom and had a doughy inside. Every time. Ruining the Christmas bread was our tradition, so we had to rely on my grandmother to make it right. Last year I declared that since I was the bread-making expert, I should once again try to make Christmas bread. And I ended up burning it and the inside still wasn’t quite baked. I chalked it up to the altitude, since I was baking at my sister’s house up in the mountains around 5000 feet, but I really think it was the ghost of family tradition. This year I vowed redemption. No prisoners, no mistakes. No burned bread.
Why is Christmas bread so difficult? Our recipe used just eggs, butter, and milk for the liquids. It’s very enriched which makes it sluggish to rise and touchy about temperature. I’ve made enriched breads like brioche, which tend to burn rather than toast. Our family recipe called for 2 cups of milk. I made it 1 ½ cups of milk and ½ cup of water, and I kept the oven temperature low and baked the bread longer. I also skipped the scalded milk and yeast-proofing steps, which are a bit outdated now with our more reliable yeasts and pasteurized milk. Result? Christmas bread perfection.
So what did I do this Christmas? I ended one tradition of ruined Christmas bread, and began a new one: baking it just right. I like to think my grandmother would approve of the recipe modification, and hopefully my family will forgive me for not burning the bread. Although the holiday season is over I may post this on the bread page to share the new recipe. The tragedy of failed Christmas bread shall not plague anyone for next Christmas!