Today is the feast day of Santa Lucia. While I've written much about this day on this blog and on my theology blog, I have done some searching and realized that I never posted the bread recipe that I use.
Before we begin, if you'd like to have pictures to guide you, or you're simply in the mood for a photo essay, see this post from last year. If you'd like a more theological meditation, see this post.
If you're ready to start baking, here's the recipe (from Bon Appetit magazine, Nov. 1980, recipe by Beatrice Ojakangas, whose book The Great Holiday Baking Book is one of my all-time favorites):
1/4 c. warm water
2 envelopes dry yeast
3/4 c. sugar
1 13 oz. can evaporated milk (regular milk works just fine, skim, 1%, 2% or whole)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. each of cinnamon or nutmeg (saffron is traditional, but expensive; if used, use 1/4 tsp.)
3/4 c. softened butter
7 c. flour
raisins are optional (1/2 c. or to taste)
for egg wash: 1 egg and 1/4 c. milk
Put the yeast in a big bowl with the warm water and a pinch of sugar. Let it proof (get foamy).
Add the remaining sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, salt and mixed spices: blend well. Add the butter and 3 c. flour and stir until smooth. Stir in the remaining flour and mix into a soft dough. Cover the bowl and let the dough sit for 30 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto floured countertop and knead until smooth, 5-10 minutes. If you're using raisins, add them in. Let the dough rise until doubled.
The dough will be easier to handle if put in the refrigerator for an hour or even overnight.
Divide the dough into 3 pieces. You can make three braided loaves or you can make a variety of smaller buns and pieces.
For a wreath or long braid: take each piece of dough and divide it again into 3 sections. Roll each section into a long rope. Place the long ropes side by side and braid. Leave it long or place it in a round, wreath shape on a greased cookie sheet.
Other shapes are produced in much the same way, but with smaller pieces of dough. Roll into a long rope and curl it into an S shape, or a C shape or a cross or the curled horns of a bull--whatever pleases you.
Let the shaped dough rise again until doubled. Brush with egg wash and bake in 375 degree oven: 20-25 minutes for the wreath/long braid (depending on thickness of braids; if they're very thick, you may need longer yet), 15 minutes for the buns. An inexact way to tell if its done: the bread should sound hollow when you thump the bottom. Baking purists will be horrified, but I have been known to stick a knife into the bread, just to be sure.