There is a strange familiarity about the whole ritual. It usually involves climbing into some loft or burrowing through the shed to some degree to find the Christmas tree, that we swear to replace every year. The decorations are like meeting characters from an old book you haven’t read for a long time – you remember all their quirks, where you were when you first noticed them. Someone plays Christmas music, the dogs sniff in the boxes and bash the shaky tree with their tails.
A couple of years ago my dad passed the light-stringing-up altar to me. Nothing official about it, but he was travelling for longer and longer during the holidays and I was, perhaps inappropriately, deemed the most competent in this field. The lights still shine and twinkle in the evening, but I’ve never managed to curl them evenly round the tree like dad has, the lights themselves are so old that a few have gone out, but no one’s really had the heart to buy a new set. We’ve been using the same decorations for as long as I can remember, the little round baubles and the intricate figurines my dad used as a kid.
We are not so much of a family for tradition. We travel too much, the family as a whole is too spread out. And when I asked my parents, when I was young and these things mattered to me, they asked me what Christmas was really about. Did it have to be gifts around a tree, a big dinner, celebrated on the 25th? Or was it about the principle – the gathering with people you love, sharing food that you’ve made with love, giving, more than just material gifts?
It makes me wonder. This season of craziness… the crazy is everywhere. The pressure on mothers to cook a perfect turkey, to choose the best gifts for their children. The pressure on dads to put up the best outdoor lights, to earn the money to finance it all in the first place. Pressure on kids to stay cool throughout the affair, to get the best most expensive presents. Pressure on the dog to not steal the turkey from the table, dammit, and not to bark when an army of strangers rings the doorbell. Pressure on everyone to keep a good face, to laugh with family members you don’t really know.
I go back to bread. We have no great expectations of the holiday, nothing to go back on, I doubt I’ll make this wreath next year as a Christmas tradition. I started making my own bread some time ago, but that was after a long break from the habit. Somehow my hands remembered it, the smell of the yeast was familiar, my hands could fold and knead the dough without a second thought. It gave me something, some quiet zen, two minutes to think amid my crazy; travel prep and essays. I think about the puppies who’ll be abandoned because the kids couldn’t handle the well meant gift. About the wives who’ll fall out with their mother in law because the turkey didn’t work out. About the dads who’ll feel like crap because they didn’t get that promotion in time to get that shiny new phone.
It’s not that I don’t have warm memories of Christmas, or that I have a problem with traditional holidays, I think it’s great to have something to look back on, to warm you somewhere inside. Childhood Christmas for me was lots of light, more laughs, some fun gifts that I’d play with the whole year. This year will be similar. We’ll celebrate after the India trip, on January 10th, when the people who’ve fought with their mother in law and chucked their puppies have moved onto the most depressing month of the year and salad diets.
I just spare a thought for those people who believe that they’re making it Christmas, and I go back to my bread. My thoughts on the puppies and the grains, on the holiday from which so many of us took the spirit when we first put up the lights.
I understand that lots of people are scared of working with yeast but I promise that, like the aforementioned holiday, it’s also overcomplicated by most people! Just make sure it’s really puffy after proofing time, otherwise the yeast is dead and it will also kill the recipe. Also, the temperature of the water is important – I found a sneaky method to do this, see the recipe notes if that will help you. As for the swirly wreath pattern – I tried to get photos, but they weren’t great so I will direct you to this site I trawled the internet for, which quite clearly shows how to get that pretty pattern going.The bread is gently sweet, a nice contrast to the sharp berries and fragrant cardamom – it’s more the kind of bread for eating chunks plain, rather than slicing and slathering with jam. The best kind of bread, I’d say. It’s kind of cozy but light, which is how Christmas should be.
Whether it’s the traditional kind on the 25th, or something a bit unconventional like ours, wishing you the brightest, warmest holidays with people + pets you love. xx
cardamom-cranberry spelt wreath
This beautiful bread wreath has the perfect combination of sweet and tart from the cranberries, with a bit of a warm Eastern touch from cardamom and other spices. A bright and fragrant twist on a traditional winter bread, but with all the cozy sweetness
// makes one large-ish wreath, serves 8-12 // dairy free (vegan)
2 1/4 teaspoons (7g) dried active yeast
1/4 cup (60ml) warm* water
1 teaspoon turbinado or cane sugar
2 tablespoons (25g) melted coconut oil
Start by proofing the yeast. Add the teaspoon of sugar to a small bowl, then the water. It’s very important that the water isn’t more than 43-46’C (110-115’F) or it will kill the yeast. If you don’t have a kitchen thermometer (which I don’t), see the notes for a great cheat method. Once the water has been added, stir in a small pinch of salt and the yeast gently. Set aside for 10-15 minutes, till the yeast has bubbled and formed a spongy layer over the water. If this doesn’t happen, your yeast is sadly dead and you’ll need to start again.
While the yeast proofs, in a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, cardamom and 1/4c (25g) sugar, make a well in the middle. Oil another large bowl and set aside.
once the yeast mixture is ready, add it gently to the flour mix. along with the yeast, add the melted oil and the lukewarm milk (these should also just be lukewarm/ room temp. so as not to kill the yeast, but not cold enough to curdle the oil) and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon.
keep stirring the dough as it comes together. if you find your dough very wet, add flour tablespoon by tablespoon, but the dough should stay pretty sticky – it should be sort of damp to the touch but shouldn’t be left all over your hands when you touch it. Stop adding flour as soon as your consistency seems ok. lightly flour a flat surface and gather the dough into a ball with your hands, lay it out on the surface and knead for about 5 minutes, till it’s supple.
Retrieve the oiled bowl and form your dough into a rough ball. Place the dough into the prepared bowl, rotate it so it’s lightly coated in oil (to stop it sticking) and cover tightly with plastic wrap.
It’s time for the first rise. Find a warm-ish, draft free place to leave the bowl. If your house is a bit cold, turn the oven on low and place the bowl just in front of it (careful of curious pets, my two are obsessed with rising dough). Allow about 1 hour to rise, but this will depend on the temperature of your house – it should have doubled in size (see notes for tips)
While the dough rises, prepare the filling. Add the cranberries to the bowl of a food processor and pulse till they are finely chopped into small pieces, like grains of rice. Alternatively you can chop them by hand – time consuming, but works. Add to a small bowl with the sugar, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger, stir to combine and set aside.
after around one hour or whenever your dough has doubled in size, punch it down (“deflate” the dough) and cut a large piece of parchment paper (this is necessary to move the wreath) and flour it lightly. Turn out the dough onto the floured paper, knead for 2-3 minutes. Check the paper is still lightly floured, then flour a rolling pin and begin to roll the dough to a rectangle (or sort of wide oval is what I always end up with) about 25x35cm or so (10×13 or so inches). Check while rolling the dough is not sticking, or this will make shaping slightly dicey (hi mum)
Once you have an ok rectangle, using a pastry brush or back of a spoon, brush the 2 tablespoons melted coconut oil evenly over the dough, leaving about 2.5-3cm (1inch) border. Spread the cranberry and sugar filling evenly over this area, pressing down gently so it adheres.
Time to shape. Start by rolling the rectangle, using the long side, to form a log, try to make sure the edges don’t become too narrow (a bit is totally fine though). Once you have a log, take a pair of kitchen scissors (or just clean a pair of scissors, don’t worry) and cut all the way through the middle of the log, one end, all the way through the dough, to the other end. The dough may start to unravel, don’t worry yet. Illogically, take each strand and twist it outwards from the end furthest from you, so that the ends face inwards and the rest is twisted out, so you see visible layers. GENTLY lift one turned-out strand over the other, lay it on top, and continue by lifting the other strand, sort of braiding it over. Try to keep each lift & placement quite small, so that there are more ‘braids’. If you are loosing lots of filling, that’s fine, there is more filling added than actually necessary
in case of casualties to compensate for pretty inevitable spills.
Once the two strands have been braided, take each end and bring them round and together in a circle, squeeze them together and you will see a magically twisted wreath. You can now push a little filling back if there are any areas that took a big hit. If the area where the ends are joint looks messy, you can always tie a ribbon around it when it’s baked, to add to the Christmassy appearance.
Gently lift the whole piece of parchment onto a baking tray. Allow the shaped dough to rise once more, for about 1/2 an hour. Preheat your oven to 180’C (350’F), you can again leave the dough by your oven (but crazy pets will be even more curious now,
so you may need to guard your dough)
After around 1/2 an hour (or when the dough is puffy), place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for about 30-32 minutes, till the wreath is lightly brown/golden and the top feels firm. Allow to cool 10 minutes on the sheet, then gently transfer to a cooling rack.
You can slice it nicely or just rip chunks off, it tastes pretty great plain, taste the cardamom! The wreath will keep for about 5 days in an airtight container, like bread it will get a little drier but still tastes amazing. I doubt it will last that long though, this stuff is addictive 🙂
*don’t worry if you don’t have a kitchen thermometer, I have done this many times without one. I’ve found that a 2:1 ratio of hot:cold water seems to be the right temperature: so I would use 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (2oml) boiling hot water, then mix it with 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (40ml) cold water.
** turbinado’s coarseness is really important to add some texture and crunch to the filling and bread, so try to use something similar with big granules – succanant or cane sugar would work too, but just make sure it’s coarse and crunchy.
if you are not sure whether the dough has doubled, try poking it with two fingers – if the indent stays, it’s ready, if it disappears, give it more time. After the second rise, just touch it firmly with your finger – if the indent remains, it’s good.
the twisting and braiding is not as complicated as it seems. if you’re nervous, do it with two people so someone could hold the folds together, but I’ve always managed fine and I’m not good with fiddly things.
also, the parchment paper when you start shaping the wreath is kind of non-negotiable. the first time, I made it directly on the countertop but then moving the wreath was a disaster and I squeezed it totally out of shape, but the paper supports the shape when it’s moved. Just trust me on this one!
I am away on holiday (India!!!) right now, so it may be a bit quiet on my end. If you are looking for more baking inspiration, I will direct you to this baked oatmeal to serve holiday guests for breakfast, this granola for edible gifting and these scones because why not. and (coconut oil) gingerbread cookies. And again, I thank you for visiting this little corner of the internet, have a wonderful Christmas. I’ll be back with a few photos in a bit.