butterzopf (swiss plaited bread)

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How’s your Easter week-end going? Chances are it’s been more relaxing than mine, I hope. If you’d like to find out, here’s a test: if you close your eyes, can you see bindweed roots? I can. I would have dreamt about them too, if I wasn’t so exhausted from all the digging (seriously, who knew digging was so hard? and why didn’t they tell me? I was woefully underprepared!) and the raking, too. I had no idea I had muscles in those places, but apparently I do, and they are making their presence felt.

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On the plus side: I have a new haircut which will allow me to wear lots of eyeliner while pretending I’m Mary Quant (I flatter myself not at all), the sun is out (!), and I have a near-perfect butterzopf stashed in the freezer ready to finish off its baking in time for tomorrow’s breakfast. Perhaps life is not so hard after all.

Butterzopf is one of those things that I ate all the time (quite literally – when you see the ingredients, you’ll realise what a marvel it is that I fitted on the plane back home) while I lived in Switzerland, and miss terribly now I’m back in England – along with dried mango, and M-Budget chocolate. While I am fairly sure I don’t stand the faintest chance of either finding a) mangoes ripe enough to dry and b) some sun in which to dry them, or of setting up as a chocolatier in the utility room, making some bread – that should be a doddle, right? Right?

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Wrong. I managed to make all manner of plaited breads – undercooked, flavourless, overcooked, too dense, too crusty – but not once did I open the oven door and – tah-dah! – triumphantly take out the zopf of my dreams. My wish list was not unreasonable, I don’t think: fluffy inside and slightly crusty on the outside, but not so crusty that I couldn’t pull chunks off as I sneaked past the breadboard for the second fifth time that day; richly flavoured and slightly sweet, but not so sweet that I couldn’t eat my favourite sandwiches between slices of it. Easily attainable, you would think.

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It probably doesn’t help that my Swiss German is somewhere between frightful and non-existent, and so I couldn’t understand any of the websites which I imagine would have told me how to make it properly. Instead, I had to go off the ingredients lists, which I could just about understand (it helps that ‘Butter’ is butter, admittedly. And no prizes for guessing ‘Milch’, either).

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I realise that this all might seem quite alarming, which it really needn’t be – I have done all the hard work and googling diligent research for you, after all, and like anything else in the kitchen, success is mostly just a matter of finding a good recipe and not ignoring vital parts of it (like I usually do). After that, it really is no more difficult than making any other bread. Alright, there is the plaiting, but I refer you to this video for instructions. What could be simpler? Yes, I know it’s in German, but I don’t pay any attention to the words (well, not consciously. I do, however, find myself mumbling ‘unter… und ober…’ over and over again while plaiting).

First, milk is warmed to no more than hand-hot (it helps if your kitchen temperature is above freezing – I had to test my milk with my elbow, my hands were so cold. Yes, I did look ridiculous, with one sleeve rolled up and a milky elbow, thanks for asking) and some of it is mixed with yeast, sugar and a couple of tablespoons of flour and left in a warm place to prove for a few minutes. Then this ‘sponge’ is mixed with flour, salt, some melted butter and the rest of the warm milk, kneaded for 10-12 minutes until the dough is pliant and glossy – it’s very sticky at first, but it will become more manageable as it’s kneaded – and left to rise for around an hour.

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Then the dough is divided into four, plaited beautifully (as you can see above, I pride myself on the consistency of my plaits) and rested for 30 minutes, before being brushed with beaten egg and baked for 45 minutes until browned and hollow-sounding. Then, in my house at least, it’s left on the cooling rack for any passers-by to tear lumps off of – the plaited format is particularly good for this style of eating – and any left is toasted, craggy torn ends and all, for breakfast the following morning.

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butterzopf 

Makes 2 800g-ish loaves (plus 2 tiny buns). The recipe is from over here, along with lots of very sound advice. Trust me on the spelt flour; it helps to keep the dough’s elasticity and soft texture – despite the large amounts of fat – by increasing the overall protein content of the flour. I gave it the benefit of the doubt this time, mostly because I had some spelt flour left over from a truly horrible cake I made, and it really did make a difference.

600ml full-fat milk (yes, really. Even if you never use full-fat milk. Lower fat milk will give a denser textured bread, and nobody wants that, now do we?)
12g dry active yeast, or 30g fresh yeast
1 tbsp sugar
800g plain (not bread) flour
200g finely milled spelt flour (or, sieved wholegrain, with the bits chucked back in the bag. Nobody could accuse me of a gung-ho attitude towards baking)
1 tbsp salt
150g butter
1 egg, for the glaze

Melt the butter and leave to cool slightly. Warm the milk in a large pan, to no more than 40°C (or you will kill the yeast). Put around 100ml of the milk into a small bowl, then cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Add the yeast to the milk, along with the sugar and 2 tbsp of the flour, and leave it in a warm place for 10-15 minutes until bubbles start to form.

Sift the two flours together in a large bowl, then add the salt and the yeast mixture. Add the melted butter to the warmed milk, and check that adding the butter hasn’t raised the temperature of the milk to more than 40°C. Add the butter and milk to the flour mixture and bring together with your hands.

Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a clean surface (I never bother to flour the side – kneading like billy-o stops the mixture sticking much better). Knead for 10-12 minutes (yes, truly. Sorry about that) until the dough feels pliable and has a lovely shine. Oil the surface of the dough and place into a clean bowl, then cover with a tea-towel and leave to rise for around an hour, until a finger poked into the surface leaves a dent.

Next, the fun bit! Divide the dough into four equal parts and set two aside for later (don’t panic, this is for the second loaf – we don’t have to something hideously complicated halfway through). Roll out the two remaining pieces into long sausages, each with a fatter bit in the middle, then place one of them across the other to form an X, as shown in the pictures below. Now, either go here and watch someone far more competent than me explain, or – if you like a challenge – you can try to make sense of my garbled instructions below .

The aim of the game is to cross the two ‘arms’ of the sausage across the centre, while still pointing them to one side such that they form a nice neat plait. The top V of the X in the photos below is the one which was pointing directly away from me, and this is the one we will be plaiting into.

First, cross the arms of the lower sausage across the centre. From now on, each time we will be crossing the two arms of a strand directly across the centre, so that they exchange places neatly. The first arm to cross is always the one which is nearest the plaiter, and this ends up inside the top V of the X, just next to its opposite end. Then the other arm of the same strand is wrapped back across the centre, to land where the first arm started from. When you run out of arms, tuck the ends underneath neatly, chop off any extra, and transfer the loaf to a lined baking sheet.

And…. Repeat! Just what you wanted to do, right?

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Leave the loaves to rest for around 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan), then brush the tops with beaten egg and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the underneath sounds hollow when knocked on. To freeze, remove the loaves from the oven after 20 minutes, cool completely and freeze in a sealed freezer bag. To finish baking, put the frozen bread directly into a cold oven, turn the temperature to 200°C and bake for another 20 minutes.

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