I have big plans for this Labor Day weekend. Big plans, my friends. The Girl has to work both Saturday and Sunday, so we won’t be heading out of town—not that we would be anyway. Ours is a contrary family. We like to stay put when others take off, and vice-versa. So we’ll be hanging out at home this weekend, which of course means I’ll be in the kitchen.
A long weekend is the perfect occasion for a time-consuming recipe like this one, and homemade Cinnamon Bread is an excellent payoff for the time involved. Yes, this is a yeast bread recipe—but, contrary to conventional wisdom, yeast breads really aren’t difficult to make. They just take time. There’s time involved in the mixing and the kneading, the rising, the punching down and rising a second time. If you try to cut corners and move too fast, you’ll be disappointed by overly dense and chewy bread. You can, of course, let a bread machine do all the work for you, but I don’t think having a loaf of bread in your hands is really the point of making bread. The point is reminding yourself that patience is a virtue, and that some of the simple things we take for granted—like that loaf of bread I buy at the store every week—aren’t really simple at all.
When you’re getting ready to bake a loaf of bread, you can purchase yeast in two different forms: sealed in small packets or loose in a jar. The packets hold precisely enough yeast for one loaf of bread, so if you’re an occasional bread maker, as I am, they’re probably the better choice. Yeast is alive and yeast will die, so if you’ve had a packet sitting around in the cupboard for awhile, test it before you get started baking: sprinkle the yeast over a bowl of lukewarm water and give it a stir. Before too long, you should see bubbles around the edges of the water. No bubbles, no bread—toss out the mixture, buy some fresh yeast and start over. (You can also store yeast in the freezer, to prolong its life, but in my freezer those little yeast packets tend to get lost and forgotten among the frozen veggies.)
What I’m offering here is a good, basic bread recipe—leave out the cinnamon and sugar before baking and you’ll wind up with a simple loaf of plain white bread. Which, when it’s made at home, really isn’t simple or plain at all. It’s a tasty reward worthy of a few hours of your Saturday afternoon.
1 pkg. active dry yeast
¼ cup milk
1 ½ T. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 ½ T. butter, melted
3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 T. cinnamon
More butter, for smearing
A splash of milk
Choose a large mixing bowl and warm it up by filling it with hot water and letting it sit for a few minutes. Empty and dry the bowl quickly, so it retains the heat of the water. Follow the directions on the yeast package (which will say something like "Sprinkle the yeast over a cup of lukewarm water and stir") and wait until you see bubbles forming around the edges of this mixture. Then stir in the milk, sugar, salt, and melted butter.
Add one cup of flour to the mixing bowl and use a wooden spoon to stir everything together. At the point, the dough will be very sticky. Don't panic. Add the remaining two cups of flour, ¼ cup at a time, and keep stirring. As you add flour, the dough will become less sticky and should clean the sides of the bowl while you stir. If you need to add a little more flour to get to this point, go ahead—just add a little at a time, and only as much as you need. Once the dough is holding the shape of a ball, you're reading to move on.
Sprinkle a small amount of flour on a cutting board or countertop. Take the dough from your mixing bowl and set it on the floured surface; sprinkle a little more flour on top. Start kneading the dough by folding, stretching, punching, squeezing—there's no right way to knead. If you've had a tough week, feel free to work out your aggressions. If the dough starts sticking to your work surface, sprinkle it with a little more flour. Continue kneading the dough for ten minutes. Don't skimp on the time; kneading creates the sheets of gluten that give your bread a springy texture.
After ten minutes, gather the dough into a ball. Clean the mixing bowl you were using earlier, or get out a new bowl. Coat the inside of the bowl with non-stick spray and place the dough ball in the bowl. Turn it over, so both sides of the dough are coated with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and put it in a warm place for an hour, allowing the dough to rise. Leave your floured work surface alone, because you'll be coming back to it soon.
After an hour, the dough ball should be approximately twice its original size. If it's larger or smaller than that, don't panic—as long as it's not the exact same size as it was when you put it in the bowl, you're fine. Take it out of the bowl and plop it on the floured surface—it should deflate, but give it two or three smacks to make sure it does. Now spread the dough into a rectangle. Place your loaf pan on the work surface and make sure the short end of your rectangle is no wider than the pan. If it is, just use your hands to re-shape the rectangle—fold in the edges until it's the right size. Butter the inside of the loaf pan.
Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Smear butter over the top of your rectangle, then sprinkle the cinnamon sugar mixture over the top. (If you want to add some raisins at this point, go ahead.) When you're done, roll up the rectangle and place in the buttered loaf pan, seam-side down. Your loaf should be roughly the same length as the pan. Cover the pan with a towel again and put it back in a warm place for another hour.
Just before the bread is finished rising for the second time, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Whisk together the egg and a splash of milk in a small bowl. Brush this mixture over the top of the bread to give it a glossy, golden top crust. Bake the bread for 30 minutes.
When it's done, remove the load from the pan right away and allow it to cool on a rack. You should be able to handle the loaf comfortably before you try to slice it.