Following is a reprise of a post originally published in December 2013.
I have mentioned on very many occasions that my father (and my grandfather before him) was a baker. He owned a bakery for many years – 20-some years in Nebraska and then five more years in Leadville, Colorado. Because of all the holiday baking I have been doing, I have been thinking about the bakery and what we had to offer in the way of holiday treats at Gloor’s Bakery.
As I thought about it, what I came to realize is that in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, at least in Columbus, Nebraska, it wasn’t “Everything-Christmas” in the same way that it is nowadays in the retail world. My dad definitely had a few things that he only offered at Christmastime – almond bark and peppermint bark come immediately to my mind – but he didn’t even sprinkle red and green sugar on top of a cake donut for heaven’s sake. And apparently no one expected him to.
I do recall that he made a butter cookie – were they spritz cookies? He put the dough in a pastry bag with a flower tip and squirted them out onto the pan, where they were sprinkled with sugar. I’m pretty sure that was it as far as Christmas cookies went.
But having blabbered on and on about all of this, I have to say that there was one thing that he made that was totally associated with Christmas – to his family and to his customers. It was a braided loaf of bread that we called Butter Braid. For years I have been obsessed with trying to find the recipe for this bread. However, if I Googled “Butter Braid”, what always came up is the sweet pastry similar to a coffee cake. Delicious, but not what we called Butter Braid. What we called Butter Braid wasn’t particularly sweet.
Finally, the other day, I was playing around again trying to find a recipe and stumbled across something called Swiss Braided Bread. Hey! My grandparents came from Switzerland. They made a braided loaf of bread. Eureka!
Now that I had something to call it, I learned that in Switzerland it is called Zopf. I would be willing to bet that if my father was alive and I asked him about Zopf, he would say, “Oh, you mean the Butter Braid we always made at Christmas?” (Kids, ask your parents all your questions now because some day it will be too late or they will be too old and crotchety to answer your question.) Anyhoo, according to what I’ve read, in Switzerland, Zopf isn’t a traditional holiday bread; instead, it is something they bake and eat on Sunday mornings, perhaps toasted and smeared with homemade jam. In our bakery world, there wasn’t enough time to braid a hundred loaves of bread every day all year long. Thus, it was something special for Christmas.
We sold very many loaves of Butter Braid every Christmas season, more than I could begin to remember. I do remember, however, that my mother would wrap the bread in cellophane, using a hot iron to seal it. She would then wrap that crinkly ribbon around each loaf of bread and use a scissors to curl the ribbon. Later, when plastic bags became more common, I assume she used them for our Butter Braid and closed the bag using the ribbon.
In memory of my dad, here is a recipe for Butter Cookies (from Taste of Home) and Zopf (from Allrecipes).
1 c. butter, softened
1-1/4 c. confectioners’ sugar
1 t. vanilla
½ t. almond extract
2-1/2 c. all-purpose flour
½ t. salt
Colored sugar and decorating candies, optional
In a large bowl, cream butter and confectioners’ sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and extracts. Combine flour and salt. Gradually add to creamed mixture; mix well.
Using a cookie press fitted with the disk of your choice, press dough two inches apart onto ungreased baking sheets. Decorate as desired. Bake at 375 for 6-8 minutes or until set (do not brown). Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield 7-1/2 dozen.
Swiss Braided Bread (Zopf)
1 (.25 oz) package active dry yeast
1-1/3 c. warm milk
1 egg yolk
2 T. butter, softened
3-1/2 c. bread flour
1 egg white
1 T. water
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm milk. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Add the egg yolk, butter and 2 c. of bread flour; stir well to combine. Stir in the remaining flour, one-half cup at a time, beating well after each addition. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 min.
Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces and roll each piece into a 14-in. long cylinder. Braid the pieces together and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a small bowl, beat together egg white and water. Brush risen loaf with egg wash and bake in preheated oven for 20-25 min, until golden.