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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tree Bread

12 December 2012
Yesterday was another day of Holiday Baking.  (I've blogged earlier this season about baking my grandmother's fruitcakes--and I did, indeed, deliver one to my mother in the nursing home where she's now recovering from a fall: she munched as eagerly as I.)

I've been making these tree-shaped sweet breads for a long time now--thirty years or more?  I think so.  My mother had made similar things back when I was a wee lad who loved Christmas for two very irreligious reasons: opening presents, not having to go to school.  It was indeed the sweetest holiday.  Presents and no homework and no getting up early (except, of course, on The Day, when my brothers and I all awoke before any other animals in town).  Dad, by the way, always annoyed us on Christmas morning: We could not begin opening presents until he appeared, and he would not appear until he had shaved.  Picture: a cluster of three boys around the (open) bathroom door, watching Dad shave in his maddeningly leisurely fashion.  Oh, did he know how to manipulate the moment.

As a kid I even (sort of) liked church services at Christmas.  The decorations, the music, the pageantry (such as there was in our Disciples of Christ denomination).  I remember one weird Christmas Eve service, though, in Des Moines, where my parents were living at the time.  It was the early 1970s.  Vietnam.  While we marched forward to take communion, they were flashing slides of the war on a screen--grim images from battle, from bombing raids.  Most sobering.

And, of course, the food.  We almost always had a turkey--though Dad would sometimes get a Smithfield ham, too.  Mashed potatoes.  Sweet potatoes.  Green beans.  Cranberry sauce.  Rolls (store-bought).  And--for dessert--pumpkin pie, mincemeat pie, my grandmother's steamed pudding (I'll be blogging about it a little later on).  Naps.

Oh, and some years my mother made an unintentionally phallic salad.  On a salad plate (bottom to top): a circular slice of pineapple, a banana (sliced to it would stand on end), a red LifeSavers sticking out from the bottom side of the banana, a maraschino cherry atop the banana.  It was supposed to look, I think, like a Christmas candle.  It didn't.  (Ours sort of looked like the photo--but Mom used pineapple for the base.)

Anyway--on Christmas morning--after Dad finished shaving--we did our opening (never on Christmas Eve, despite the desperate pleas of the Three Young Materialists).  And while we opened--some years--we ate tree bread.

I don't know where Mom got the recipe (probably from a magazine--or a friend), but we had it a few times--and I loved it.  (I am a bread-o-holic, by the way.)  Later, married, a father, I decided to try it myself.  (Little Steve loved the look of it.)  But there were years when it was less than ... edible, I fear.  (Though I resolutely ate it anyway--It's fine ... really!)

When I started using the sourdough starter I acquired in Alaska on a visit in 1986, the bread presented new challenges.  (A heavy dough rises more slowly--and, impatient, I sometimes started shaping-and-baking before it was really ready.  Not a good idea.)

But now I've got it down pretty well.  Haven't messed it up in quite a few years.  (Notice I'm saying so after I've baked it.  Must avoid The Curse of the Overconfident Baker.)  The process takes hours.  First, I have to "feed" the starter (8-12 hours).  Then mix the starter with the other ingredients (white, wheat, oat flour; honey; salt; melted (soy) butter; slivered almonds, candied fruit, dried/sliced apricots) (up to an hour).  Kneading.  Setting aside to rise (current batch went nearly four hours).  Cleaning up.  Shaping (form "ropes" of dough and string them back and forth on the baking sheets).  Another rising (two hours this time).  Baking.  Cooling.  Cleaning up.  Storing for Christmas.  On Christmas: warming the bread, icing it (powdered sugar + water), sprinkling on the glaze some more candied fruit (it looks like decorations--really).

Each year I mail one to my brothers for their use on Christmas mornings (the years I'm not with them).  No one ever says squat to me about them: good, bad, thanks--anything.  (Brothers!)  Oh, I take that back.  One year Richard said (on the phone! on Christmas Day!): The tree bread was better this year than last year.  Nice.

It's not our son's favorite, either.  As I said, he's always liked the look of it, but he's never liked nuts (almonds, remember).  In fact, he may be the only American child in history who does not like peanut butter--smooth or crunchy.  But Steve--bless his nut-hating heart--does eat a piece, every Christmas morning.  Feigns pleasure.

Joyce and I, though?  We eat it with lupine animation and manners.  Not a pretty sight.

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