Cranberry Walnut Bread: A celebratory artisan bread fresh from the home oven

You would think I am prepping for Thanksgiving :) I am not. I made this bread a while back since this makes for a terrific breakfast bread. With thanksgiving around, I thought why not share it out with you guys. Bread baking, I feel, is tougher than any other type of baking since it is heavy on technique and chemistry with a little bit of art in shaping and bread variety. I have just  started learning bread baking and though enjoyable, it is a challenging process, calling for lots of patience AND a great sturdy stand mixer (unless you have muscles to give Rambo some competition). Like all beginners are better advised to do, I am working through all the easy ones before I go on to the complex breads. Cran-Nut bread here is an easy one. It does not use starters but uses instant yeast cutting down the prep time immensely. You can’t beat the smell in your house while the bread is baking, it will make you go to heaven and be back in time to have a bite of the freshly baked loaf. Your local Publix bakery just can’t beat the taste of this bread.
This recipe is from one of the best bread books ever – The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. It’s a James Beard Foundation book award winner. The author is a master bread baker who has prepared the book in a way that even a novice will be able to make great breads. I have been using that book for my bread baking and love it absolutely
I know not many people enjoy bread baking like they do baking cakes. But it’s not at all as hard as you think. If you haven’t done it yet, then start now.

Cranberry Walnut Celebration Bread

Note:
1. Makes one large loaf (if you are single or married without kids, a better idea is to go with half the amount and bake a smaller loaf, especially if you are baking a bread for the first time. I did the same and had enough bread for a week. The other option is to bake the bread and then freeze a portion of it so that you may have it later)
2. Use a stand mixer. It is taxing (though certainly doable) to knead the dough by hand.
3. For dessert baking, it is always preferable to use measurements by weight than by volume. This is especially true for bread baking. If you have a kitchen scale, then go with the weight specifications. I don’t own a kitchen scale and used the volume measurements. I can assure you it still worked terrific. :)

Ingredients:
3 cups (13.5oz) unbleached bread flour
3 tbsp (1.5oz) granulated sugar
3/4 tsp (0.19oz) salt
3.5 tsp (0.39oz) instant yeast (available in the baking section of every grocery store)
1.5 tbsp (0.75oz) orange or lemon extract (if you don’t have extract, you can use 2 tbsp orange or lemon zest)
2 large eggs (3.3oz), slightly beaten
1/2 cup (4oz) buttermilk or any kind of milk at room temperature
2 tbsp (1.0oz) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 to 1/2 cup (2.0-4.0oz) water, at room temperature
1.5 cups (9.0oz) dried sweetened cranberries
3/4 cup (3.0oz) coarsely chopped walnuts

Directions:
1. Stir together flour, sugar, salt and yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the extract, eggs, buttermilk and butter. Mix on low speed with paddle attachment, slowly adding just enough water to make a soft pliable dough.
2. Change to the dough hook of the mixer and mix on medium speed for 5 minutes (or knead by hand on a floured surface for 5 minutes), until the dough is smooth and slightly tacky but not sticky. It should be soft and plaible, not stiff and resistant. If it is too soft, add a little flour and knead some more. If it is too stiff, then add a few drops of water to make it soft and smooth.
3. Add the dried cranberries and mix (or knead) for another 2 minutes.
4. Now add the walnuts and gently mix them (or knead them) into the dough till evenly distributed.
5. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer the dough into the bowl, rolling to coat it with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let ferment at room temperature for 2 hrs (until the dough doubles in size).
6. At this point, you can either proceed to make a braided loaf like I did or just bake it in a large loaf pan. If going for the braided method then proceed to step 7 else go to step 8.
7. Transfer the dough to a counter and divide it into 6 pieces (3 of 10oz each and 3 of 4oz each). Roll out the larger pieces into 9″ long strands, thicker in the middle and slightly tapered in the ends. Roll the smaller ones into 7″ long strands, similarly tapered as the longer ones. Braid the longer ones into a regular braid (like you would braid hair or a rope) and pinch the ends to seal the braid in. Repeat for the smaller ones. Go to step 9.
8. Shape the dough into two balls of equal size. If you have a loaf pan you can put each dough ball into a pan, spreading them around in the pan and move to step 10. Else you can shape them into oblong/oval bread loaves before you move to step 9.
9. Place the large braid on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Then center the smaller braid on top of the larger one in a double decker fashion. (I actually baked the two braids separately, as you can see in the picture). If you are using loaves from step 8 then just place the loaves side by side (with at least 3″ gap between them and between the sides too).
10. Now brush the entire assembly with half of the egg wash. Refridgerate the rest of the egg wash for later use.
11. Proof (let it rest) uncovered at room temperature for 90 minutes (or till dough doubles in size again). Use the rest of the egg wash now to brush the loaf all over.
12. Preheat oven to 325 deg F with oven rack in the middle.
13. Bake for apprx 25 minutes. Rotate teh baking pan 180 degree adn then bake for another 25-30 minutes. At this point, the loaf should be deep golden brown, feel firm and sound hollow when thumped in the bottom. The internal temperature should be around 185-190 degree and a skewer or knife inserted should come out very clean.
14. Remove bread from pan and transfer it to a cooling rack. Allow the bread to cool for at least an hour before slicing or serving.
15. The bread freezes well (but do not refreeze once thawed). Serve it the way you love it. I like it with hot milk (or how about with a smear of butter and even toasted a bit).

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