It was just before Christmas in 1997 when I thought the bread was going to eat my kitchen.
I was just learning to cook, and I was using cable television as my instructor. I had gotten a new holiday-themed cookbook by one of the burgeoning celeb chefs of the era, needed to make something to take to a couple of holiday dinner parties and decided to tackle a show-stopper from the book.
Emeril Lagasse’s Three-Tiered Braided Christmas Bread.
I had never made bread before, so maybe a three-flavored, braided bread wasn’t the best place to start. But this wasn’t just bread. This was olives and tomatoes and basil all baked together. This was a statement.
This was a bigger challenge than I realized.
I sat down with the recipe and made a shopping list. The yield on the recipe — this is key — said “one large loaf.” I had two dinner parties. So I would double everything.
I didn’t know it yet, but at that moment the project became a sitcom plot.
The bread would be flavored with three things: a sun-dried tomato paste, a black olive tapenade and a pesto. Those were easy, but then I got to the actual bread recipe. It called for, among other things, 3 1 / 2 cups of flour. Since 1997, I’ve done a lot of cooking, and I know now that 3 1 / 2 cups is a reasonable amount of flour for a loaf of bread that might be baked by mere mortals.
In December 1997, I knew no such thing.
As I read further, I realized the recipe said I would need that much flour for each flavor of bread. That meant I was going to need 10 1 / 2 cups of flour for a finished loaf. And I was planning to double the recipe.
Suddenly, the five-pound bag of flour I had in the pantry was totally insufficient. That should have been a red flag.
But I was committed. I made the pastes of tomato, olives and basil. I made my first batch of dough and mixed in the tomato, doubling every ingredient as I went. It all seemed like . . . a lot. I made a second batch of bread with tapenade. Concern grew. I mixed the green third batch while I searched the kitchen for my third-biggest vessel — I only had two big salad bowls, so I went with a stock pot — so it would have something to rise in.
And then they rose.
They rose fast.
They rose tall.
They rose and kept rising.
It was a small kitchen, and I had trouble finding room for all the bowls. The recipe said to let the dough rise for an hour, but it didn’t take that long before they overwhelmed their containers and threatened to start braiding with one another without me. I started breaking up the dough into more bowls, only to have the dough breach them, too. There was red dough on the stove, black dough in the sink and green dough teetering on top of the refrigerator and on the dining room table. Any more rising and this would have become an outdoor project.
After an hour, I punched the dough down and reclaimed at least a small percentage of my kitchen, giving me enough elbow room to consider the next step: forming all this dough into loaves.
Sure, I had doubled the recipe, so my “one large loaf” would be two. But even that was hard to imagine. Did I mention there was a lot of dough?
I cut each mound of dough roughly in half. I rolled a piece of each flavor into a baguette-shaped cylinder, set them side by side, pinched the ends together and braided them. The loaf went onto a baking sheet and rose again, by which time my 13-by-18-inch half-sheet pan barely contained it. After I repeated the process with the remaining dough, I had to question whether it was safe to put both loaves in the oven at the same time. What if they rose more while they’re in there? I baked one at a time.
When it came time to pull them out, I tried not to think about that classic episode of “I Love Lucy.”
The loaves didn’t expand out of the oven and push me up against the cabinets, as Lucy’s did on the show. But they were ridiculously big, each weighing almost seven pounds. I felt kind of silly taking them to my friends’ houses. I hadn’t warned them that the bread might need its own table. But the loaves were beautiful and, at the very least, a conversation starter. They were not to be ignored. And they were delicious.
So, 16 years later, I decided to look at the recipe again to see whether there had been a problem with the cook or the book. I even got a chance to relate the story in an e-mail exchange with Lagasse and ask him if I had messed up his recipe. He said no.
“This is indeed a very large loaf of bread,” he said. “Calling it extra large might be more accurate. It takes up nearly all of a half-sheet pan.”
“This recipe was born of the desire to create one big loaf of bread that was festive enough for a holiday table and yet large enough to feed a crowd,” Lagasse said. “Conservatively speaking, [it] could feed 16 to 20 people!”
Armed with some confidence, I wanted to make the bread again.
First off, I wouldn’t scale it up. I cleared off my stove to act as a proofing area and got three large bowls for the doughs to rise in. Then I set to work.
The flavoring pastes were a breeze, and the smell of garlic filled the kitchen. Then I started with the bread. Three-and-a-half cups of flour with the olives. Three-and-a-half more with the tomatoes. Then one more time with the basil. I was nervous.
The three doughs started to rise. The garlicky aroma was overtaken by that of yeast. I got more nervous.
But after the prescribed hour, the dough had expanded to fill the bowls, without overflowing. I took each ball, cut it in half — I wanted two smaller loaves, an idea Lagasse endorsed — rolled the pieces out, braided them together and let the loaf rise again. Then I made a second loaf. The two loaves were still huge, but not so large they couldn’t go into the oven at the same time. They baked up beautifully.
Each of my “smaller” loaves weighed in at more than three pounds, so if I had followed the directions for “one large loaf,” I would have ended up with another behemoth of nearly seven pounds. I started looking at the recipe for ways to scale it back, to yield a loaf or two of reasonable size. The math was tricky; it would get complicated.
Then I thought, it’s a Christmas bread. Divide the dough into quarters, make four loaves, then give three of them away!
Just one thing: No matter how many friends you have, do not double the recipe.