I had a short phase in my awkward middle school days when I proclaimed a deep hatred for the holidays. They were, in my sophisticated 12 year old mind, much ado about nothing. Sometime mid-high school I saw the folly of my ways and converted back into a holiday lover. Minus the last minute gift shopping and the month long, stress induced head ache, what’s not to love?
Several weeks ago I read a short vignette by Anna Quindlen. In the vignette, she describes how she found one of her best teachers on the boardwalk of Coney Island. When she asks him why he doesn’t find a shelter or check into a hospital for detox, he responds, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.” I’ve been trying to stop and look at the view more often. When I do, what I see is heartening. Just this past weekend, in the middle of dinner with friends, I stopped shoving fish tacos down my mouth for a minute, sat back, and really opened my eyes. I saw me – blessed with good fortune and a pinch of innate drive – in a warm room, in my favorite city, surrounded by smiling, laughing friends. It’s hard to describe the beauty of life in a few short words, but perhaps that’s where its greatness lies. When you see life’s beauty, you don’t need to explain it. Your heart knows.
While we should soak up this beauty every time of the year, for some reason the holidays are one of the few moments most people actually stop to appreciate it. I think its the tradition. It grounds us, comforts us, brings us together. In my family, Christmas traditions are plentiful, but, of course, my favorites involve food. Christmas food in my family means a lot of things, among them, houska. Every year my grandma and uncle venture to Berwyn to pick up our supply of houska, a yeasted Czech bread filled with raisins and topped with almonds. This year, I was determined to make it. Yes, I would brave my fear of yeast and make houska. Watch me. Just watch.
My mom always tells me, when I put my mind to something, I do it. So, I put my mind to making houska. Knowing I might need some moral and kneading support, I recruited Kent to help me. Kent, who I met freshman year of high school and who hasn’t been able to shake me yet, and his family are, like mine, Czech. They eat liver dumpling soup, kolacky, and fruit dumplings. Most importantly, they eat houska, although they know it as vanocka. (I’ve done some research and it seems like vanocka is the preferred term, while houska is a regional term for the same thing. Although, there’s quite a bit of internet debate about the terminology.)
Regardless, houska, vanucka, or just really good bread, was made and eaten yesterday in keeping with the Czech traditions our families hold near and dear. Kneading, braiding, then baking. It was one of those “take a look at the view” moments. You know what I mean.
from Midwest Living, December 1988 (aka my Grandma)
This houska was more dense than the kind my family gets from the bakery. Kent said his family’s is normally dense like this version though. Who knows? Be sure your yeast is nice and bubbly before using it and don’t skimp out on the rising time. (We missed some of the rising time, which might be cause for the density too. A repeat will be attempted as soon as this loaf disappears for texture experimenting purposes.) I like serving my houska toasted with apple butter or raspberry jam. Just saying.
Makes 1 braid
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter
2 teaspoons salt
5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup warm milk (105 to 115 degrees)
1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1 cup light raisins
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 beaten egg yolk
Add yeast to warm water and stir until yeast has dissolved. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 10 minutes. Yeast should be bubbly.
Meanwhile, in a mixer bowl, beat together sugar, butter, and salt. Add eggs and beat well. Beat in 1 cup of the flour. In a separate bowl, combine milk, peel, mace, and yeast mixture. Beat into flour mixture. Stir in as much remaining flour as you can with a spoon. Stir in raisins and nuts.
Turn out onto floured surface. If all the flour has not been used, knead in the remaining amount to make a moderately soft dough that’s smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes total). Place in a lightly greased bowl; turn once to grease surface. Cover; let rise in warm place till double, about 1 1/2 hours.
Punch the dough down; divide in half. Divide 1 portion of dough into fourths for the bottom braid; cover and let rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, divide the remaining bread dough into 5 portions for the other 2 layers of the dough. Cover those portions and set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, form each of the first 4 portions into 16-inch-long ropes. On a greased baking sheet, arrange the 4 ropes, 1 inch apart. Overlap the center 2 ropes to form an X. Take the outside left rope and cross over the closest middle rope. Then, take the outside right rope and cross under the closest middle rope. Form an X with the 2 new center ropes. Repeat braiding until you reach the end. Pinch ends together; tuck under. Turn baking sheet and braid on opposite end. Gently pull width of braid out slightly.
Form remaining 5 portions into 16 inch long ropes. Braid 3 of the ropes together. Brush the 4 strand braid with water and center the second braid on top; gently pull width of top braid out.
Twist the remaining 2 strands of dough together. Brush the top braid with water; place the twist on top of the second braid. Cover the shaped dough and let rise till nearly double.
Brush surface of the shaped dough with egg yolk. Bake in 350 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Cover the loaf with foil during the last 10 minutes of baking. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.