This is a bread to impress. Impress your family or guests with the beautiful braids and striations. Impress them with an invitingly complex fragrance of yeast and herbs. Impress them with delicate texture. Impress them most of all with the powerful burst of spring pesto that ripples throughout this bread. If you’re up for an afternoon of baking, add this gorgeous loaf to your weekend to-do list.
This bread is an all-day project, but the results are simply stunning. Make sure to look at the pictures and read the recipes through — not once, but twice — before you start, so you have a mental image of what you will be doing. Now, after you do that, don’t be intimidated. Follow the directions and pictures, pay attention, and you’ll be accepting accolades by nightfall.
A Pesto Made for Baking
This bread doesn’t use an average pesto recipe. It is far thicker and richer in cheese and nuts than most pestos. That’s because it has a different job; it needs to spread over the bread dough like a thick paste and stay in place while we roll, slice, and braid.
A Perfect Pesto for Pasta, Sandwiches, and Dip: How To Make Perfect Pesto Every Time
Once you get the hang of the super-thick consistency and unusually strong taste of the pesto for this recipe, go ahead and have some fun.
Substitute fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley or baby arugula for the basil, or try lemon basil and purple basil instead. You can also play with the type of nuts used, butplease use skinless nuts to avoid adding any unpleasant bitterness. Substitute half of the Parmesan with grated aged Romano, aged Asiago, or a well-aged ricotta salata — as long as it’s a dry Italian cheese for grating, you will be fine. Add a pinch of fresh oregano, marjoram, or red pepper flakes. Obviously, each of the changes will alter the taste, but as long as the texture of the pesto is the same— super thick and not too watery — the bread will be delicious.
Waking Up the Yeast
Yeast is alive, although it comes to us deactivated and in hibernation. Our job is to awaken it so it can do its many tasks in the bread. No matter what type of dry yeast you use — and there are many varieties of those little packets — yeast needs special handling. You need warm — not hot, not cold — water to activate yeast and get it started eating and bubbling and releasing gases. Here’s the warning: If the water is too warm, you’ll kill the organisms before they get a chance to do their jobs. Every pastry chef, cookbook writer, and food scientist I have ever met, read, or seen has his or her own “magic” temperature and a thoughtful rationale. I suggest using a range that is both forgiving and makes sure those yeast won’t get overheated — between 85°F and 100°F. Use your body temperature (98.6°) as an indicator if you don’t have a thermometer. This simply means it really won’t feel hot at all (if it is too hot, let it cool a bit before adding the yeast).
Allow the yeast to bubble to check if it’s working; that is what the first five or so minutes of a bread recipe is doing — proofing the yeast.
More on Yeast
Tool of the Trade
Recipes for breads call for stand mixers – bulky, heavy, pricey stand mixers. Sorry to say this, but handheld electric mixers are not an alternative when making bread. A hand mixer just can’t stand the weight of the bread.
You can, technically, make all bread by hand, but after years of teaching, I can say this in all honesty: Most (if not all) home cooks and even professionals who aren’t bread bakers have a lot of trouble making bread by hand with successful, consistent results. The stand mixer solves that every time.
You can, however, make this bread dough in a very heavy-duty food processor, using the dough blade.
The First Rise
Many breads can have their first rise in one of two ways: either covered and left in a quiet part of a kitchen, or covered and refrigerated overnight. Both methods work for this dough. If you refrigerate, make sure to allow the dough to come to room temperature before rolling, filling, and shaping.
If You Can Braid Hair, You Can Braid Dough
You are breaking this dough into three sections. Each section is rolled into a rectangle, filled with pesto (not quite to the edge), and then rolled into a tube, like a jelly roll. These tubes are strands to be braided. The logistical difference between these tubes and any other strands that get braided (like challah or wreath breads) is that if you press hard, pesto will come out the ends. Be gentle. Start braiding on one end, turning the dough around, and finish the braid from the other side.
The curious part of this recipe is the slit down each tube. The technique is derived from a fancy Russian bread technique. The Russian bread is usually made from two, not three, strands that are very simply folded over each other, and formed into a wreath or a snail shape. This recipe uses the technique of slitting before braiding. It makes lots of the lovely pesto visible and allows it to cook on top as well as inside, giving some lovely textural differences to this bread.
How To Make Braided Pesto Bread
Makes 2 Loaves
What You Need
For the bread:
For the pesto: