Sometimes I agonize over what I’m going to cook. I leaf listlessly through cookbooks and batter my keyboard with demands of something new and fresh and better and, dare I say it? Original. But this month, faced with the Twelve Loaves challenge of baking bread with spices, I knew almost immediately what I wanted to do. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I knew it was going to be a variation on my Nana’s sweet roll dough, stuffed with luscious swirls of pumpkin pastry cream and baked into a decadent loaf.
The problem with this idea, as I started to do some research, turned out to be that no one had done it. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; it’s tough to think you’ve invented something, and then Google it, only to find
dozens hundreds probably billions of results that are either more amazing-sounding than you’d imagined, or more beautifully photographed than you have the ability to do.
This one came up with nothing. I started wondering: can you bake pastry cream? If you can, why has no one done this? I tried multiple searches, I leafed through my cookbook collection again, feverishly this time; I even polled friends to see whether this was a thing. One foodie friend speculated unpleasant melting would result. Baking forums promised curdling. Every recipe I located for something remotely similar advocated baking the dough and then piping chilled pastry cream into it. I was contemplating using Nana’s old cream horn molds to wrap little crescents of bread and then shoot pumpkin pastry cream into them, and then I found this. It’s a recipe for something called Torta Della Nonna, which translates to “grandmother’s cake,” and consists of a lovely tender dough, filled sometimes with sweetened ricotta, sometimes with mascarpone, but sometimes with a layer of vanilla or lemon pastry cream!
Victory, if not ensured, at least not a total shot in the dark, I got to work. Pastry cream, if you’ve never made it, is one of those projects that sounds terrifying – hot milk, egg yolks sure to curdle, frantic whisking with scalding and scrambling around every corner – but isn’t really that tricky. It’s another one of those “read ALL the directions first and have your ingredients prepped” kinds of recipes, and suddenly the milk and eggs you were whisking away at thicken into this magical, glossy, extravagant slosh of something an éclair would beg to be filled with. And when you finish
eating half of it tasting it to make sure it’s edible, you have only to strain it (in case of accidental scrambled bits), refrigerate it, and then decide what to do with it.
I opted, to be sure the Italian grandmothers I was never lucky enough to have knew what they were doing, to bake up just a little custard cup of it. If it was going to melt all over the place, I’d take a new direction. It didn’t. The top layer formed a thin skin, like custard or pudding left to set without a layer of plastic wrap pressed over it, but below that exposed skin (which, if I’m honest, I don’t really mind) was a tiny vat of this stuff, rich, creamy, better-than-pudding, and I knew we were on our way to great things.
From there, it was a matter of making up a batch of dough, a little more decadent than usual thanks to the addition of an extra egg and a few extra tablespoons of butter (hey, if you’re going to pack it with pastry cream anyway, you might as well go whole hog), and spicing the whole thing with the flavors of the winter holidays: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves.
I decided to make a lattice-top loaf, which entailed rolling, slicing strips along both edges of the dough, spreading the glossy, velvet perfect orange cream inside, and weaving the whole thing together. However, I did this on my bread board (it made sense at the time), not considering that the dough, flexible and buttery already, was about to double or triple in weight thanks to the addition of the cream, and be unwilling to transfer to my baking sheet. Thus, after considerable hand-wringing and fancy spatula work, I ended up with something like a horseshoe, only slightly structurally compromised. I suggest filling and finalizing your loaf on the greased baking tray you’ll be putting into the oven.
My god, this was good. The pastry cream oozed out of the caverns and crevices left by inexperienced and impatient lattice-work, and these parts gained the same skin as my experiment. This is, if we’re going to be picky, perhaps of a slightly compromised texture – it gets slightly grainy and thick – but it’s not enough to be a bother. Because once you get beneath the outer layer and your teeth sink into the delicately sweetened, pumpkin lushness below, you won’t ever want to eat anything again. And the dough itself is no slouch either. It bakes up warm with spices and beautifully textured. The combination is like… well… it’s like nothing I can really think of. The bread is like a sweet roll or a yeasted coffeecake; not as light as a doughnut, but not as heavy as your standard loaf of bread. The cream inside makes it (almost) too decadent to be a breakfast, but it’s a more than suitable dessert or afternoon pick-me-up. To make it even better, this bread actually tastes better the second or third day after you bake it (or even the seventh… I’ve kept our leftovers wrapped in plastic wrap and in the fridge, and a week later it is still moist and perfect).
Gingerbread spiced sweet bread with pumpkin pastry cream
Makes one 14-16 inch lattice-top loaf (and about 2 ½ cups pastry cream to fill)
For pumpkin pastry cream:
2 cups half and half (or, if you’re me, nearly 1 cup heavy cream and a little over 1 cup whole milk)
½ cup sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons cold butter
- In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt to a bare simmer over medium heat. Separate the eggs and mix the yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, beating until you can only feel a slight graininess from the sugar in the mixture. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined. The mixture will become pale yellow in color and thicken noticeably.
- Dribble about two tablespoons of the simmering half and half mixture into the egg yolks, whisking quickly as you go. This tempers the yolks, warming them up just enough to prevent them from scrambling when they hit the heat of the milk.
- Add the yolk mixture to the half and half in the saucepan, whisking constantly as it returns to a simmer over medium heat. The whole mixture will become thick and glossy, and a few reluctant bubbles may sputter to the surface.
- Turn off the heat and add the pumpkin, cinnamon, vanilla, and butter. Whisk until incorporated and smooth.
- Position a wire or mesh sieve over a medium glass bowl and dump in the hot pastry cream. Using a spatula, stir and push the cream through the sieve down into the bowl. If there are any scrambled bits or undissolved material, this will catch it and prevent anything from marring the divinely perfect texture.
- Place a layer of plastic wrap flat against the pastry cream and refrigerate until cold. This thickens the cream and lets it achieve its most glorious texture.
- While it chills, make the bread dough.
2 teaspoons yeast
½ cup warm milk
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons room temperature butter
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
3 – 4 cups flour (all-purpose or bread flour both work well)
- Combine the yeast, ½ cup warm milk, and a pinch of granulated sugar in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes while the yeast wakes up a bit.
- Meanwhile, add the brown sugar, salt, and eggs to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat with the paddle attachment into a sludgy homogenous mixture. Add the yeast mixture and the butter and mix again until mostly combined.
- Add the spices and 3 cups of the flour, and mix with the paddle attachment just until a wet dough comes together.
- Switch from the paddle to the whisk attachment and knead 6 – 8 minutes, adding more flour, if needed, in ¼ cup increments. Try not to add too much flour, as with each addition the dough becomes a bit denser and tougher.
- After 6 – 8 minutes of kneading, the dough will still be sticky and loose. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for 90 minutes, or until it has doubled in volume.
- Punch down the dough by depressing your knuckles gently into its center to release the accumulated gases.
- Turn out the dough onto a well floured board (I did this by just inverting my mixer bowl and letting it sit until the dough flopped out). Flour the dough lightly as well, and roll with a rolling pin into a 12 x 16 inch rectangle. If the dough springs back on itself immediately, let it sit for 5 minutes and then try again.
- To create the lattice-top look, use a sharp knife to cut slits at a slight angle in the outer edges of dough at 1 inch intervals. Each slit should only be about 2 inches in – you need plenty of room in the center for the pastry cream, and the dough will stretch as you weave it. See photo above for a visual.
- Transfer your dough to a lightly greased cookie sheet so you can shape it without having to move it again. Spread about 2 cups of the pastry cream onto the uncut center panel of dough, leaving about a ½ inch margin on all sides (what you do with the remaining cream is up to you. I won’t tell anyone). Then, fold up one of the end pieces over the top of the pastry cream and start weaving: fold up one dough strip at a time, taking one from one side and one from the other in turns, the way you would lace a shoe. Fold over the center gently – if you push down too much, pastry cream will go everywhere.
- When you get to the end of the latticework, fold up the remaining edge and pinch it with the final set of folded strips to seal it. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rise for 30 minutes.
- During this final rise, preheat the oven to 350F. Now, here’s where I must be honest. In the excitement of how firmly I believed this was going to be the best loaf of sweet bread ever, I failed to write down how long I baked this for. But I’m going to say you should start with 20 minutes, and see how things look. The top should get dusty and browned and feel slightly hollow when you knock against it. If it isn’t browned at all or still looks conspicuously raw, give it another ten minutes.
- When done, remove from oven and cool completely before slicing. To store, wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator. To snack, I preferred my slices straight out of the fridge, where the cream was cold and glossy and the bread was chewy and thick.