The prettiest, tastiest, and cheapest therapy for what ails us

By Stacey Ballis
May 04, 2020
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If your newfound pandemic bread obsession has you down a YouTube rabbit hole of sourdough in all of its formats, or if you are making fluffy yeasted breads at a staggering rate, you have likely discovered the calming, stress-relieving properties of baking your own breads.

There's the exertion of kneading and beating dough into submission as an excellent release of frustrations, plus the focus needed to ensure proper technique helping to take one’s mind off of politics and other stressors, not to mention the calming aromatherapy iof the smell of baking bread permeating your home. And it goes without saying that freshly baked bread—anointed with butter or jam, toasted for breakfast, piled high for sandwiches, dunked in soup, or sopping up gravy—is some serious comfort.

The inspiration for braided bread

And if you are a fan of shows like The Great British Baking Show or its American cousin, you might have seen what bread can do beyond the delicious. Those competition shows love to challenge their contestants to make giant bread sculptures, create intricate scoring designs, and color loaves with natural dyes. As a passionate bread baker, my fancies have never really turned to these sorts of projects. I don’t need my bread to look like a bicycle, I just want it to look like bread.

But recently, rewatching old Baking Show episodes, I came across the episode where a technical challenge was an eight-strand plaited loaf that nearly sent everyone in the tent into paroxysms of frustration. The challenge of it all haunted me. I’ve done plenty of three- and four-strand braided breads in my time: Challah for the holidays, for example, always means plaiting. As a kid, I was an ace macramé artist. How hard could more complicated loaves really be, I wondered. I filed it away as a future project.

And then I had one of those days—you know, those days we are all having where you wake up and you don’t know or particularly care what day of the week or month it is, and you are still in your home where you have been for six weeks, and you just don’t wanna. Whatever it is for you, you don’t wanna. For me it was work. I needed my brain to reset, which for me, usually means a big cooking project. It was time to tackle plaiting.

How to braid bread

I picked a challah recipe I like—not too dense, not too sweet, and easy to work with. I found a few videos online of breads I thought would be fun… two different five-strand braids (one of which created a lovely sort of helix spiral in the center of the loaf), a little four-strand braided round, and the mother of all breads, a massive twelve-strand plait. One quadruple batch of dough later, I was off to the braiding races.

Check out my dozen doughy strands, here:

Stacey Ballis

Knotted rounds are pretty easy, and almost intuitive once you watch a video a couple of times, so that gave me a bit of confidence. The first of the five-strand plaits made a nice even chunky braid and was not too difficult to pick up. But the pretty, twisting five-strand, which looked so easy in the video, took four different attempts before the pattern clicked in and made sense.

Then it was time to attempt the mother of all plaits. Twelve strands of dough, each 18 inches long, and a pattern that the baker on the video was accomplishing at such a rapid pace that it took me 27 viewings before I finally had a fully braided loaf that vaguely resembled the one I had found online.

But look how amazing!

Stacey Ballis

What I learned about braiding bread

And here is what I learned. This is the ideal stretch goal for our life and times. Think about it: The ingredients are affordable, you can choose a recipe that you are already comfortable with, and mistakes are still delicious. You can find a design online that is as complicated or simple as you like. If you want to try a bunch of patterns, you can make smaller braided rolls instead of large loaves.

But mostly, It keeps your hands and mind so busy and focused that nothing else matters. It forces you to be patient. It is physical, which we could all use more of, and takes some fluidity of movement, much like doing tai chi, yoga, or dancing. Your feet need to be planted, your shoulders relaxed, your arms loose, your hands gentle. Mistakes, when you make them, are either easily unwound and repaired, or left in as the purposeful flaw, the proof that human hands were involved.

Think of knitting, coloring, and the tastiest thing you can eat rolled (as it were) into one project.

The results

In the baking, each of my plaited loaves rose and bloomed, then was burnished with its egg wash. The twelve-strand lost some definition in the oven, but each bread emerged beautiful in its own way.

I mean, look!

Stacey Ballis

But more importantly, by day’s end I felt more myself, fortified by the simple act of putting my hands in dough and making something from nothing (literally and figuratively). I will probably not do the twelve-strand again: It was a one and done challenge and I don’t need to revisit it. But the others are likely to go into regular rotation, and I am already looking for different patterns or styles to have in my back pocket for the next day I need some solace.

We shared chunks of the huge loaf with friends and family, enjoyed toast and sandwiches for days before making French toast with the final few slices. We sent the twisted loaf, the prettiest of the bunch, to my sister and her family for their shabbat dinner, letting me feel a part of that celebration even at a distance. The other loaf got wrapped well and frozen in reserve for a hopeful, foreseeable time when we can gather with people we love to share a meal. And break that braided bread.