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How-to Shape Christmas Tree Bread

I really dislike posting a recipe I have only made once. What seems to be a simple bit of culinary magic one day may fizzle on second try. Even well-tested recipes can run into problems when moved from one region of the country to another: the moisture level of flour changes noticeably from a wet climate to a dry one, for example, and altitude screws with baking and boiling, not to mention your alcohol tolerance. (My brother-in-law who works as an EMT a mile up in the mountains tells great stories.)

There are, however, a few writers whose recipes I trust enough to go with a single pass at a recipe when I am short on time and I turned to one of them for the sweet roll dough I used for the tree. Modifications were made, of course: I zested an orange, toasted and ground cardamom, sprinkled in cinnamon, and tipped in a splash of vanilla; milk became buttermilk; sugar was reduced a little bit - there was a LOT of sugar. Ten minutes after I put it in the oven the house was filled with a heady mix of spices and I was regretting not putting an extra 'tasting' loaf in the oven. (After I took photos, I tore into a golden ball of dough; I can report the flavor lived up to its aroma-vertising.)

The crumb, sadly, did not. Dense and chewy, not tender and light. Totally wrong.

So much for recipes in one try...

To be honest, I think the blame sits at the feet of a convergence of a crazy cold snap - it didn't get over 25 for over a week - dodgy yeast, and my need to hurry things along because I was headed out of town for a day. As is, I pulled the bread out of the oven well after midnight and shot the pretty picture about 24 hours later.

The tree is still darned cute, though, isn't it?

So instead of a recipe, let me offer modifications to your favorite sweet dough recipe and directions to shape your very own, darned cute tree, simple enough for the kids to help with, and just right for Christmas morning. If you don't have a favored sweet bread recipe, try a small batch of Pioneer Woman's Cinnamon Rolls. Or this cranberry bread from cook local - the bright red cranberries would look like decorations on your tree.


  • zest of one orange, finely grated
  • 1/2-1 tsp freshly toasted and ground cardamom (or use pre-ground)
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • replace milk (or half of water) with buttermilk (or milk+1 tbsp lemon juice)
  • make sure your house is warm and you have plenty of time

Shaping and baking the tree:

  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment. If you want to, you can outline the shape with a rolled tea towel to contain bread while it rises.
  2. Roll pieces of dough into small balls. These are about 2 oz, a smidge smaller than a tennis ball.
  3. Place one ball of dough at middle of pan, about an inch from the edge. Put two balls of dough below that one, off to each side and with about 3/4 of the ball size in space between them. (If the balls are 2" leave about 1 1/2" space. The dough in these photos had already risen a little while I was setting up photos so they are closer together than you would put unrisen dough. See also: cold house, dodgy yeast)
  4. Use three balls in the third row, four in the fourth and so on. You should be able to get 5-6 rows on a typical baking sheet.
  5. For the trunk, shape the final piece of dough into a tiny log, about twice as long as wide.
  6. Let the dough rise until the balls are touching.
  7. Bake as your recipe calls for, reducing the time (usually about 10-15  min) if the original recipe was for a loaf instead of rolls.
  8. When bread is baked, cool for a little while, but catch it while it is still warm to the touch for icing.
How-to shape Christmas Tree bread How-to shape Christmas Tree bread How-to shape Christmas Tree bread How-to shape Christmas Tree bread

Icing the tree:

  1. Mix about 3/4 of a cup of confectioner's sugar with a scant tablespoon milk or cream, adding a drop at a time until it is thick but spreadable.
  2. Prop the top edge of the pan holding the bread on something a few inches high, making sure it is stable and that the trunk doesn't get squished if the tree slides.
  3. Put a small dollop of icing on the top of each ball, spreading it to cover the tops and letting it drip onto the fronts so it looks like clumps from falling snow. (I used a whisk to spread the icing and it helped with the uneven snow-like edges.)
  4. Add decorations at the last minute so they don't bleed color or get sticky. These are Jelly Belly Classics Raspberries & Blackberries , 5.8-Ounce Tubes (Pack of 4).

Are you making special bread for the holidays this year? Have a great sweet bread recipe to share? Let us know in the comments.

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