I am standing at my in-laws’ dining room table, using a short serrated knife to hack through an apple-almond dessert, and my heavy bracelet keeps slipping down my wrist. I lean in to cut, bracelet whomp. Push it up, falls back down. Up, down, back, clonk. It keeps whacking the pastry and driving me nuts – soon they’ll be eating silver off the apples. I pull it off, shove it aside and get back to the knife. Coffee is being poured, and though I’m clearly busy slicing, I occasionally use one hand to pass the cream, another to pass the sugar and still another to distribute forks – more hands than I have, and that dessert is still whole. All around the table aunts, uncles and cousins sit with small glass plates, waiting.
I don’t leave home without dessert. Call it fate or my fault, but I can’t appear at birthdays, baby showers or tax meetings empty-handed. I no longer run a kitchen or own a bakery – but even when I did, this sort of dessert was greeted, time and again, with the same phrase: you didn’t make that.
Well yes I did, I’d say, I did make that. Oh come on, they’d sputter, that came from a bakery. It was cute, it was flattering, and eventually, annoying. No, that looks like professional bakery.
Uh…I work in a bakery. I am a bakery. You’re paying for it. It’s bakery.
This went on. Even now with the apple-almond braid, even with family, fifteen years among them and still the same tease:
“You didn’t make that.”
(eyes roll into back of my head)
“Yes.” I hand a slice to Millie, on my right, who takes it and smiles. “I did.”
“Come on – did you stop at the bakery?”
“No,” I said, plating a slice, “I didn’t.”
“You did not make that.”
“You stopped at the bakery.”
“Fine. I stopped at the bakery, okay?” Now they were listening. “Yeah. I stopped at the bakery – the bakery of me. Now who wants a slice?”
Today we are stopping at the bakery of…you. You’re going to make this Apple-Almond Braid and amaze them – you’re going to coolly cut slices while they search for the white box. This looks fussy, but it isn’t, and looks tricky, but it’s not. It also looks delicious, and it is. Bakery? Uh-uh. Today, this is how you roll.
Slice apples and saute with sugar, just caramelizing to a tasty gold.
Lightly chop the cooked apples. Run out of the kitchen in an effort not to eat the cooked apples. Come back and vow to eat just a few.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the cream cheese dough out to a wide, slightly squared oval shape, long enough to fit lengthwise across a cookie sheet. Transfer dough to ungreased cookie sheet, allowing a slight overhang off the edges.
Spread almond filling lengthwise down center of dough strip, leaving about 2 inches bare on either side.
Pile those golden cooked apples on top of the almond filling, mounding evenly lengthwise down the strip…
…like so. And now we do a great trick, the one that will make them demand to see your bakery receipt: using a small sharp knife, slash diagonal lines along both sides of the filled strip. Start with your knife on the inside, closer to the almond filling, and pull the knife out, creating short strips, about 3/4″ wide. Cut short strips along both sides of dough, leaving “overhang ends” uncut and in tact. The strip should look fringed…
…sort of like a big apple-almond fish. Now, starting at one end, pull each strip toward the center, creating a “V” with each pair, loosely pinching together in the middle. Continuing pulling and pairing strips all the way down, until filling is covered and you have a “braid.”
To finish the ends, pinch overhang dough together, then pull up and roll over the cookie sheet, pinching to meet and seal the braid.
Oh my god, look what you did! You’re some kind of domesticated bakery superstar, and you’re almost done. Sprinkle finished, unbaked braid thickly with cinnamon-sugar mixture and sliced almonds.
Bake to a gorgeous crusty brown, sprinkle some powdered sugar, and prepare for bakery heaven…
…because that’s it. You get true bakery sights, sounds and tastes with just one chunk of dough, a few ripe apples and a new trick up your sleeve. Don’t forget to keep those sleeves rolled up – and by all means, remove that bracelet.
1 batch Cream Cheese Dough (below)
1 batch Apple Filling (below)
6 oz almond filling (available in supermarkets, canned)
1/2 cup sliced almonds
cinnamon and sugar, for sprinkling
1. Make one recipe of Cream Cheese Dough, below. Flatten into a smooth oval shape, wrap in plastic and chill until ready to use.
2. While dough chills, make Apple Filling, below. Set apples aside to cool while you roll dough.
3. Preheat oven to 375 F.
4. Roll & Assemble the Braid: remove Cream Cheese Dough from refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to approximately 1/4″ thickness and roll to a large, flat oval shape, about 8-9 ” wide and as long as your cookie sheet, 17″ or more. Transfer dough to ungreased cookie sheet, allowing “overhang” off the edges at either end. Trim away any excess dough and refrigerate for other use (like…dough snacks).
Using spoon or offset flat spatula, spread almond filling lengthwise down dough strip, leaving about 2″ bare on either side. Mound cooled apples evenly on top of almond filling.
Using a small sharp knife, slash diagonal lines along both sides of the filled strip. Start with your knife on the inside, closer to the almond filling, and pull the knife out, creating short strips, about 3/4″ wide. Cut short strips along both sides of dough, leaving “overhang ends” uncut and in tact.
Starting at one end, pull each strip toward the center, creating a “V” with each pair, loosely pinching together in the middle. Continuing pulling and pairing strips all the way down, until filling is covered and you have a “braid.” Sprinkle finished, unbaked braid thickly with cinnamon-sugar mixture and sliced almonds.
5. Bake: place braid in lower third of oven and bake for approximately 35 minutes, until golden brown. Bake another 10 minutes on top rack of oven, until almonds are browned but not burnt, pastry is a dark golden brown and fruit juices begin to bubble. Remove from oven and cool.
To serve, lightly sift powdered sugar over whole braid. Serve slices warm, if desired, with vanilla ice cream.
serves 10 – 15
Cream Cheese Dough
8 oz cream cheese, cold
8 oz unsalted butter, cold
2 cups all-purpose flour
Place flour and salt in food processor and process a few seconds, to blend. Chunk butter and cream cheese in pieces over flour, then process, using on-off motion, until dough just forms a ball. Turn out onto floured surface and knead lightly into a smooth mass. Wrap with plastic and chill until ready to use. Rolls best when cold but still pliable, on a lightly floured surface.
5 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and thick-sliced
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons corn starch
4 tablespoons water
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
Using a large and preferably non-stick frying pan, saute apples over medium-high heat with sugar and water, shaking pan occasionally, until just golden, browning and slightly sticky. Turn apples with heatproof spoon or spatula for even color. Cook until soft but not mush – watch carefully and do not burn. Reduce heat to low.
In small bowl, mix water and cornstarch to combine. Over low heat, add corn starch mixture to apples, stirring and shaking to thicken and distribute evenly. When done, apples should appear golden, glistening and still in soft slices. If too thick and pasty – i.e., white chunks of cornstarch appear – add a bit more water as necessary, turning to combine. Turn off heat, sprinkle with cinnamon and toss to distribute.
Remove apples from stove and cool until just safe to handle. Spread on cutting board and lightly chop, making large chunks. Set apples aside to cool before using as filling.