How to Make Zopf…

April 5, 2008
by Jack McNulty
How to Make Zopf…

Let me start by saying, I am a border-line zopf addict.

I’m not referring to the zopf everyone can regularly buy in most store locations throughout the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, although freshly baked store-bought zopf is not bad. No, I’m referring to the real thing.

I crave that taste of real butter and full fat milk in genuine zopf. I marvel at the light and airy texture. I become utterly intoxicated whenever the aromas gently waft out of the kitchen. I drift with those aromas and begin to visualize soaking up the last bits of olive oil infused with tomatoes and mozzarella, or slathering marmalade on lightly toasted zopf…

Oops…sorry about that divergence. I suppose I should write a bit about zopf and how it’s made.

Classic zopf is a bread braided in a very specific manner to give it a unique shape (the word zopf actually means braid). It is a simple bread enriched with high proportions of milk and butter, which played an important historical role. Zopf was traditionally made on Friday and consumed on Sunday. To prevent the bread from becoming stale large amounts of fat were incorporated into an otherwise basic bread dough, and voila…a bread that stayed fresh for several days.

Zopf is not uniquely Swiss, although the tradition has survived since the mid-fifteenth century. The origin of the bread is a bit hazy, but it is not too difficult to imagine that zopf came from the widely-known Jewish Challah bread (or Hallah), which is virtually identical in its make-up but often braided differently. Challah bread was known throughout Austria and Southern Germany shortly before zopf emerged in Switzerland. The Jewish tradition of making and consuming the bread was also quite similar to the Swiss custom. The dough was formed on Thursday evening, baked on Friday morning and usually consumed Saturday night or Sunday morning.

The shape of the bread is filled with symbolism. Some say the braid represents intertwining arms and symbolize love. Others have a more biblical reference, saying the twelve humps from the braid represent the twelve original tribes of Israel. According to Swiss lore, some believe the shape grew out of the old custom of widows cutting off their braid to bury with their husband.  Over time, the braid was replaced with a fresh loaf of zopf.

Today’s zopf is mostly mass-produced and made without the use of butter or fresh milk. Instead, most commercial zopf is made with milk solids, aroma and plenty of hydrogenated fat (not exactly our idea of a fresh alternative).  But as it turns out, making your own zopf at home is not too difficult.

Have a look at our video to see how it’s done…

Our Zopf Recipe…

1 kg. Zopfmehl
1 Tbl. sea salt
1 Tbl. sugar
6 dl. milk
150 gr. butter, melted
30 gr. fresh yeast
one egg yolk mixed with 2 spoons of milk

yield: 4 loaves weighing about 400 grams each, or 2 loaves weighing in at about 800 grams each

Before you try making your own zopf, we think it is a good idea to understand the importance of each component and why we are careful in choosing specific ingredients.

The Flour: Zopf is traditionally made with a special type of flour called Zopfmehl. It is readily available throughout Switzerland. This type of flour is mostly a mixture of all-purpose white flour and white spelt (gr. Dinkel). It is especially well-suited for fat-filled doughs, because the increased amounts of protein from the spelt will improve the dough’s elasticity and help hold the shape while keeping a soft texture. If you do not have access to zopfmehl, then try making your own mixture by combining about 15% bread flour with 85% all-purpose flour.

The Fresh Yeast: We use fresh compressed yeast in our zopf recipe. Dry yeast can be substituted by using 40% of the fresh yeast’s weight (I’ll do the math for you…that would be 12 grams of dry active yeast in place of 30 grams fresh yeast). You will need a bit more time to develop the sponge if you are using dry yeast.

The Milk: We like using full fat milk in our bread recipe, which contributes to the texture, flavor, crust color, and keeping qualities. Using low fat or non-fat milk will produce lighter colored breads, which are slightly more dense.

The Butter: Butter is about 80% fat, which is very important for a good zopf. Fats tenderize and soften the texture of a dough, while adding flavor, richness and keeping qualities. We prefer using unsalted butter in our recipe, because it has a fresher and sweeter flavor when compared to salted butter. If you want to use salted butter, then make sure to reduce the amount of salt you use in the recipe. We don’t recommend the use of margarine or other types of shortening to produce zopf…we just think these fats defeat the purpose of making your own zopf.

The Salt & Sugar: Salt plays a very important role in baking. It is more than just a seasoning or flavor enhancer…it also strengthens the structure of the dough and improves the texture of the bread. Salt will also inhibit yeast activity, so never add salt directly to the liquid in which the yeast is softened. The addition of sugar will add sweetness and flavor to the dough, as well as creating a soft texture. Sugar helps yeast to ferment and retains moisture in the finished bread.

Ok, let’s get started…

Steps in Making Your Own Zopf

The first step is to create a sponge (the common term used by bakers). This step is important because it gives the yeast a head start…and it allows you to check to see if the yeast is in fact alive and well. Place the yeast in a small bowl and break it up a bit with your fingers. Add the sugar to the yeast, then add about 1 dl. of the warmed milk and mix slightly (make sure the milk is not over 40° C or you will kill the yeast). Place the flour into a large bowl and sprinkle the salt around the edges. Form a well in the middle, then add the sponge mixture, making sure to blend in a small amount of flour with the sponge. Let the mixture sit for about 10-15 minutes in a warm location to allow the sponge to develop. You will notice bubbles forming as the fermentation process gets going, and the sponge looks like…well…a sponge. You are now ready to begin mixing and kneading the dough.

Melt the butter and add it to the remaining milk (remember…keep the milk mixture warm, but not over 40° C). Mix the dough well in the bowl, then place it onto a clean work surface and begin kneading. You should knead the dough for about 10-12 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, soft and slightly moist to the touch. Place the kneaded dough in a clean bowl, lightly coat the top of the dough with oil, then cover with a clean towel and allow the dough to rise for about one hour in a warm location. The fermentation process is complete when the dough has doubled in volume. A dent will remain or fill very slowly after you press lightly into the top of the dough. If the dough springs back, fermentation is not complete. Once the fermentation process is complete, you are ready to begin rolling and braiding the bread.

Begin by splitting the dough into four equal parts if you want to make two larger breads or alternatively, split the dough into eight equal parts if you would prefer making four smaller loaves. One loaf requires two equal parts, so we will begin there.

Roll two of your portions into a long log shape (the video demonstrates an effective and simple method to rolling out the dough…even though most professional bakers would…hmm…mock our simplified approach). You are now ready to braid the bread.

Braiding is often the most difficult part of learning how to make zopf, but once you get the hang of it…well, it’s actually not that difficult. Place the logs in a wide ‘X’ shape in front of you. Pick-up the furthest end of the bottom log and bring it towards you, placing it between the bottom portion of the ‘X’ shape. Place the other end of the same log over the top to form a new ‘X’ shape. Next, pick-up the furthest end of the second log and again bring it towards you, placing it in the middle of the bottom portion of the ‘X’ shape as before. Place the other end of the same log over the top, and continue with this same process until the braid is completed. When you get to the bottom, just gather the loose ends together and tuck them under the braid. When you’ve finished one bread…well, go ahead and make the remaining breads. Simple…right?

Allow the braided zopf to rest for about 30 minutes. Make sure to keep the bread covered with a clean towel during the resting period. Meanwhile, go ahead and prepare the egg wash, which can be prepared in a number of ways. You can simply use one whole egg, or combine an egg with a bit of milk or sugar. Our preference is to use an egg yolk mixed with two spoons of milk, which we think produces a nice dark crust.

Bake the bread on a baking tray lined with parchment paper in a pre-heated 200° C oven (if you are using a convection oven, then reduce the heat to 180° C). Allow about 45-50 minutes for larger loaves and about 35-40 minutes for smaller loaves. Cool completely on a rack before slicing…if you can wait that long!

Tip: Zopf freezes very well…but, there is a trick. Don’t bake the bread entirely, but rather remove it from the oven after 20 minutes of baking and cool the bread completely. Place the half-baked zopf in a plastic freezer bag, seal tightly and freeze. To finish baking, simply place the frozen zopf directly in a cold oven, turn the temperature to 200° C and bake for exactly 20 minutes. Cool slightly before slicing and enjoy! You can keep frozen zopf in the freezer for up to six months.

än guete…