This double-braided bread, studded with nuts, raisins and dried fruits, is made by Czech families around the world during the holidays. Anna Trochta of Cudahy, Wisconsin, always bakes several loaves for Christmas dinner and to give as gifts for her grown kids.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast and 2 cups of flour. Heat the milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan until very hot. Remove from heat then add the butter. Stir to melt the butter and continue stirring until the mixture reaches a temperature of 120 to 130 degrees. Mix with the flour to make a batter the consistency of cooked oatmeal.
Add the beaten egg and continue mixing until combined. Gradually add 2 more cups of flour, one cup at a time, to make a soft dough.
Lightly flour a surface with some of the remaining cup of flour. Turn the dough out onto it and knead, adding only enough of the extra flour to make a soft dough (about 1/2 cup). Avoid making it stiff. The dough is ready when it is smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place the dough in a buttered bowl and flip it so the top is greased. Cover with a clean dishcloth, and let it rest in a warm, draft-free place for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, clean and re-flour your work surface. Turn the dough out and flatten it into a disk. Sprinkle some of the nuts (except the almonds for topping), raisins and fruits over the dough, fold the dough to cover, and press with the heels of your hands. Repeat until all the dry ingredients are incorporated (about 2 minutes).
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. To braid the dough, divide it into two balls, one about two thirds larger than the other (about the sizes of a baseball and a small cantaloupe) Cut the larger piece into three equal pieces and roll each into a 12-inch rope. Line them up next to each other and braid, pinching the ends. Transfer the braid to a greased baking sheet.
Cut the remaining dough into two pieces and roll each into a 10-inch rope. Twist them together, pinching the ends, and place on top of the first braid. Cover with a clean, damp dishcloth and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 20 to 40 minutes.
In a small bowl, beat the egg with the water and brush over the loaf. Sprinkle the almonds on top, if desired. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes (check the bread after 20 minutes and cover it with foil if it's getting too brown) or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom or an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 190 degrees. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 1 large loaf.
Check the loaf after 25 minutes. If it's too brown, cover with foil. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 1 large loaf or 2 small loaves.
Kids' Steps: This recipe is an excellent introduction to ethnic artisan holiday breads. Your kids will enjoy helping you make and braid the soft dough, and designing their own creations.