We have been having a very nice week off work at home, though as ever when one staycations, we have done a little too much round the house clearing out the dust from the building work and catching up on the garden. I may have also taken on a little too much when committing to my Easter baking marathon.
For my fifth bake I couldn’t resist these little fellows. We have a bit of a thing for hares (as you can see below) and something like this was a specific request from the husband who, like me, has a sentimental streak as wide as a mile which is one of his many endearing qualities. Also we were having our new neighbours Kevin and Birgit over for dinner and as Birgit’s parents come from Hamburg, I thought these cute plaited bunny rolls would be rather appropriate.
Why appropriate? Yes you have guessed it, I am in Germany again which is where the Easter Bunny (or rather the Osterhase) started life, from where he was taken to America by Lutheran emigrants to Pennsylvania, and then onto the rest of the world. The first written reference of the tradition dates from the 17th Century by Georg Frank von Franckenau in De Ovis Paschalibus (About Easter Eggs), where he tells of a tradition in North Western Germany and Alsace where children were told of the Easter Bunny that hid eggs in the garden over Easter for them to go and find. In its way this is an Easter version of Santa Claus, another German tradition that has gone across the world.
There is a completely unfounded reference in the 19th Century by Jacob Grimm that the Easter bunny tradition came about because the hare was the companion of Eostre, the Anglo saxon goddess of dawn that only the British and Germans name this time of the year after. However this is completely dismissed by most experts even though it has gained massive traction across the internet. Outside of Grimm there is absolutely no reference to Eostre and her Hare and the early Christian church would not have allowed pagan practices to continue unless they had already co-opted them. That being said, Medieval Christianity did use hares as a symbol of the Virgin Mary because it was believed hares were hermaphodite and reproduced without breeding, but this stems from theories first expounded in classical literature than Saxon goddesses and was not specific to Easter.
The most likely explanation I have found is that what came first was the Easter egg hunt. Children running through the fields hunting for eggs disturbed rabbits and hares who were seen running away from where the eggs were hidden. The adults then created the story that it was the rabbits and hares that hid the eggs, rather than the adults themselves. I think this is much more plausible and rather sweet.
Whatever is the truth, what we have now is a fun and cute tradition involving rabbits made from chocolate (who can resist those Lindt Chocolate bunnies that come in so many sizes), and in Germany (and now in Suffolk) bunnies made from bread, biscuit and sponge. If you google “Osterhasen backed” as I did, you come across some fine examples, and I jumped for the one on Sara Hindrichs’s blog Zeitlos-Brot (Timeless Bread) which will be much visited by me over the next few months.
This bake is just fun and will bring a smile to the faces of adults and children (it certainly did to Birgit and the beloved’s). The plaiting is a little tricky and having some bread experience will help you through, but even without a lot of experience give it a go. If nothing else, working through the plaiting will remind you of playing with play-doh as a child (though without that delightful play-doh smell).
So here are some pointers about this bake that you should watch out for .
- Plaiting requires a stiffer dough than normal bread (for the technical among you we are down to 62% hydration). The stiffer dough means that the individual strands stay distinct in the finished bread, otherwise they just merge together.
- You start the dough with cold milk and cold eggs, completely counter to normal baking rules as again it makes the rolling and plaiting easier. Indeed my baking bible advocates making the dough the night before, and then leaving it the fridge overnight to prove, before starting the plait the next morning. In this recipe however there is no first prove to deliberately reduce the yeast activity levels.
- When rolling out your plait strands, make sure your work surface is completely clean of flour otherwise the strands will just slide around the work top.
- When rolling into strands, start in the middle and work out keeping your hands slightly turned in (the index fingers should touch when you start). If one bit gets too thin then don’t roll there any more, just focus on the wider parts.
- There are 3 different knots (or plaits) shown here – a Vienna Knot, a String Plait and a simple knot. Try all 3 and see which one you like the best.
- I made 4 of these bunnies from the quantity and they were about 6″ (15 cm) long . If you want smaller, simply divide the dough into 6 or 8 portions for each bunny and reduce the cooking time – but beware as smaller plaits are harder to work with. Sara has a very useful video on youtube of what to do and I have tried to represent it in photos which is not quite as easy to follow.
- 500 g white bread flour
- 7g (1 sachet) dried yeast
- 50 g softened unsalted butter
- 55 g caster sugar
- 7 g salt
- 1 egg
- 210 g cold full fat milk
- 1 additional egg for brushing
- 3/4 flaked almonds (to make the teeth)
- currants (to make the eyes)
Making the dough
- line a couple of baking sheets with baking parchment
- heat your oven to 190C / 170C fan
- combine all your ingredients and knead to a pliable dough
- you will need to knead for about 10 minutes until the dough stretches to a thin window without braking
- don’t be alarmed at how stiff the dough is
- cut off a small piece of dough about 1 inch square and set aside in the fridge (you will use this to make the noses)
- divide the remaining dough into equal parts – 4 or 6 is my recommendation and use scales to get them the same size
- set aside the balls you are not using in the fridge, covered so they don’t dry out
- make your rabbits (see below)
- whisk your additional egg until smooth
- brush your rabbits with the egg
- prove under a damp cloth (or in a plastic bin bag – my preferred method) for about 1 hour (they should have increased in size by about 85%)
- just before the bake, brush your rabbits with the egg again
- bake for 15 – 25 minutes depending on their size
Creating the rabbits
The rabbits are made in 9 stages
- divide the dough and roll out the pieces
- make the head
- make the body
- make the legs (skip this stage for the laying down rabbit)
- brush with egg
- form the nose from 3 tiny balls
- make the tooth using a small slice of flaked almond
- brush the nose and tooth with egg
Dividing the dough for the stood up rabbits
- divide your ball into 2 halves
- take one half and divide again into two even parts (this is for the body)
- roll these into 2 strands about 30cm long depending on the size of your rabbits
- take the other half and divide again this time unevenly – 2/3rd (which you will use for the ears) and 1/3rd (which you will use for the legs)
- roll these into 2 short cylinders of the same circumference
Dividing the dough for the laying down rabbits
- divide you ball into 2 uneven parts – 2/3rds (fro the body) and 1/3rd for the head)
- take the larger half and split in 2
- roll these into 2 strands about 40cm long depending on the size of your rabbits
- take the smaller half and roll into a short cylinder
To make the head and ears (applies to both sorts)
- take your larger cylinder and roll it from about 1/3rd in to form the shape you can see below.
- using scissors cut the thin end down to the head
- at the bottom of the head press a small flattened lip (the body will go on top of this later)
- place the head on a baking sheet and arrange the ears to your fancy
Make the Body
- look at the different plaits below for how to make the different bodies
- brush the lip end of the head that you have lying on the baking sheet
- place the body over the moistened lip and gently press together taking care not to distort the shape
To make the legs (stood up rabbits only)
- take your smaller cylinder
- press down in the middle
- roll until the middle is very thinned you have 2 bulbous legs
- moisten the flatten strip with egg wash
- place the legs under body
Making the nose and eyes
- press 2 currants into the dough to form the eyes – push these in well
- form 3 small balls – 1 larger than the other 2
- arrange on face to form a nose
- cut a small sliver of flaked almond
- tuck under the nose
- brush with egg
Take a look at Sara’s video. I have tried to recreate each one as much as possible in photos
The Vienna knot (the hardest)
Please note at the end you roll up the plait onto a small ball
The String Plait (easier)
For the Knot (easiest)