Probably one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is make bread. To me something very miraculous happens when flour, water and yeast come together as dough and then as bread or rolls or pizza and more.
At Christmastime I make a lot of yeasted breads, both sweet and savory but my most requested bread is for little bears made with a simple sweet dough. Each one is shaped by hand and when they are all baked, they each have their own individual look and personality. I dress them up with holiday ribbons around their necks and cluster them together in a beautiful Christmas basket, and they are always part of my holiday table. One year my mother was so intrigued with them that she made them for a dinner party to which she invited her parish priest. Each place setting had a bow bedecked bear. The guests loved them and thought them too pretty to eat so they took them home. The next day the parish priest called not to say how great the food was, but that he had forgotten his bear! The tradition lives on.
In a saucepan warm the milk to 100°F. Pour the milk into a bowl and sprinkle on the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar and stir to blend. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand for about 10 minutes, until the yeast is foamy.
In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or in a large bowl, if you are doing this by hand, mix 5 cups flour, the salt, and the remaining sugar together. Add the butter and mix it into the flour mixture. Slowly add the yeast mixture, and mix on medium speed or by hand until a ball of dough is formed, adding additional flour only if the dough is very sticky. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes.
Lightly butter a bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Grease two cookie sheets. Punch down the dough and divide it into 24 equal pieces. Use 4 pieces for each bear: Roll 3 pieces of dough into balls about 2 inches in diameter. Place the balls of dough together in a line on one of the cookie sheets, as if making a snowman: One for the head, one for the upper body, and one for the lower body. Divide the fourth piece of dough into 7 pieces for the ears, nose, feet, and hands, and attach to the bear. Repeat with the remaining dough, placing the bears 3 inches apart on the sheets. Cover with a towel and let rise for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Insert raisins or currants into the heads for the bears' eyes. Brush the bears with the egg wash and sprinkle the bodies with the coarse sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool on wire racks, then tie ribbons around the necks.
Note: You can make more bears by using smaller pieces of dough. These freeze beautifully and can be made 2 to 3 weeks ahead. Wrap them individually in foil and place in freezer bags (add the ribbons after thawing).
©2009 Mary Ann Esposito, author of Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites: Quick and Delicious Recipes from an Italian Kitchen
Mary Ann Esposito, author of Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites: Quick and Delicious Recipes from an Italian Kitchen, is the creator and host of the long-running PBS series Ciao Italia, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2010. She is the author of eleven successful cookbooks, including Ciao Italia Slow and Easy and Ciao Italia Pronto! She lives in Durham, New Hampshire.
For more information, please visit www.CiaoItalia.com.