Switzerland has the best bread in the World. There, I’ve said it. Switzerland gets credit for doing a lot of things well, like chocolate, cheese, watches, and efficient transportation. But they don’t get enough credit for their bread. As a former baker, and long-time admirer of Swiss bread, I think it’s time we drew some attention to this.
France has great bread – brioche and croissants among them. But it’s heavy, full of butter, maybe not what you’d eat every day. Baguettes are fantastic, as long as you are planning to eat them in the next couple hours. Germans have great bread too, with hearty, whole-grained loaves with crusty crusts. But if I’m being honest, it’s maybe a bit too hearty, and you can hurt yourself on those crust shards if you’re not careful. Italy has a reputation for good bread, and I love a good ciabatta as much as the next guy, but in my experience, bread in Italy just doesn’t live up to the reputation. Too airy, too dry.
Switzerland puts it all together. They have rich, buttery Zopf – akin to challah and great when cut into thick slices with butter and jam. Their hearty grain breads are just as good. Crusty but with a dense moist crumb, and not quite so dark as their German cousins, a good Swiss loaf will taste great for days. The modest Ruchbrot is made from a kind of hybrid flour, not quite whole grain, but most of it, with some bran. Hirtenbrot, or “shepherd’s bread”, made with buckwheat, is fabulous, with a little lighter flavor but some seeds and a nice crust.
Then there are the pastries. Their croissants are flaky, but denser than french croissants and with a satisfying crunch on the edges. The sweet, hazelnut-filled Nussgipfel are always a treat. And don’t forget their nice little hard rolls, Semmeli, kind of like a fist-sized baguette, that are perfect for a small hiking sandwich.
If you’re in Switzerland, you should enjoy all of these, maybe from the breakfast buffet at your hotel (like this beautiful example in Zermatt) or stopping at a bakery for lunch supplies (always at a bakery instead of the store if possible… it’s just a little bit better). But if you want to bring a little of the Alps home, perhaps one of the easiest and most impressive bake-at-home bread is Butterzopf, traditionally eaten on Sundays.
4 cups bread flour (All-purpose flour is ok if you must, but bread flour has more gluten and makes a better loaf. You can also buy gluten flour separately, and add 2-3 Tbsp to your all-purpose flour)
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp dry yeast (1 packet)
1 teaspoon sugar
5 Tbsp butter, melted
1 cup + 2 Tbsp milk (more or less)
1 egg mixed with 1 Tbsp milk or water to brush on the dough
- Melt the butter and add milk. Mixture should be lukewarm, like what you might give to a baby
- Add yeast and sugar, stir to dissolve
- Add flour and salt to a mixer with a bread hook, start the mixer and add most of the milk. You’ll mix on low speed for 10-15 minutes.
You’ll probably need a bit more than a cup of milk, but it may be more or less, depending on your flour and measurements. Use your judgement, be confident, you know what bread dough looks like. Don’t make it so soft that it won’t hold it’s shape, don’t make it too stiff to easily knead. Zopf dough is on the stiff side. If you don’t have a mixer, you can mix with a heavy wooden spoon and then knead on a floured surface for 15 minutes.
- Cover the bowl with plastic and let it rise for 1-2 hours at room temp.
Some time for the dough to rise is not critical, but it is important. As it sits, the yeast does its work and gives the bread more flavor. And the gluten, which binds the bread together and makes it different from, say, a scone, will develop stronger bonds as it sits.
- Cut the dough in half, roll into about 2 ft long lengths and braid (you can braid it anyway you like, but Helvetic Kitchen has an easy video showing a traditional Zopf braid).
- Place on a baking sheet with baking paper or oiled, so it won’t stick.
- Thin down one beaten egg with a little milk or water, and brush it liberally over the dough.
At this point, you can wrap it and keep it overnight in the fridge. It will rise some, but slowly, and you’ll need to let it warm up to room temperature for an hour or more before baking.
- Set oven to 400°, let the braided loaf rise for 20-30 minutes (you have lots of leeway here)
- Bake about 30 minutes until deep golden brown.
Get some good butter and a nice aged cheese or a high quality jam and eat it warm. En guete! (That means bon appetit!)