All bakers have at least one dough that’s a versatile, indispensable element of their repertoire. Call it the pastry equivalent of the Little Black Dress: a faithful classic that you can dress up all sorts of ways and is appropriate for any occasion. This sweet dough is like that for me. From one basic recipe, I make three delicious and totally different sweet breads. German Butter Cake, Russian Chocolate Braid, and Cinnamon Chrysanthemums all use the same dough, but because each is shaped and finished differently (the sheet cake with butter, sour cream, and sugar; the braid with pastry cream and chocolate chips; the mums with cinnamon sugar), I get three unique results, all just rich and sweet enough for morning coffee, afternoon tea, or weekend brunch.
You can even decide at the last minute which of these sweet breads to make: the dough can sit in the fridge for up to four days before shaping and baking.
All-purpose flour gives a light, tender crumb
For a flavorful, tender result, these breads need a light, silky dough. So, a few details are quite important.
Use all-purpose flour with a protein content of around 10% (the nutritional information will declare 3 grams of protein per 29 to 30 grams of flour). Bread flour, whose protein content is around 12% (4 grams of protein per 30 grams of flour), absorbs more liquid and produces a sweet bread that’s tougher, with more volume and less flavor.
Add moisture with a mashed potato. You’ll add it to the dough during the initial mix. If you’ve never run across this Old World touch—which I learned from my grandmother-in-law—it might seem strange, but in addition to giving a moister texture and helping the dough stay fresh longer, it heightens flavor. The sour cream helps, too, adding tang.
Knead both with the food processor and by hand, processing the dough for thirty seconds to a minute and then kneading it on the countertop for half a minute. You’ll repeat this two-step kneading a couple of times. I like to do it this way so the dough can go for a good run in the food processor and then cool off with a brief hand-kneading spell on the counter. You’ll get a better-developed dough and a loftier finished result, with less work. If you don’t have a food processor with at least a seven-cup capacity and a strong motor, you can knead the dough completely by hand; it just requires a few more minutes.
Knead the dough almost to completion before adding the salt, sugar, and butter. Gluten is the bubble-trapping protein found in wheat doughs that allows leavened bread to rise; kneading bread dough helps the gluten bond and form a strong elastic network. Sugar, butter, and salt interfere with gluten network formation. So, by holding off on adding these ingredients and letting the gluten develop optimally, the final bread will be much lighter and higher rising.
Mix the dough ahead and tuck it in the fridge. It will be fine there for up to four days. Three or four hours before you plan to shape and bake, take it out of the fridge: the final fermentation can take place as the dough comes to room temperature. The extended stay in the fridge helps add flavor nuances to the finished bread, too, but don’t let the dough sit longer than four days, or it will overferment (it won’t rise as well, and it may take on off flavors and a grayish cast).