The teachers out there will give me an amen when I say that during those last few days, you fight a losing battle for your students' attention. My middle schoolers and I work until the last minute -- reflecting on how their writing has grown over the course of the year, finishing up our last novel -- but there's always a current of near-hysteria that runs through the classroom at the end of the year. I start to feel like I'm trying to hold back a tidal wave with a beach towel. At any given moment, they're about to lose their little minds entirely and start surfing on the tables.
When I realize we've reached this point, the turning of the tide of sanity, I start pining for summer myself. Up until then, everything is a flurry of urgent business: grading projects, writing emails, blogging, creating curriculum. There's barely a second to let the idea of vacation sink in. But finally, staring into a dozen sets of half-crazed student eyeballs, I see the bright summer sunshine at the end of the tunnel.
This year, I had the presence of mind to make a summer to-do list. It includes all of the mundane tasks I neglected while being a teacher 24/7 during the school year: clean under the bed, clean out the closet, reorganize the bookshelf. It contains resolutions reminiscent of New Year's: join the Y, start exercising regularly, figure out summer meal plan. It contains techy bloggy things: move to self-hosting, spruce up Willow Bird Baking. But something's missing.
Know how I know? I recently re-read my Raspberry Almond Braid post from over a year ago as I was preparing to create this Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid. When I wrote that post of yesteryear, I was on spring break and gushy about how much I loved the freedom. I listed 20 things I was enjoying, including things like running through the grass, playing fetch with Byrd, and reading. Oh, yeah. Things that are totally absent from what I've come to realize is my summer chore list.
Don't worry, I'm going to fix it. In fact, it's only been summer vacation for one day now, but I've already read a book: the first of the Hunger Games series my students have been recommending to me. I've already done a mini craft project (a card for a friend that turned out wonky but hopefully lovable). I've already baked something. I've already taken a nap. So far, so good!
Apart from helping me realize the error of my summer ways, this Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid was also the perfect restful recipe: though the process is as simple as can be, the result looks and tastes phenomenal. The flaky, tender almond pastry surrounds a cream cheese filling in addition to the blueberry preserves, making this one of my new favorite things to eat. It'll definitely get a heart on the WBB Recipe Index. You have to make it as soon as you can -- and then hopefully you can find the time for a summer nap in a lawn chair somewhere. What are your family's summertime plans?
Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid
Recipe by: Adapted from Luna Cafe Yields: 10-12 1-in. slivers of braid, or about 4 servings
Dough and Filling Ingredients: 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup unsalted butter 3 ounces best quality cream cheese 1/2 cup milk, minus 1/2 teaspoon 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1/2 cup blueberry preserves (or your favorite preserves)
Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients: 8 ounces (227 grams) cream cheese, room temperature 1/4 cup granulated white sugar 1 large egg 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Icing Ingrdients: 1/2 cup powdered sugar 1 tablespoon milk 1/8 teaspoon vanilla 1/8 teaspoon almond extract 2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds (optional)
Directions: NOTE: To prepare this braid in advance, complete all steps and assemble the braid but do not bake. Cover the braid on its parchment lined baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Set out in the morning as you preheat the oven and then bake as usual.
Make the cream cheese filling. In your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the 8 ounces of room temperature cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar, egg, and vanilla extract and beat until creamy and smooth. Set aside while you make your braid.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture and pulse to cut the fat into the flour (about 6 pulses). Add the milk and almond extract and blend into a loose dough.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead VERY LIGHTLY for 4-5 strokes. (NOTE: This is the step at which you can ruin the braid. If you overwork the dough, the pastry will be tough. Just gather the dough together and don’t worry about making it smooth. It will still look a little rough. That’s perfect.)
Between two sheets of waxed paper, roll the dough to an 8- by 12-inch rectangle. Turn dough out onto a lightly greased baking sheet and remove the waxed paper. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Spread preserves down the middle third of the dough and spread a thick line of the cream cheese mixture on either side of the preserves (still remaining in the middle third of the dough -- try to keep your filling about ½ inch from the mark on both sides.)
Make 2¾-inch slight diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides (see photos below). Do not cut into the center jam-filled area. Fold strips, first one from one side and then one from the other side in a rotating fashion, over the filling. It will now resemble a braid. Bake in a 425° oven for 12-15 minutes, until the dough is cooked through and the top is lightly browned.
In a small glass measuring cup with a pouring spout, combine the sugar, milk, vanilla, and almond extract. Drizzle over the top of the braid. If desired, sprinkle on the toasted sliced almonds while the icing is still wet. Serve warm.
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