Today is "Nerdy Day" at Woodlawn, the school where I work. All of my students are sporting taped glasses, suspenders, pants hitched up to their eyeballs, pocket protectors, and bow ties. They asked me why I didn't dress up and I replied honestly, "What do you mean? I did."
I don't need a pocket protector to dress like a nerd. I'm naturally a nerd, through and through. Like I told my students: I love to read. I love to write. I love technology. I love obscure art. I love learning. I write essays for fun. I annotate the books I read in my spare time. I often ruminate on literary theory, politics, and feminism. I was born a nerd and I'll die a nerd. Amen.
Such was my nerdiness as a child that I detested the outdoors and was a bit of a cave-dweller. Have you ever met a kid like that? My friends usually wanted to play some wildly active (often destructive) game outdoors: Who can run down this hill the fastest, completely oblivious of oncoming traffic? Who can climb to the very highest, most excruciatingly tenuous limb of this tree? Who wants to tumble pell-mell through snakes and venomous spiders in the woods?
Not me. I was a pale, chubby child who preferred to sit and read in an air-conditioned, artificially lit corner. I always bossily petitioned for an orderly indoor game: a board game, perhaps, or a polite game of snack-eating.
My aversion to the outdoors and to all athletic activity was particularly strong when it came to my dreaded elementary P.E. class. Far from "educating" me on much besides torture and pain, my Physical Education class struck fear deep into the air-conditioned depths of my heart. For one thing, we went outside all the time (much to the glee of most other students). For another, I was a klutz.
I remember standing on a dusty, grassless kickball field one hot day in May. My friend and I were watching the game cynically and whining about our circumstances. First off, we were hot, sweaty, and red-faced. Worse still was the fact that we were almost up to the plate. Unless we got another "out" -- and fast! -- we were going to have to try to kick the ball in front of all of our classmates (including all of the cute boys in class). We'd then have to walk back to the team in shame, enduring their fervent, angry shouts about our athletic ineptitude.
I suggested we try to imagine ourselves jumping into a cool swimming pool. The power of visualization and positive thinking, I noted to my friend, was immense. We both scrunched up our eyes and started to visualize with all our might. One of our teammates kicked the ball into the outfield. We visualized harder. Another teammate kicked the ball even farther. We visualized with all our might. Another teammate kicked the ball into the stratosphere.
We gave up with a sigh, and I walked up to the plate. Lame.
Kickball wasn't the worst, though. The worst activity -- the one that sent chills of absolute terror down my lazy little spine -- was the mile run. What sort of sadist decided to try and make us run an entire mile?
Y'all, I don't care if I were getting chased by a gigantic black bear. I don't care if he were breathing down my neck with bloody bear fangs and breath that smelled of my impending doom. I don't care if he were as hungry as a hippo with razor claws and rabies. If my only hope of salvation were to run a mile, I would plop myself down on a plate and sprinkle some salt and pepper on my head.
I hate running.
As it was, I did get chased, so to speak, by my rabid elementary P.E. teacher. She was fit as a fiddle and always barked encouragement at us from the sidelines as we dragged ourselves around the track. I remember talking to myself out loud (more nerd points?) as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. My monologue went something like this: "If I just keep pushing myself, I'll pass out and probably die. But then at least I'll never have to do the mile run again. In fact, they'll probably ban the mile run from schools everywhere. If I can just run hard enough to pass out, that can be my legacy: eliminating the mile run for the children of the future."
If that seems twisted, you ought to have heard me at home the night before the mile run. I would literally plead with my parents to somehow break my toe. Stomp on it, perhaps? Run over it with the car, maybe? Does that sound drastic?
I figured a broken toe wouldn't be that inconvenient, and it would heal before too long. In the meantime, though, my quality of life would increase a thousandfold as a result of missing the mile run. I lay in the floor and whined when my parents refused. Didn't they realize they were consigning me to pass out in the middle of a gigantic dirt field? Didn't they want to spare me all of my anguish? Didn't they LOVE me?
I may be 27 years old now, and I may have started to appreciate the outdoors, but I still maintain that my fragile constitution was built for reading, writing, and recipes -- not for running. In fact, I'd still prefer an injury to an athletic event. This coming Friday, at the end of Woodlawn's spirit week, there's a faculty vs. students soccer game, and you can imagine my utter terror when I was asked to participate. All of these years thinking I was finally free from that school field . . .
Thankfully, though (I'm so weird), the other day I was stretching and I felt something twist in my knee. My first thought was, "Ow!" followed immediately by, "Ooh, now I don't have to play in the soccer game!" Some things never change.
I'll settle for being a clumsy nerd. Some of my students are geniuses on the soccer field, some are geniuses on horseback, some are geniuses in ballet shoes, some are geniuses on stage. I'll settle for being at home with a book, at home with words, and at home in the kitchen. We all have our talents, right?
In that spirit, I offer you not my soccer savvy (hahahahaha, for which you should be thankful) but my breakfast braid. I couldn't wait to tell you about this recipe! I dreamed about posting this braid the entire time I was baking it, photographing it, transporting it to Raleigh, and eating it with Mike while watching past episodes of Parks and Recreation and drinking lots of milk.
What I most want to emphasize about this recipe is that it's EASY! The first time I made a breakfast braid with this dough, I fell in love. It's the perfect beginning pastry, since it doesn't involve any yeast or rise time, or even much kneading. It's not sticky or stubborn. If you've ever used canned crescent rolls, this dough is a textured a lot like that.
Naturally, in addition to being easy (SO EASY. DID I MENTION HOW EASY?), it was delectable. I call it a breakfast braid, but it's an eat-anytime-you-can-possibly-shove-it-in-your-face braid. It's a mind-blowing combination of flaky pastry, autumn pumpkin, cinnamon and spice, buttery streusel, toasted pecans, and a rich maple brown sugar glaze. I may not be able to kick a soccer ball, but I can make a mean pumpkin braid. That's good enough for me.
Are you nerdy?
Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid with Maple Brown Sugar Glaze
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking. Inspired by The Luna Cafe, with glaze from Caitlin Cooks
Yield: About 4-5 servings of 2 slices each
In this breakfast braid, tender, flaky, almond-scented pastry envelops a delicious pumpkin pie custard topped with buttery cinnamon pecan streusel. An addictive maple brown sugar glaze and toasted pecans top the whole shebang, creating a perfect autumn breakfast (or dessert, or lunch, or dinner...!) This braid looks fancy, but don't be fooled. It's one of the easiest things I make. The dough is lovely to work with -- it doesn't need to rise, barely needs any kneading, and isn't sticky or finicky. I'm always amazed that such gorgeous results can be achieved with such little effort.
Easy Dough Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
3 ounces cream cheese, cold and cut into cubes
1/2 cup milk, minus 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Pumpkin Pie Filling Ingredients:
(this makes a little more filling than you need)
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/8 cup sugar
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/8 teaspoons cinnamon*
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg*
1/4 teaspoon ginger*
1/8 teaspoon allspice*
*You could probably substitute a teaspoon or so of pumpkin pie spices for these.
Pecan Streusel Ingredients:
1/8 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold butter
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Maple Brown Sugar Glaze Ingredients:
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon real maple syrup
3/4 - 1 cup powdered sugar
cinnamon for sprinkling
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.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Make the creamy pumpkin pie filling. In your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy and smooth. Add the pumpkin, egg, and vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice and mix until combined. Set in fridge while you make your braid.
Toast your pecans. Spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for about 6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring about halfway through the cook time. Transfer nuts to a plate to cool. Raise oven temperature to 425 degrees F.
Make your pastry dough. 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 sheet of lightly-floured parchment paper and knead very lightly for just 4-5 strokes (be careful not to overwork the dough or it'll be tough! Don't worry about getting it smooth -- just knead for these few strokes and let it stay a little rough.)
Very lightly flour the top of the dough and place another sheet of parchment paper on top. Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll the dough to an 10- by 12-inch rectangle (I lift the paper off every now and then and flip the dough and repeat on the other side, to ensure the dough isn't sticking). Remove the top sheet of parchment and discard. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Glop your creamy pumpkin pie filling down the middle third of the dough -- try to keep your filling about 1/4 inch from the mark on both sides. I piled it up a bit (not so much that it was overflowing, but plenty!)
Make the streusel topping. Combine the flour and brown sugar in a medium bowl and using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until you have crumbly streusel. Mix in 1/4 cup of toasted pecans (save the rest for decorating the finished braid). Sprinkle streusel over top of pumpkin mixture in center of dough. Really pile it on!
Continue assembling the braid (see photos at the bottom of this recipe, which show the process of marking and assembling a raspberry almond braid, for guidance). Make diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides. Do not cut into the center pumpkin-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. Don't worry if it doesn't completely hide your filling -- it's actually nice when the filling is peeking out. Use the sheet of parchment to carefully transfer your braid to a baking sheet (at this point, you can brush the pastry with a mixture of 1 beaten egg and a teaspoon of water if you want it darker than mine. I didn't bother). Bake in the 425 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, until the dough is cooked through, the pumpkin filling is set, and the top is lightly browned. Let the braid cool slightly while you make your glaze.
Make the Maple Brown Sugar Glaze. Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts, whisk in the brown sugar, syrup, and salt, stirring until the brown sugar melts. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the powdered sugar, starting with 3/4 cup and adding more to thicken per your preference (taste as you go to ensure you don't oversweeten). Drizzle the glaze over the top of your braid. Sprinkle the braid with toasted pecans and a dusting of cinnamon. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container and microwave for about 20 seconds to serve.
Example of how to cut and assemble braid.