I'm not exactly sure why these tender little loaves are called braids. In case you're intimidated, don't worry: You don't have to braid anything (there are little slits in the top; let's call 'em fake braids). This is a simple yeast dough folded around a tangy, sweet cream cheese filling that kind of bakes into the bread, making each slice incredibly moist. One batch makes six—and they freeze well, too.
My mom gives these braids as gifts to our neighbors and family friends every year. She figured out early on that the original recipe (which came from Southern Living) could be stretched. It yielded four braids. My mom gets six. Two batches, and you've got a dozen people covered.
For several years, I remember helping her make them, only to find out that every one was spoken for. They'd come out of the oven, and all I'd get was a finger swipe of glaze from the edge of the pan. I'm not sure I knew what an actual cream cheese braid tasted like until after college.
Now, I've got one half-eaten on my countertop, one in the freezer for Christmas morning, and four to hand out to my neighbors. And while you'll need to start these the night before, mixing together the dough takes all of 10 minutes. The next day, it goes quickly. The dough is surprisingly easy to roll out—soft, pliable, and forgiving once you dust it with a little flour. I rolled, filled, baked, and glazed six braids in a little over an hour.
Plus, they're a cinch to freeze (I've given a tip below), so you can make them ahead of time and give as gifts. Just bring to room temperature before eating.
P.S. If you want to wrap them like my mom does, cut some rectangles out of a cardboard box and cover them with aluminum foil. Place each braid on one of these silver slabs, then wrap the whole thing with clear cellophane (so that it doesn't smudge the glaze) and tie with a ribbon.
Cream Cheese "Braids"
For the dough
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 packets active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 eggs, beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
Heat sour cream in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in sugar, salt, and butter. Whisk and continue to warm until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, sprinkle yeast over the warm water. Stir until dissolved. Add sour cream mixture, eggs, and flour. Mix until well combined. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the dough from the refrigerator and continue with the filling.
For the cream cheese filling
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
Mix all of the ingredients together until well combined (this is easy to do in a mixer if you have a spare bowl but not hard to do with a wooden spoon).
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and cut into six equal pieces. Roll one out to a rectangle, about 12 x 8. Spread 1/3 cup of the cream cheese filling onto the center of the rectangle, leaving about a 1- or 2-inch border around the edges. Fold/roll the dough lengthwise, jelly-roll style. Pinch the edges together, fold the ends under, and place, seam-side down, onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with each ball of dough.
Slit each roll diagonally at 2-inch intervals, trying not to cut completely through the dough, to resemble a braid. Cover loosely and let rise about two hours in a warm, draft-free spot.
For the glaze
2 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
Mix the glaze ingredients together in a small bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the braids for 12 minutes, or until light golden brown. Spread with glaze while warm.
To freeze the braids: Place the cookie sheet into the freezer, with the braids uncovered, until they are frozen and the glaze is hard. Then wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil (or place in a freezer bag).
Related: Working with Yeast: Be Not Afraid!
(Images: Elizabeth Passarella)