Cinnamon swirl bread always feels like a special treat. It did when I was five and it still does now. I like to toast it and peel the layers away one at a time. Nothing compares to that last buttery bite from the very middle.
I'm a big fan of raisins, so I always throw a healthy handful into my cinnamon swirl bread. I also find that they stay in the loaf better when kneaded directly into the dough. You can nix the raisins if you don't like them or add them along with the cinnamon-sugar before rolling up the loaves if you like it better that way.
Speaking of rolling up the dough, I picked up a trick a while back from King Arthur Flour to help prevent big gaps from forming between the layers during baking. Instead of brushing the dough with butter, brush it with a beaten egg. Where the fat in butter keeps the rolled-up layers separate, the protein in the egg will actually fuse them together. Nifty, huh?!
1 cup (6 oz) raisins 1 cup (8 oz) warm water 1 tablespoon active dry yeast 1 cup (8 oz) milk, whole, 2%, or skim 1/4 cup (2 oz) unsalted butter, melted 2 teaspoons salt 5 1/2 - 6 cups (1 lb 11.5 oz - 1 lb 14 oz) all-purpose flour
Filling: 1/2 cup granulated white sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon 1 large egg beaten with 2 teaspoons warm water
Put the raisins in a small bowl and cover them with hot water. Let the raisins plump for at least 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Pour a cup of water into the bowl of a standing mixer or large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over top. (You can use the water from soaking the raisins for some extra-awesome flavor in your loaves, but just make sure the water has cooled to room temperature.) Give it a few minutes, then stir to fully dissolve the yeast into the water.
Stir the milk, melted butter, and salt into the water. Add 5 1/2 cups of the flour and stir to form a shaggy dough. Knead in your mixer on low speed with a dough hook or knead by hand for 8-10 minutes to form a smooth, slightly tacky dough. Check the dough halfway through; if it's very sticky (think: bubble gum), add a little more flour. The dough is ready when it forms a ball without sagging and quickly springs back when poked.
Toss the raisins with a few tablespoons of flour to absorb any residual moisture from when they were plumped. With the mixer on gradually add them to the bowl and continue kneading until they are evenly distributed.
If kneading by hand, turn the dough out onto your work surface and pat it into an oval. Sprinkled about half the raisins over the top and fold the dough like a letter. Pat it into an oval again, sprinkle the remaining raisins, and fold it again. Knead the dough by hand for a few minutes to distribute the raisins through the dough. (Alternatively, you can reserve the raisins and sprinkle them over the dough along with the cinnamon-sugar.)
Return the dough to the bowl and cover. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about an hour. Meanwhile, combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and beat together the egg and water in a second bowl.
Divide the dough into two pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough out on the counter. It should be slightly less wide than your baking pan and as long as you can make it. The thinner the dough, the more layers of crazy-good cinnamon swirl you'll end up with. If the dough starts to shrink back on you, let it rest for a few minutes and then try again.
Brush the entire surface of the dough with egg wash, leaving about two inches clear at the top. Sprinkle generously with cinnamon and sugar. Starting at the end closest to you, roll up the dough. When you get to the top, pinch the seam closed. Transfer the loaf to your loaf pan seam-side down. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Let the loaves rise until mounded over the top of the pan and pillowy, 30-40 minutes. Halfway through rising, preheat the oven to 375° F.
Brush the top with some of the remaining egg wash. If desired, sprinkle some of your remaining cinnamon-sugar over the tops of the loaves as well. Bake for 40-45 minutes until golden brown.
Remove the loaves from the pans and allow them to cool completely before slicing. Baked loaves can also be frozen for up to three months.