Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes the house smell better than sweet holiday loaves just out of the oven. It's a siren call to the kitchen, even for those of us most devoted to sleeping in on a chilly morning.
These lovely loaves are made from a simple overnight dough that gets folded around a sweet cream cheese filling — essentially, cheese danishes in the form of a sliceable, shareable breakfast bread. One batch makes six loaves — that's one for you and plenty to share with friends, neighbors, teachers, bus drivers, and anyone who deserves a little thank-you gift this time of year.
In my family, we call these tender little loaves Cream Cheese Braids, not because they're actually braided, but for the hatch marks made in the top just before baking — let's call 'em fake braids. 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. The braids also freeze well, so you can always have a few on hand for emergency gifts.
For 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, making the filling and rolling the loaves 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.
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.
Recipe Tester's Notes
These loaves really are just as fabulous as Elizabeth and her mom promise them to be. The cream cheese filling bakes into the bread, making creamy pockets in each bite — very much like a cheese danish.
One thing to note is that these loaves are quite small, which is intentional. They're about the size of thick breadsticks or half-baguettes, and each slice is just a few bites. They're so rich, a few bites is really all you want! It's the kind of sweet treat that goes fantastically with a cup of very dark coffee — put the loaf in the middle of the table and let everyone cut themselves slices as the lazy morning carries on. If it lasts until lunch, I'll be surprised.
Elizabeth's original recipe was fairly sparse on details, so I've added in a lot more direction for rolling and shaping the loaves — while hopefully still staying true to her mom's version! I have to admit that I don't think the "braid" hatch marks add much, especially since they are covered with the glaze; I usually skip this step and I leave it as "optional" below. I'll also note that this recipe doubles well, so feel free to do so if you have extra people on your gift list.
For the dough: 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup sour cream
2 large eggs, beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
For the filling: 1 pound cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the glaze: 1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat or in the microwave in 30-second intervals. Stir in the sugar and salt to form a thick paste and partially dissolve the sugar.
In the bowl of a standing mixer, sprinkle yeast over the warm water. Stir until dissolved. Add the butter-sugar mixture, sour cream, eggs, and flour. Stir a few times with a spatula to form a shaggy dough, then knead with a dough hook on medium-low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the dough smooths out and all the flour is incorporated. This won't be quite the consistency of bread dough; it will be more like a thick batter.
Cover the mixing bowl and refrigerate overnight or for up to 24 hours. In the morning, the dough won't be quite doubled, but it should look puffed and risen.
When ready to bake the loaves, remove the cream cheese for the filling from the refrigerator and let it warm on the counter for about 30 minutes. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or nonstick baking mats.
Sprinkle a work surface liberally with flour. Transfer the dough on top, then clean and dry the mixing bowl. To make the filling, combine the softened cream cheese, sugar, egg, salt, and vanilla extract in the bowl of the cleaned mixer and beat until creamy and combined, scraping down the bowl once or twice.
Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces with a pastry scraper or a sharp knife and move them to side of your work surface. Working with one piece of dough at a time, pat the dough into a rough rectangle and sprinkle liberally with flour. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough to a rectangle roughly 12 inches long by 8 inches tall and 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. The dough is easy to roll out, but can be fairly sticky so use extra flour as needed.
Scoop 1/3 cup of the filling mixture and spread it over the dough in a thin layer, leaving a 1-inch border clear on the tops and sides. Carefully roll up the dough starting at the long side on the bottom. If the dough sticks to your work surface, use your pastry scraper or knife to gently scoop it up. Once rolled, transfer the roll to the baking sheet, seam-side down, and tuck the ends underneath. The finished roll will be 9 to 10 inches long.
Continue rolling out each piece of dough, spreading with 1/3 cup of filling, and rolling it up. You should be able to fit 3 rolls on each baking sheet.
Pat the tops of the loaves with a little flour to prevent them from sticking. Cover loosely and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot for about 2 hours. They won't quite double in size, but once risen, the loaves will look and feel pillowy, and they will have warmed to room temperature.
A half-hour before baking, preheat the oven to 375°F with a rack in the top third and bottom third of the oven. If desired, score the tops of the loaves just before baking with a very sharp knife to form a "braid" pattern.
Bake the loaves for 15 to 18 minutes, swapping the trays once during baking. The loaves are done when they are puffed and have turned light golden-brown.
Remove from the oven and let the braids cool until just warm to the touch. Whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla for the glaze and drizzle the glaze over the still-warm loaves. Serve while warm or cool completely for gifting.
To freeze the braids: Place the baking sheet with the cooled and glazed loaves in the freezer, uncovered, until the loaves are frozen and the glaze is hard. Then wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil (or place in a freezer bag). Unwrap and thaw, loosely covered, on the counter overnight before serving.
Jammy Creamy Cheese Loaves: These loaves are also delicious made with jam! Spread a few tablespoons over the rolled-out dough, then spread the filling on top. Roll and bake as usual.
This recipe has been updated. Originally published December 2011.