My mom’s cheddar swirl bread has been a staple in our home for as long as I can remember. She would bake loaf after loaf using a vintage Mirro dough bucket and a worn recipe card as her guide. That stained and faded card contained no instructions, and the ingredients were mere approximations — there’s not even an amount of flour listed! She let the dough tell her how much flour to add and how to time each rise, each of which changed based on chilliness or humidity of the kitchen.
A new family and recipe are born
In the mid-1970s, when my sisters were young, my mom used her training as a Home Economics teacher to develop her own sandwich bread, which eventually evolved into our beloved cheddar swirl bread. The ingredients she chose were both budget-friendly and ones that she could keep stocked in her pantry. Instead of fresh milk she used a combination of dried milk powder and warm water; instead of butter, she used oil.
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When caring for small children, it is nearly impossible to focus on any task for longer than 30 minutes — but this bread recipe is made to fit into that sort of schedule. While my sisters played, she’d mix the dough, then take a break to clean up a block tower or find Barbie’s missing shoe. If ever she needed a longer break, she’d put the dough in the refrigerator, returning when nap time began or at the start of a new “Sesame Street” episode. Sometime in the intervening years, this simple white bread loaf began to include flecks of cheese and eventually morphed into the cheese-swirled beauty it is today.
By the time I arrived on the scene (the youngest of four daughters), Mom was ready to return to school — this time to get her degree in marriage and family therapy. Bi-weekly bread baking slowed to loaves made for special occasions.
A family recipe is finally written down
After years of watching my mom make this bread, I finally welcomed the recipe into my own kitchen. As a recipe developer with a Food Science degree, I watched and listened carefully to the cues she looks for when she bakes this bread so that the recipe could finally be written down. With the dough bucket, mom adds scoopfuls of flour until the dough has a consistency and appearance she’s come to know from years of baking. When I started baking this bread, I followed her lead, ultimately realizing that I added the same number of cups every time for a soft and pliable dough.
A few tips
Make sure the yeast mixture is foamy. Mom never used a thermometer to test the temperature of the water, but if the milk powder, sugar, yeast, and water don’t foam and smell yeasty within five minutes, you’ve killed the yeast and it’s time to start over.
Kneading is good for moms — and kids. My mom rarely bought containers of pre-packaged Play-Doh — not when there was fresh bread to knead. Once the dough came together, she’d give me and my sisters a productive outlet for our frustrations, each of us kneading the dough until it was smooth and elastic and we were tired and covered with flour. If you have little ones in your house who could use a task, I highly recommend you follow my mom’s lead.
Make the rise work with your schedule. The dough does require two rises, but once shaped, the unbaked bread can be tucked in the fridge for baking later in the day or the following day. The cool rise also allows the bread to develop even more flavor.
Roll it up like a cinnamon roll. Sprinkle the dough with shredded cheese, then roll it up cinnamon roll-style so that every slice has a beautiful cheesy swirl. Every so often the bread will bake with pockets of air where larger mounds of cheese settled into the dough before melting. Think of any quirky air pockets as the unique fingerprint of freshly baked bread. The upside is that it adds a crispy texture to the slice when toasted and slathered with salted butter.
Mom’s Cheddar Swirl Bread
Makes 2 (8-inch) loaves
1 cup or 1 (3.2-ounce) envelope nonfat dry milk powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 (1/4-ounce) packets or 4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups warm water (100 F to 110 F)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons canola oil, plus more for the bowl and loaf pans
6 to 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
8 ounces sharp yellow cheddar cheese
1. Place 1 cup nonfat dry milk powder, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, and 2 packets active dry yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl if kneading by hand). Add 2 1/4 cups warm water and whisk until the dry ingredients are dissolved. Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.
2. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt and 3 tablespoons canola oil, and whisk to combine. Add 6 cups of the all-purpose flour. Mix with the hook attachment on low speed until a dough forms and most of the flour is incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough pulls aways from the side of the bowl and forms a smooth ball that doesn’t sag and springs back when poked, about 15 minutes (If making by hand, stir the flour in with a wooden spoon, then knead the dough by hand on the counter.) If the dough is very sticky, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it is no longer tacky.
4. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and form into a ball. Clean and dry the bowl. Coat the bowl with a thin layer of canola oil. Place the dough in the bowl, turn to coat in the oil, and arrange seam-side down.
5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, coat 2 (8 or 8 1/2-inch) metal loaf pans with canola oil. Grate 8 ounces sharp yellow cheddar cheese on the large holes of a box grater (about 2 cups).
6. Punch down the center of the dough. Cover again and let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a floured work surface. The dough should be soft to the touch and not sticky, but it’s OK to sprinkle with flour if the dough feels sticky in spots. Divide the dough into 2 portions (about 1 1/2 pounds each).
7. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough out into a 8-by-15-inch rectangle that’s about 1/4-inch thick, with a shorter edge closer to you. If the dough starts to shrink back, let it rest for a few minutes and then try again.
8. Flip the dough over. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, leaving 1/2-inch border at the top and bottom. Starting at the shorter end closest to you, tightly roll up the dough. Pinch the seam closed. Transfer to a loaf pan seam-side down. Repeat with the remaining dough and cheese.
9. Cover the loaves with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour, or refrigerate overnight. If the dough has been refrigerated, let sit at room temperature until the dough rises slightly above the top of the pan, 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours.
10. Thirty minutes before the loaves are ready, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 F.
11. Uncover and bake until dark golden brown, an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a loaf registers at least 200 F, and the bottom of a loaf sounds hollow when tapped, 40 to 50 minutes. Check after 30 minutes and loosely cover the loaves with aluminum foil if they’re browning too quickly.
12. Remove the loaves from the pans (run a thin knife around the pan first if the loaves stick), lay on their sides on a wire rack, and let cool completely.
Recipe notes: Wrap cooled loaves loosely in aluminum foil or a resealable zip-top bag and store at room temperature for up to four days, or wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and freeze for up to three months.