Recipe: Golden Snake Bread for Chinese New Year

bakedIt’s been a while, hasn’t it?  Apparently, the first week of work was rather more overwhelming than I expected, because while I felt totally fine at work, I was remarkably disinclined to cook when I got home each night this week.  This is particularly sad, because I’m yet to even make something for my own Vegetarian Lunchbox Challenge (fortunately, lots of other people have, so the page is  very much worth a visit).

Anyway, I’ve been invited to a Vegan pot-luck for Chinese New Year this evening by Steph (Edited to add: and it was awesome!), which requires suitable baking.  My initial plan was to make crysanthemum biscuits with red bean paste, but I was unable to find red bean paste, so I tried to make my own, and that turned out to be a big mistake, so I finally decided that instead of doing something that might be authentically Chinese (difficult, since I never cook Chinese food at all), I might as well go with the red and gold and Year of the Snake as my themes.  And how better to achieve gold than with the gorgeousness that is saffron?

I actually have several recipes for saffron bread.  Mostly, they are full of eggs and butter and milk, because this is the sort of bread people make for festivals, and nothing says ‘festive’ like enriched bread dough.  But eggs and butter and milk are not notably vegan, which is OK, because I also have a book of vegan and gluten-free breads with a saffron bread recipe in it.  The trouble with *that* is that it calls for a variety of gluten-free flours that I have not yet been able to find (largely because I was so tired after my first week back at work that I slept until midday and thus missed the various little shops that are only open on Saturday mornings).

So I decided to cross the recipes.  This bread is enriched with almond milk and olive oil, with chia seeds standing in for the eggs in some weird way that I do not fully comprehend but am willing to take on faith for now.  I’ve replaced the currants that are traditional to Saint Lucia buns with cranberries, which are much more red, and instead of the classic braided loaf, this bread is shaped into a rather fat serpent shape.

It tastes like honey, and has a texture like a moister, softer version of pannetone – very soft and tearable and delightful.  I thought at first it would need butter or honey, but it really doesn’t – it’s perfect just as it is, gorgeous and golden and vegan and full of happiness.  What more could you ask of bread?

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1 1/3 cups almond milk
1 tsp saffron
2 tbsp chia seeds (white is better, aesthetically speaking, for this bread)
2 tsp dry yeast
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cups of bread flour
3/4 cup cranberries, preferably unsweetened, or barberries
A couple of tablespoons of almond milk and a couple of raw sugar, optional

Now what will you do with it?

Start by heating your almond milk to almost boiling.  I stuck it in a heatproof jug in the microwave for 2 minutes, which worked for me.

Crumble the saffron strands between your fingers a bit, and stir them into the almond milk.  This works better if you don’t have wet fingers, says she of the golden fingertips (is this the culinary equivalent of the Midas touch?  I don’t seem to be leaving yellow on everything, but one never knows the long term results…).  Let the almond milk cool to lukewarm – the temperature you are aiming for is the point where if you dip your golden finger into the milk, the milk feels neither cool nor warm to the touch.  Best to err on the side of cool if you aren’t sure.

This is what almond looks like once you've been soaking saffron in it.  Isn't the colour amazing?

This is what almond looks like once you’ve been soaking saffron in it. Isn’t the colour amazing?

Pour 1/3  cup of the almond milk into a small bowl and add the chia seeds to it.  Stir well, and leave to sit for 15 minutes or so.  It will go thick and gelatinous and weird, but that’s what it’s supposed to do, so don’t panic.

Yeah, pretty much like this.  Looks fairly disgusting, but I promise it won't be once you add it to the dough.

Yeah, pretty much like this. Looks fairly disgusting, in a fish egg sort of way, but I promise it won’t be once you add it to the dough.

Pour the rest of the almond milk into a very large bowl and add the yeast, syrup, salt and oil.  Stir well (traditionally, one adds the yeast first and lets it prove for a few minutes.  In my highly impatient experience, you don’t need to do this with dry yeast – it rises just fine if one adds everything more or less simultaneously).

Stir in the flour, tip the whole lot onto a floured benchtop, and knead for a few minutes.  Add the cranberries, and knead until the dough is smooth and soft and elastic and kind of binds to itself when you fold it over – I really can’t describe it well, but it’s like it becomes one entity with no surface – if you fold it, the fold immediately starts looking like part of the original dough. Never mind.  Just knead it until you think it’s done – this only took about 5 minutes with the dough, but you are unlikely to ever over-knead it if you are going by hand, so 10 minutes won’t do you any harm if you are uncertain.

Very pretty dough.

Very pretty dough.

Incidentally, this is just a lovely dough to knead – it’s soft and very kneadable, but doesn’t stick to you like fury the way many doughs do.  A very nice tactile experience, so please do this by hand!

Clean the bowl and oil it, and put the dough back into it.  Cover with a tea-towel and leave to rise somewhere warm for about an hour – it should double in size.  If, like me, you are a little bit crazed, you can use this rising time to make bright red toffee apples with your vegan red food colouring, thus incorporating the red part of the red and gold theme.  Of course, if you are really cunning, you could make bright red toffee lychees, but I didn’t think of that until it was too late, and since I’d never made toffee apples, I wanted to play things a bit safe in any case…

Risen dough, with toffee apples in the background.  What can I say?  It would be terrible if there wasn't enough food...

Risen dough, with toffee apples in the background. What can I say? It would be terrible if there wasn’t enough food…

Punch it down, then roll it out into a looooong snake shape.  I got impatient with it and didn’t make my snake very long and thin – you may want to do better.  Put the tail end of your snake onto a round baking tray, and coil the rest of the snake around itself, leaving the last bit uncoiled a bit, for the head.  If you have a couple of cranberries in the right place for eyes, that looks kind of cute.

Little snake.

Little snake.

Cover with another tea-towel, and let everything double again.  Books always say this will take another hour, but I find the second rise tends to go faster than the first one.  Pre-heat your oven to 210°C.

Bigger snake.

Puffed up snake.

If you like, brush the dough with more almond milk, and sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of raw sugar before putting it in the oven, but this is completely optional.  And I’ve just realised that this would have been a brilliant occasion for using my Viennese Christmas sugar, but the bread is in the oven now, so it’s too late (yes, I’m writing this up while the bread rises and bakes).

Take the snake and bake like a cake until you can give it a shake awake… OK, that was just silly.  Bake the snake bread for about 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180 and continue baking, until it is golden and  solid enough that you can shake the tin and it will move as a single entity.  Or, more conventionally, you can turn it upside down and tap its tummy to see if it sounds hollow.  Now really, does that sound like a good idea to you?  “Hey, Mr Snake, is your tummy hollow and empty…?”  Quite.  Who writes these recipes, anyway?


Baked snake!

Anyway.  Let it cool or eat it warm – it will be gorgeous either way, but warm is pretty delightful.  I was originally inclined to serve it with honey, thus making it a lot less vegan, and it will be gorgeous with good un-vegan butter, too, but honestly, it doesn’t need anything – it’s fabulous just as it is.

Inner snake.  It's actually a lot more yellow on the inside than you can tell from this photo.

Inner snake. It’s actually a lot more yellow on the inside than you can tell from this photo.


Lots of these!  Obviously, this bread is vegan, and I don’t feel I can give you the full on gluten-free version, because it’s not a recipe I could ever have come up with on my own, and the method is totally different, but I will be writing a review of that book in the near future.  For starters, you can make this nut-free by using a different non-dairy or dairy milk.  Soy has a nutty flavour that would work here, I think.  Next, I do recommend the barberry variation, as these are a much more traditional pairing with saffron than cranberries, and usually there is a reason behind such traditions.  And, of course, you could use currants, too, and add things like cinnamon or other spices to the dough if you liked.


If you are after a lower-GI variant of this bread, try replacing 1 cup of the flour with oat flour (you can make this by grinding rolled oats very finely in a food processor – just make sure you measure the 1 cup after grinding, not before, as the volumes will be different).

It’s going to be delicious, however you make it.


Isn’t it gorgeous? This is seriously one of the best breads I’ve ever made. Utterly delicious. You should make it too.

This time last year…

Coriolanus Cookery: Thinking Out Loud
Decidedly Un-Roman Cherry, Date and Cacao Balls
Shakespeare post: Coriolanus!
Recipe: Drained Yoghurt (Labneh)
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7 comments for “Recipe: Golden Snake Bread for Chinese New Year

  1. February 10, 2013 at 8:31 am


    • Catherine
      February 10, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      😉 I would go with apricot jam, myself.

  2. February 10, 2013 at 9:46 am

    This really was delightful! So golden and rich and aromatic.

    • Catherine
      February 10, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Thank you! I was so pleased with this bread.

  3. February 10, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Looks golden and prosperous! Texture is lovely too. Well done.

    • Catherine
      February 10, 2013 at 5:21 pm

      Thank you! I was truly delighted by how this bread turned out.

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