Scott’s note: I first wrote this article when I was the food editor for New Times in Phoenix in 1987. (Notice reference to dragging a tv into the kitchen — not so common to have a television among the appliances back then!) Since then it has been reprinted numerous times in publications around the country. The recipe is real — this was a favorite bread my mother used to bake — and it really is possible to time the recipe to the movie. However, you’ll notice I also give actual times for those who wish to try it without the Capra corn.
It’s a Wonderful Loaf
‘Tis the season for spending lots of time in the kitchen baking holiday goodies. ‘Tis also the season for watching old movies that show up on TV only at this time of year.
The point ’tis that you can combine these two great holiday pastimes and do your holiday baking while watching your favorite Christmas movie. My favorite is the 1946 Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. It’s one of the best Christmas movies of all time. although the only thing that makes it a Yuletime flick is that the end of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve. If Capra had set the whole thing on Arbor Day, we’d only get to see it in the spring. But never mind about that.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of a small-town man, George Bailey (played by Stewart), who is disillusioned with his life and plagued by shattered dreams. Bailey has always wanted to get out of the small town of Bedford Falls and see the world. Throughout his life he is presented with opportunities to leave the sticks, but circumstances always force him to choose between chasing his dream and doing the honorable thing and helping out his family and friends.
George sacrifices and sacrifices, and he finally loses it when his alcoholic uncle, Billy, misplaces the bank deposits for the family business, a building-and-loan operation. George takes the rap for the old sot, and the bank examiner threatens to throw George in jail. George ends up yelling at his four kids and lovely wife, Mary (Donna Reed), before running out of the house, heading for the bridge over a swirling river and throwing himself in. Sounds like great holiday fare, doesn’t it?
But wait. Things turn around when Heaven sends down a bungling-but-lovable angel named Clarence, who . . . But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We’ll time our Sesame Twist Bread, another classic, to the movie. So drag the TV into the kitchen and we’ll get started.
A couple of words of caution are in order. These timings are approximate and may vary depending on conditions in your kitchen and whether you’re watching an uncut version of the film or one with commercials. Also, do not attempt the recipe while watching a colorized version of this great black-and- white movie unless you plan on dumping food coloring into the bread dough.
SESAME TWIST BREAD
1 1/4 cups milk
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons margarine
2 teaspoons salt
1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup very warm water
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Have all ingredients ready before the movie starts. Place the milk, honey, margarine and salt in a small saucepan; scald as the opening credits of the movie start to roll.
Sprinkle yeast into very warm water in a large bowl. ”Very warm” should feel comfortable when sprinkled on your wrist. If welts form, the water is too hot. Ironically, you’ll probably be testing the water just at the time George, as a young boy, jumps into the icy water to save his brother, Harry, from drowning. Stir water until yeast dissolves, then stir in cooled milk mixture.
About this time, you’ll get your first look at Mary as a sweet little girl. You’ll also see Violet Bick, who will grow up to be the town trollop. Beat 2 cups of flour into the yeasted water to form a soft dough. Gradually beat in enough of the remaining 2 cups of flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface.
At this point, the adolescent George has gone to his father’s office for advice. Dad and his brother (the drunk) own Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, an organization with a heart that loans money for homes to people more on the basis of character than financial stability. Remember, this is fiction.
George arrives at the office while his father is meeting with board of directors member Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a bitter old man whom nobody likes. Everybody has to put up with him, though, because he’s loaded, money- wise. Even though he’s in a wheelchair, Potter gets no sympathy because he’s just plain hateful.
That helps with baking the bread because it’s time to knead the dough. Think of the dough as being Mr. Potter and really let him have it. Punch the dough, pick it up and throw it back down. During this time, you’ll discover that the reason George has gone to see his father is that George’s boss, Mr. Gower the pharmacist, accidentally has put poison in a prescription and sent George off to deliver it. George, unable to talk to his father, goes back and points out the mistake to Gower, who i s eternally grateful. Better check all your ingredients again.
About now, you’ll also get your first look at Stewart playing George as a young adult. Keep kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. This should take about 10 minutes or until George goes to his brother’s graduation dance and does the Charleston with Mary.
Place the dough in a large, greased bowl; turn once to coat. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place, away from drafts, for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Now you can clean up the mess you’ve made so far while continuing to watch the movie. A lot of important things happen while the dough is rising. George’s father dies just as George is about to escape from Bedford Falls. George has to take over the business. If he doesn’t, Mr. Potter will close the place down and everybody in town will have to go to the evil Potter for money. So kindhearted George stays, of course.
George and Mary get hitched and have four kids.
Life goes on.
The dough should have risen enough by the time Uncle Billy loses the Bailey Bros. money. If
your dough hasn’t risen, don’t worry. Keep it covered a little while longer.
Anyway, Uncle Billy has lost all that dough (get it?). Actually, what he did was accidentally hand it to Potter in a rolled-up newspaper. Potter sees the money, but does he tell Uncle Billy? Get real. This, once again, is good for the bread because what you want to do is punch it down and knead it a few times on a lightly floured surface.
Divide the dough in half while George starts to lose his mind over the whole situation. Divide one half of the dough into three equal-size pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 14 inches long. Braid the three pieces together, pinching the ends to hold them in place.
Place the finished braid on a large greased cookie sheet, diagonally, if necessary. If you’re a quick braider, you can finish this much by the time George yells at Zuzu’s teacher. Zuzu is the Baileys’ youngest child, and her teacher let her walk home without a coat on. Supposedly that is why George is yelling at her, though I think he’s just embarrassed that he has a daughter named Zuzu.
Cut off one-third of the second half of dough and set aside. Divide the remainder into three equal-size pieces; roll each piece into a 12-inch rope. Braid these as you did before and place on top of the large braid.
Take the dough you set aside and divide it into three equal pieces. What you should do next should be as predictable as the outcome of this movie. Roll the three pieces into 10-inch ropes, braid them and place on top of the other braids. Cover the whole thing and let it rise again until doubled in bulk.
You’re probably feeling pretty relaxed by now, but George is kind of despondent, and he goes to the town bridge. He jumps into the icy water to end it all. Clarence, the angel, jumps in to save him, but George ends up having to save Clarence from drowning. Poor George, he just can’t escape responsibility.
Clarence tries to convince George that he’s his guardian angel, but George won’t believe him, even though this is fiction. George is still depressed and says that everybody would be better off if he had never been born.
Clarence sees this as a great opportunity to develop a moral for the story, so he changes everything to the way it would have been if George had never been born, and he takes George on a tour.
Well, nothings as it should be. The name of the town is (gasp!) Potterville. The lives of the people we saw George help before have crumbled because he hasn’t been there.
Well, George begins to see that he really has made a difference in the lives of his family and friends, but he’s still stuck in a world where he’s never been born. What’s he going to do?
Well, nothing’s as it should be. The name of the town is (gasp!) Potterville. The lives of the people we saw George help before have crumbled because he hasn’t been there.
At about this time, George should be running back to the bridge and praying that he wants to live. When it begins to snow, you sprinkle on the sesame seeds.
George now realizes that everything is back the way it was and even though he might go to jail for bank fraud — and even though he has a daughter named Zuzu — he’s had a wonderful life.
You’ll have a wonderful loaf if you put the bread in the oven and bake it at 375 F.
As you set the timer for 45 minutes, you’ll see that everything comes out okay. But grab a dish towel: The ending’s a real tear-jerker.