We make a lot of homemade bread - it's inexpensive and tastes great, and once you have your favorite recipe down it is fast and easy too. We cook it in the breadmaker overnight for sandwiches, but on weekends I make braided loaves instead. These look fancy but are in fact dead simple to make. They take a little longer, but the extra time is absolutely worth it - they look and taste sensational.
Step 1: Make the Dough
I always do this in a breadmaker. This recipe is modified from an old one we got from the book that came with our first breadmaker (we've gone through a lot since then; alas, they are not really built to last. I think most people buy them, make a few loaves, then stash them away. We now pick up second hand ones for next-to-nothing and run them until they wear out. Save the parts though - they have beefy motors in them that you can repurpose. For example, I converted a breadmaker into a sharpening system).
1.5 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons of sugar
6 teaspoons of milk powder and 1 1/3 cups of water OR 1 1/2 cups milk
2 tablespoons of canola oil OR butter
3 3/4 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of breadmaking yeast
Combine in the breadmaker and prepare on the "dough" setting. This recipe has worked perfectly for every breadmaker we've owned, so I think it is pretty fool-proof. However... the flour matters quite a lot. We always use Canadian Robin Hood brand white flour (and sometimes substitute in up to a cup of whole wheat flour of the same brand). Other flours are not so good, and I think if you're in the US or elsewhere you have to use special bread-making flour. If you've already got a good dough recipe, use that.
Step 2: Braid Dough
Set your oven on "keep warm" (170 deg) while you do this.
Dump the dough on to a silicone baking mat, and flatten out into a rough rectangle. With some scissors, snip fingers about one inch wide and 2-3 inches deep along one long edge. Turn the mat around and repeat on the other side. Place cheese in the middle, then braid the fingers over the top. Sprinkle grated cheese on top. Put in oven for about 30 minutes.
Step 3: Bake
Once the loaf has been in the 170 deg oven for a while (I've left it anywhere from 0 minutes to an hour),* put the temperature up to 385 deg and bake for 21 minutes. Obviously, this temperature and time will need to be tweaked for your specific oven. Note that it takes about 10 minutes for my oven to get to 385. You can judge how baked it is by the darkness of the crust - light brown all over is good.
Slice once it has cooled for at least a few minutes. I use a carving knife that I sharpen with a crossed-carbide sharpener - this gives the blade wicked micro serrations that are very effective at cutting almost anything (don't use on really good knives though, because you have to resharpen frequently and a lot of steel gets removed when you do).
* the longer you leave it, the fluffier and lighter the bread will be. But if you don't do this step, it's OK - the bread will be a little denser but the braids will be more prominent (see next step).
Step 4: Variants
We've filled these loaves with all sorts of things. Ham and cheese works well for savory loaves. Sliced cooked apple (just microwave in a bowl until hot) coated in a brown sugar, cinnamon and butter mix is a fantastic sweet version - glaze with a beaten egg. Peaches and custard is great too. Pizza sauce, pepperoni and cheese. Feta cheese and spinach. Precooked bacon and eggs. Salsa, pickled artichoke hearts and Parmesan. Pretty much anything that is already cooked and goes well with bread is fair game.
These are easy, impressive and popular contributions to a potluck dinner. Try it and amaze someone with your baking skills! Free 3-month pro membership to anyone who posts an "I made it!" photo.