Braiding is one of the simplest forms of mathematical art. While it is a subject that can become complex, the basics are easy to learn. Braiding can be seen around the world in different cultures, and learning from these cultures can turn braiding into an ethnomathematic adventure. When you add bread into the equation, the educational activity also becomes delicious!
Wolfram Math World talks about how braids can be expressed through a series of equations. Every equation can be coded with a braid word that explains how the braid is weaved.
Translate braids into braid words from left to right and then from top to bottom. This braid word is . When you first start with bread, you won’t need to braid anything this complicated. Braid words are like a magical incantation: once you know the different individual symbols, you can cast more and more complex spells, or weave more complicated braids.
In this video, artisanal baker Tina Luu shows how to braid live dough. She cautions to shape the bread but not to make it tight – it will grow in the oven.
A kind of braided bread called Challah is omnipresent in Jewish tradition. It is eaten on the Sabbath and on holidays. This recipe on My Jewish Learning is one of hundreds online. This is a demonstration of a simple braid word: the recipe says to “Pinch 1 end of all the strands together and plait them: bring the rope on the right over the middle one, then bring the one on the left over it and continue to the end.” If means to bring the right rope over the middle and means to bring the left rope over the middle, than with these instructions, the braid word would be a repeating pattern of .
If your kids are partial to apple pie, they might enjoy this apple-stuffed bread recipe by La Fuji Mama, Rachael. Filled with cinnamon and apples, this recipe is constructed differently from challah — because there are apples inside, the baker must braid the dough over them. This is the simplest possible braid word, a repeating pattern of for each pair of strips. She illustrates this concept at Eat, Live, Run.
How about a traditional apple pie? You may want to follow the directions on Inspired by Charm and your own open-faced pie recipe to teach kids the beauty of braiding. The border is braided using the word and is then is laid around the rim of the pie.
Adding a lattice to the top of the pie can make bridges to symmetry and weaving, in addition to learning about braids.
Barbara Schieving constructs her braided bread a bit differently. Her Russian Braided Bread is braided using the word and then curled into a wreath. If you or your kids are not fans of pesto, or if you want a dessert version, My Diverse Kitchen alters Barbara’s recipe to be made with cinnamon.
Christine Ho has a recipe for Tangzhong Walnut and Raisin Bread, another variation of the word. Tangzhong is a flour paste used in many Chinese recipes to make light, fluffy breads.
Koeksisters, a kind of pastry made in South Africa, are made by braiding dough using the word, then deep-frying it and dipping it in ginger or cinnamon syrup. At My Diverse Kitchen, they give the recipe for Afrikaner koeksisters, which are crispy and braided.
Braided breads can even be eaten as a full meal, with Kenyan chef Fauzia M. Afif’s recipe for Chicken Bread. Much like the apple bread recipe, this bread is not constructed by braiding lengths of dough — instead it is braided using crossing strips and the braid word. Even though they are braided the same way, the chicken and apple breads look very different due to their ingredients and the tightness of the braid.
The Corner Café has recipes for Japanese Coconut Buns. Though the Japanese buns have filling, they are cut into strips and then braided using the more involved word. While previous recipes cover the filling, this one incorporates it into the braid.
Any one of these recipes can help teach your child about braiding patterns and how braids are constructed mathematically — once you are used to the simple braid words, you can make up your own and see how they turn out. Have fun and eat well!