Prepare the starter: In a large bowl whisk 2 cups warm milk, the yeast, 1 cup flour and 1/4 cup the sugar. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set aside to proof for 30 minutes. You would have the confidence to go ahead when and if your starter has risen 2 or 3-folds and looks like a sponge with all its bubbles.
Make the dough: In another large bowl combine 7 cups flour, remaining sugar, orange rind, mahlep and salt. Make a well in the center. Add the prepared starter, melted butter and 5 well bitten eggs. Stir from the center outwards to bring flour into the well and eventually form a dough. Dust a working surface with a 1 cup remaining flour: be careful you may not need to integrate it all so go slowly with incorporating it. Give the dough a good kneading gradually incorporating the flour sprinkled on the working surface. In 15 minute of honest effort your dough should become smooth and stop sticking to your hands.
Put or first proofing: Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. For this purpose I have a large plastic bowl with a cap which makes it ideal for leaving the dough to proof. Set aside in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled, about two hours. You can also leave it overnight in a chilly place or a fridge, if preparing the night before. Once risen punch down the dough.
Form the braids: Divide into six small balls. Mix the chopped hazelnuts and figs and divide into 6 parts. Flatten one dough ball with the base of your palm and sprinkle one part of the hazelnut and fig mixture into the middle. Now close it by lifting and bring together the opposite ends of the dough. Roll the “stuffed” piece of the dough into a strip 25-30 cm/10-12 inches long. Repeat with two more dough balls and lay three strips side by side, pinching together at one end, and braid. Pinch together at the other end to hold the loaf. Make the second loaf in the same way.
Put for second proofing: Place the breads on a parchment-lined baking sheet sprinkled with flour, put in the oven switched to very low (60°C/140F) and leave the loaves to rise for about 30 minutes, or until double in size. Once risen gently but quickly take one out and immediately brush with 1 beaten egg and sprinkle with slivered almonds. Put back in the oven and repeat with the second loaf. I also put a metal cup with water to moisten the air in the oven.
Bake the bread: Set the temperature to 180°C/356F and once it reached the maximum bake for about 40-50 minutes but check midway. After 15-20 minutes, or once the tops of the loaves become golden brown I reduce the heat to 160°C/320F to prevent excess browning and let the bread bake slow. To check if ready make the wooden toothpick test. Also the bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove, sprinkle icing sugar (optional), cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for good 2 hours before cutting and serving.
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