Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ethnic Flavor: Trying My Hand at Challah

None of the Baking Sisters can say we grew up with memories of coming home from school on cold Friday afternoons and helping our mom knead challah dough, or smelling its sweet, yeasty odor wafting through the house. Of course, coming home and expecting our mom to be baking anything would be misguided to say the least, because she a) works very hard and b) has no aptitude for baking. The stronger memories I have are of scrambling through the bread bins at Fairway, searching for that elusive Zomick's braided egg challah just hours before Shabbat began and being shoved this way and that by a horde of equally frantic and aggressive Jewesses. Fresh challah, when we were lucky enough to have it, had always been Rachel's thing, and while I had fond recollections of making challah at camp, it wasn't really something I had ever considered doing at home. Still, my roommate Wendy had expressed a desire to try making it, and one Friday when I had off from work, we got to it.

The first task was to pick a recipe. Although it is delicious, I didn't want to make Rachel's recipe because it felt too proprietary, like I was stepping on her toes, so I just looked around the Internet for one that looked good. Smitten Kitchen is always a good bet, as is Joan Nathan (it's an adapted recipe), plus Deb included lots of tips for a novice bread-baker like me, and relatively easy instructions on how to achieve the famous six-strand challah braid.

The recipe was easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Even my well-documented issues with yeast
seemed to disappear for the morning! I had no trouble kneading by hand. There was rather a lot of flour but oh well, that's a risk one runs when making bread. There were also some irregular rising times because of various doctors' appointments et al but it didn't seem to harm the dough. Very unfussy. The hardest part was definitely making the braid - be sure you keep very good track of all the strands or else you might have to undo the whole thing and start again! I kneaded chocolate chips into half the dough, because everyone likes chocolate chips.

I was so pleased with how they came out! The chocolate chip one came apart a little bit at the end, but they looked really professional otherwise. And oh my God were they tasty. The crust was crusty, the inside was sweet and moist and springy - perfect. For some reason, the chocolate chip one came out less cooked than the plain one, but that didn't bother anyone in my house, since both challahs were gone by Saturday morning!

Best Challah (Egg Bread)
From Smitten Kitchen, Adapted from Joan Nathan

The secrets to good challah are simple: Use two coats of egg wash to get that laquer-like crust and don’t overbake it. Joan Nathan, who this recipe is adapted from, adds that three risings always makes for the tastiest loaves, even better if one of them is slowed down in the fridge.
Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 1/2 hours’ rising
Yield: 2 loaves

1 1/2 packages active dry yeast (1 1/2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 to 8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins per challah, if using, plumped in hot water and drained
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling.

1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water.
2. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (You can also use a mixer with a dough hook for both mixing and kneading, but be careful if using a standard size KitchenAid–it’s a bit much for it, though it can be done.)
3. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, until almost doubled in size. Dough may also rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees then turned off. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.
4. At this point, you can knead the raisins into the challah, if you’re using them, before forming the loaves. To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet with at least 2 inches in between.
5. Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Either freeze breads or let rise another hour.
6. If baking immediately, preheat oven to 375 degrees and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. If freezing, remove from freezer 5 hours before baking.
7. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take it out when it hits an internal temperature of 190 degrees.) Cool loaves on a rack.
Note: Any of the three risings can be done in the fridge for a few hours, for more deeply-developed flavor. When you’re ready to work with it again, bring it back to room temperature before moving onto the next step.

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