‘Tis the Season: Challah

We are entering our final week of feeding ourselves before the dining hall opens again, and miraculously I have a bit more time for voluntary cooking projects. Sometimes, after an evening of cooking dinner for all ten of us, I run out of energy for “fun” cooking. In fact for a little while, the nights of producing vast quantities of not the best food in the world had dug so deep into my stores of energy and creativity that even after a few nights of the boys cooking, I still didn’t want to set foot in the kitchen.

But things are going more smoothly now, and baking is back.

I started out today by making some sourdough bread. As I said, the dining hall is closed, so we can’t get bread from there and have to feed ourselves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the bread we make. Or, we could buy some, but that doesn’t seem to happen. As a result, we are constantly running out of bread.

As I prepped the two loaves, one round and one in a loaf pan, it was immediately clear that this bread would not last until morning.

I was kind of dismayed.

But since I didn’t have to train today, I had some extra time and decided to start on a second batch of bread. What would it be? It had to be different than the first batch, or else I’d just feel stupid. I hadn’t made a rich bread of any sort in a while, so I settled on challah. It’s still too far from Christmas for a real festival bread, but challah felt cheerful and celebratory in just the right measure – and, it makes great French toast.

The funniest thing about my two batches of bread was that the first, the sourdough batch, made two small loaves, which I’m used to. Then I used store-bought yeast for the challah, and…. whooosh. It rose and rose and rose. It got giant. It was like my bread was taking growth hormones, or maybe steroids. It is so light and full of air…. yum.

Here’s my confession about challah though. I make it with butter. I know, I know, it can’t be real challah if it’s made with butter, because then it’s, well, not pareve. But…. I’m not Jewish, and I like butter. Butter! It just tastes so good. If you’re offended by this, don’t be. I pretty much only use butter and olive oil in my baking and cooking, and never vegetable oil, except for maybe in Asian or Indian food. Vegetable oil just doesn’t taste as good. It doesn’t taste like anything much at all. So why use it? But butter! Oh, butter!

Anyway, challah is great for any occasion and easy to make, so try it. For now, happy (early) holidays.

I’m sending this to YeastSpotting – my first submission in a while!

Chelsea’s Challah, Because Butter is Better

1/4 cup warm water

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm milk

4 tablespoons butter, melted

1/4 cup honey

2 eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons salt

3-4 cups white flour

1 egg, beaten, for the egg wash (shiny!)

sesame or poppy seeds for the topping (crunchy!)

Sometimes I feel like when I write instructions for bread, they are always the same. I’m pretty sure this is true. So here goes, your generic bread instructions. Start by “proofing” the yeast in the warm water. While it’s sitting there, heat up the milk in the microwave, then add the butter and heat again until the butter is all melted. Now, pour the honey into this warm mixture and stir it – it will make the honey less thick and easier to incorporate into the bread. Pour all of this into the water-yeast mixture, add a cup of flour, and then add the salt and eggs. You’ll have a really sloppy, lumpy mixture. But that’s okay. Keep adding flour. Add two more cups of flour and see what things look like – and then add more if they still look sloppy. At some point, when the dough looks like it could, conceivably, become dough, turn it out onto a floured surface, and knead it until it is a nice smooth ball.

Butter the inside of a bowl and set the dough-ball in it to rise. Cover it with plastic wrap. Watch in awe as it grows and grows.

After an hour and a half, turn it out of the bowl and divide it into three equally-sized pieces. Roll each one into a rope, and then braid them. If you’re a girl, you know how to braid. If you’re not, er, ask a girl you know. Just pinch the strands at each end together – I usually fold them under a bit so the ends aren’t so pointy. I realize this was a useless description. Sorry.

Place your braid on a baking sheet which you have sprinkled with some cornmeal. Cover it back up with the plastic wrap and let it rise another hour.

Just before the time is up, preheat the oven to 375 and do the final preparation on the loaves. This means whisking the final egg and using a pastry brush to brush it onto the loaf. Don’t be timid; you can use a lot of egg to get your challah nice and shiny. Then, sprinkle sesame seeds (like I used) or poppy seeds on top. They’ll stick to the egg instead of rolling off. Pretty nifty.

When the oven is ready, put the baking sheet in. Now. After about twenty minutes, check on the bread to make sure it’s not getting too burnt. If it is, tent some aluminum foil over it. Or, another strategy is to put the bread on the bottom rack and an empty cookie sheet on the top rack to shield the bread from the heat a bit. This will allow you to bake the challah for a full 40 to 45 minutes without the top getting too ugly and brown.

Finally, take the bread out. Let it cool for quite a bit; because it is braided, it will be especially hard to cut when hot.

~ by Chelsea on December 14, 2010.

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