Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Challah That Lived

Once upon a time...

There were eggs and there was flour. There were little packets of yeast and a sticky lidded jar of honey. There was also me, excited, clueless, venturing for the first time down the path of bread baking, a recipe for challah in hand, no idea what was ahead. I still remember that summer night in college when I opened the oven to see my first loaves of bread, enormous, melded into one insanely oversized version of challah wedged in between the baking racks. That night I sat with great friends on our old house's wooden porch, listening to bluegrass and pulling off big chunks of sweet bread long into the summer night.

I've learned a thing or two about bread since then. Most importantly, I think, that it is one of the best things to make for company. That first challah recipe made an appearance more than once in my college kitchen, provided familiar Sunday snacking during a year I spent with friends in France, and most recently, showed itself dressed up as french toast for breakfast hosted in my little corner of Brooklyn for neighbors, old and new.

While I will scream for any kind of loaf (save rye...I'm still working on that one), challah is where it's at in my heart. Streams of honey? Yes, yes please.

With more than one bread catastrophe under my belt, I will be one of the first to say, making bread is not easy. It doesn't fit neatly into the pages of a cookbook, isn't really composed of precise measurements or times or degrees. Bread has a life of its own. Like a person, you've got to pay it some attention, but also know when it needs some time alone. You can't control it, you can only work with it. But if you care for it, it will never disappoint.

So who has time to take care of a ball of flour?? Not many. There are some corners that just can't be cut, but to avoid leaving your bread out to grow angry and wild while you sun at the beach eating croissants and drinking petite bottles of pulpy orange soda... may find it helpful to mix your dough, then refrigerate it overnight, letting it sit out to come back to room temperature the next day. Just the same, waking up early on a bright springy Saturday, mixing together your dough and pulling sheets back over your head to take a morning nap isn't a bad option either.

Yet another tricky element of challah specifically, is the braiding. Before I owned a chef's jacket and clunky black kitchen clogs, I just rolled three snakes and braided my bread like a pony tail. It works just fine. Braiding challah can be easy as pie or really quite difficult. If you are feeling adventurous, I think rather than reading the short, confusing, lemon of a novella that would be my explanation of the processes, go here instead to learn a 4-strand braid.

The recipe I still use is one that I found while searching online years ago. The title, "Mega Challah," caught my eye. It's author is Bob Evans, working from Ella Russell, working from Edward Epse Brown. I don't know Bob or Ella or Edward, but I imagine them to be jolly souls with good taste in the kitchen and quite the knack for kneading.

This time around I made one small change, adding about 1 cup of buckwheat in place of whole wheat flour, using white for the rest. As we milled around the kitchen, drinking coffee, finishing off bacon in it's pan of greasy glory, I grew a little nervous about the results...I have a bad habit of experimenting for company. Most of the time they come back. But when its the promise of homemade bread on the line, the stakes rise higher.

After the first few bites, the answer was great. Buckwheat + challah = yes, yes please. Topped with spiced stewed apples, bacon and freshly squeezed oj, the challah wins again.

And once again, in great company. Over juice and syrupy toast, we happily downed brunch, talking about paint colors for new walls, wisdom teeth, dogs, the crazy things we do for love, and Santa Clause.

Soon the last earthy buckwheat challah bites turned syrup mops, wiping plates clean. With one, truly mega challah remaining we wrapped up chunks of the second loaf for our friends as they headed out to finish the courses of their almost-spring-warm Sundays.

The end of the story is: you feed bread its flour and yeast, it feeds you soft, crust-enevloped delicious loaves of sliceable happiness. It may rise out of control. It may not rise enough. You may have a hot spot in your oven, say, and burn the bottom of one loaf. It's all part of the fun. It's a truly alive experience, something that starts with you and your dough, maybe ends with friends and a feast, and does usually, overall, end quite happily indeed.

Buckwheat Challah
adapted from this seriously Mega Challah recipe

WARNING! This is one of those just-hardly-a-recipe recipes. No, I didn't forget the measurement for've got to work with the dough in this one till it's just right (can you hear pastry chefs cursing and throwing pans!). I think it's fun to abandon scales every now and then. True bread lovers, you can do it! And I'm here for you if you have questions!!

1 T white sugar
1 T yeast (active yeast from those little packets in your grocery store!)
1 C water, warm, but not hot
1.5 oz butter, melted
3/4 C honey
5 eggs, plus a yolk for eggwash
1 C buckwheat flour
White flour

1. In a large bowl, mix together sugar, yeast and water.
2. Stir in white flour, enough to make mixture too stiff to stir with a spoon.
3. Meanwhile, whisk together eggs, honey and melted butter.
4. Add egg mixture to the flour and yeast, stirring and folding just until dough is broken up in the liquid (do not panic, it will look soupy and strange at this point!)
5. Stir in buckwheat flour.
6. Gradually add white flour until mixture can not be stirred any more.
7. On a well floured surface, with a bowl of a few cups of flour on hand, begin kneading the sticky dough, incorporating more flour in as needed.
8. Knead for awhile!!! In the end dough should be just slightly tacky, and smooth.
9. Turn dough into an oiled bowl, cover and let double in size. Or, if you'd prefer, stick it in the fridge, take it out the next morning and leave it in a warm spot until room temperature again (depending on where you live anywhere from 1 to 5 hours...or more!)
10. Divide the bread as needed to braid it as you'd like.
11. Egg wash the loaf.
12. Let sit for about 30 minutes.
13. Egg was the loaf again.
14. Bake for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees. Bread is done when the internal temperature reached 195 degrees.

1 really large loaf

1 comment:

Betsy said...

Hi Kaitlin! Grandmom gave me the link to your blog. I love it! You are a fantastic writer... ever think about making this into a book, or cookbook? I may try out your mega challah recipe. Over the holidays I tried to make it because it works great as a stuffed french toast. They just don't sell good challah in the Portland area. Long story short the challah wasn't the best, although it was edible. Hope all is well in NYC.
- Betsy & Jack :)