Monday, January 13, 2014
Back in the olden days, when my kids were little and I spent a lot of time hanging out with my friends and their little ones, I learned to bake challah. I haven't done much challah baking since then, but now that I have plenty of time of my hands, I thought why not? It's not like I have anything else all that pressing to do.
Baking challah again brought back lots of really nice memories. Back then, before Ted moved me across the country to Pittsburgh, my friend Deborah and I used to spend a lot of time together with our kids. We did it under the guise of it being good for the kids to socialize. In fairness, I think it was our socializing with one another that was really beneficial. Having little kids is hard work, and a little lonely if you don't have your support group up and running.
Anywho, Deborah and I used to tackle lots of projects together. I think it was our way of feeling like we were actually doing something besides drinking coffee and eating coffee cake. One of the things we tried was baking bread. We also once tried making our own bagels. Suffice it to say, it's really worth paying whatever they cost in the bagel shop because making homemade bagels is a ton of work and the bagels really are not as good.
But I digress. Unlike bagels, homemade challah really is worth the effort. It's delicious and for the most part, it's a hands off operation (which leaves plenty of time for drinking coffee and eating coffee cake, if you're so inclined). Yes, there's a little kneading (think of it as exercise), and braiding (think of it as artistic), but mostly making your own challah is a lot of waiting. Having children who took a zillion lessons, made me an excellent waiter.
I hadn't baked challah in years, but on Friday I got the bug to do it. There aren't any special ingredients involved -- just yeast, water, eggs, and flour -- so I had no excuse not to get to work.
The challah came out great. And the resulting french toast over the weekend was delish as well. But what was really nice were the memories that sweet smell of baking bread brought back.
Recipe: Ima's Challah
Note: Prepare yourself. This recipe looks far more complicated than it actually is. Read through it before you start. Most of the directions deal with the braiding, which really isn't all that complicated at all.
1 1/2 cup warm water, divided
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar, divided
2 tablespoons instant (powdered) yeast
6 cups flour -- either all white or half white whole wheat
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup mild honey, plus an extra tablespoon for egg wash, if desired
2/3 cups flavorless vegetable or canola oil
4 eggs, plus one yolk for egg wash, if desired
1 pinch ground cardamom, optional
Put 1 cup warm water in a small bowl. Add 2 teaspoons of sugar, sprinkle the yeast over top, swirl the bowl just to combine, and leave it to proof for five minutes.
While yeast is proofing, mix flour, salt, 1/4 cup of sugar and cardamom, if using, in a large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.) Stir to incorporate or blend on low speed.
In a medium bowl, mix remaining water, honey, oil, and eggs. When yeast has finished proofing, add it to the flour, immediately followed by wet ingredients. Mix with a large wooden spoon or on medium-low speed in the mixer, just until combined, about 30 seconds. Switch to dough hook and begin to knead on low speed, making sure to incorporate what's at the bottom of the bowl if the dough hook misses it. If kneading by hand, stir using spoon until dough becomes to thick to stir. Empty dough onto well-floured surface and knead by hand. Knead dough until smooth and no longer sticky, adding flour with a light hand as needed, 7-10 minutes.
Split the dough into two equal pieces. Set each in a large oiled bowl, cover both bowls with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size. If using white flour, this should take about 2-2.5 hours. If using white whole wheat, it will take closer to 3.5 or 4. Feel free to let the dough rise in the refrigerator overnight instead; if you do this, be sure to set out the dough in plenty of time before shaping, so it can come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 375. After the rise, the dough should be soft and pliable.
Separate each mound of dough into three equal balls, for a total of six. Roll each ball into a log almost 1-foot long. Braid the logs together to create your loaf. For the nicest-looking braid, do not pinch the top edges of your logs together before braiding; simply place one log over the next and braid until you reach the bottom, then pinch those edges together. Then, flip the unfinished loaf the long way, so that the unfinished edge is now at the bottom and the loaf has been flipped over and upside down. Finish braiding and pinch these edges together. This way, both ends look identical. Tuck the very tips beneath the loaf when braiding is finished. Repeat with second loaf.
Put each loaf on its own silpat-lined baking sheet. If using eggwash, mix yolk with a 1 tablespoon water and 1 tablespoon honey. Brush over loaves. Bake at 375 degrees for 20-22 minutes, until challot are golden and baked through.