May’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge was pretty twisted – Ruth from The Crafts of Mommyhood challenged us to make challah! Using recipes from all over, and tips from “A Taste of Challah,” by Tamar Ansh, she encouraged us to bake beautifully braided breads. Although I have made pretty challah many times, I was tired this morning. I have recently undertaken a vigorous exercise program, involving walking up hills at the crack of dawn. Yesterday I followed that walk and subsequent breakfast with a walk through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and Andronico’s grocery store, came home to put away the groceries and construct a Caesar salad with kale (note to self: leave the kale out of Caesar salads — remember those tests asking “Which one does not belong?” Can you spell k-a-l-e? It was a noble effort).

Despite taking a day off of hill-walking, I dragged myself to the grocery store (on foot) because I needed milk to make challah, Mom had grossly underestimated our milk supply and I didn’t want to use canned milk or buttermilk sweetened with soda. When I got back to the kitchen the dishwasher was on the dry cycle and I unloaded that.

photo of misshapen loaf of Challah bread

Trolls’ Challah.

Only then could I begin the business of making challah: scalding milk and beating eggs, sifting flour, proofing yeast. I briefly considered embellishments: candied orange peel sounded good, but I have not yet candied my annual supply of citrus peel — the peels are sitting in the freezer, awaiting the day when I feel like doing it. I thought of making some kind of cinnamon glaze, but then I considered how tired I was and the kind of day I was having and decided to make plain old challah, the eggy, braided bread. I would use the recipe from our old Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook because I have used it before and was in no mood to mess around. Plain challah is the most versatile flavor: it can become French toast or bread pudding or croutons and will work for both sweet and savory sandwiches.

Rather than tell you what I did or what the cookbook says to do I will tell you a better way.

Film a saucepan with water.

Add 1 and 1/2 cups milk.

Set on medium heat until scalded (You’ll see small bubbles at the edges and a faint wrinkled skin on top of the milk).

Remove from heat.

In the measuring cup the milk has recently vacated mix 1/2 cup warm water and 4 and 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (2 packets). Whisk together with a fork.

Now measure 3 cups sifted unbleached flour into a large mixing bowl.

Add 1/2 cup whole wheat flour.

Add to cooling milk 1/4 cup butter (half a stick), 1/4 cup sugar and a teaspoon of kosher salt.

When the milk mixture is lukewarm, pour it into your bowl of flour and stir. Add the proofed yeast.

Beat 3 eggs until smooth in your much-used liquid measuring cup. Add to dough mixture.

Now begin adding more sifted flour, most likely about 3 cups plus.

painting shows misshapen loaf of Challah, eggs and butter.

Troll Challah. 8″ x 8″ Gouache on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

The Betty Crocker recipe calls for 7 to 7 and 1/2 cups total sifted flour. You have now used half of that. When I got to this stage I sifted the additional flour 1 cup at a time, adding it to the dough in quarter cup increments. Today, cold and overcast, the dough took a total of 6 and 3/4 cups flour, including the half cup of whole wheat. Although I sometimes knead light doughs by hand, I used my Kitchen Aid for the mixing and basic kneading because challah calls for a large amount of flour. When the dough was smooth and elastic and pulled away from the sides of the bowl I transferred it briefly to a lightly-floured board to rest while I buttered the mixing bowl, preheated the oven to warm and heated a damp linen towel for twenty seconds in the microwave. I gave the dough a couple of quick turns and deposited it in the buttered bowl, covered the dough, turned off the oven and set the bread to rise.

Then I gratefully escaped upstairs for an hour and lay on my bed reading my copy of The Sun, the only magazine I subscribe to. After an hour I rose reluctantly to check the dough which had risen enthusiastically and begun gluing itself to the tea towel.

Prying the dough strands away with my fingernails, I deflated the challah dough and set it for its second rise. I glanced at the clock to determine that it would probably be ready for braiding just as I was ready to eat lunch.

The thing about being tired when you are a scratch cook and stock mostly raw ingredients is that there are no quick and easy lunches unless you have previously made the components. We swing from fresh-prepared meals to meals from leftovers in a regular rotation. I grabbed the nearest carrot and a handful of fresh cherries and put on a kettle for tea. The quickest sandwich I could come up with was cashew butter on store-bought raisin bread toast. True to form the tea was steeping, the toast was toasted and I had just spread the cashew butter on the warm bread when the challah once again threatened to overflow its mixing bowl.

Mom had come down for tea.”I have to braid the challah right now,” I told her and watched as she proceeded to cover the bread board I needed with lettuce and mayo for a cottage cheese salad. She finished, wiped the board cursorily and shoved it back in. I no sooner dried it and gave it a light dusting of flour when she came back and said, “I just need to get in here one more time.”

“What do you need?” I asked.

“Paprika” she answered, reaching for it.

While my toast cooled, although I shoved it back in the toaster oven, I braided the challah into three strands, tucking the ends under. I thought the braid was too long, so I double the loaf back on itself, giving it a double-braided look in the center, re-tucking the ends. I slathered a baking sheet with butter and cranked up the oven to 425 while I rummaged in the freezer for sesame seeds. I found white poppy seeds first. Fine. That would do. As an afterthought, the freezer spit four or five packages onto the floor.

I beat my last egg in the same old measuring cup, brushed it on the challah, dropped some poppy seeds on top and put it in the waiting oven, escaping upstairs with my toast and cherries. Mom turned on a program about the Buddha while I drank my tea (irony of ironies) and thought about how un-Buddha-like it is to snap at my mother. As she poured tea for herself, the lid came off the tea pot and tea fell on her robe. She was not hurt.

I carried the tea tray back to the kitchen to check the challah, In its fervor the yeast had risen magnificently but unevenly, bursting out in bulges, stretching the dough at the braid seams. In short, this was challah fashioned by trolls — it wouldn’t win any beauty contests. (No disrespect to any trolls lurking about).

photo shows cut end of Challah loaf to show crumb and color.

Troll Challah — crumb shot.

After letting it cool, I cut the end from the monster challah. I brought my Mom the coveted end slice and took a slice for myself. The bread showed its trademark yellow crumb and brown shiny crust, releasing its lightly sweet flavor in the teeth and jaws of the local troll population.

Food notes: the half cup of whole wheat flour improves the nutritive value of the bread without altering the characteristic pale yellow interior. I could see the wheat specks like tiny freckles in the raw dough, but all trace of brown disappears in the baked bread. You can, of course, make whole wheat challah, instead, but you will have to adjust the amount of flour used and knead it for at least twenty minutes to achieve any lightness. If you want pretty challah, strive to make your dough strands relatively short and entirely even, braiding with care and symmetry, just as you would braid your prettiest daughter’s hair.

In other news, even trolls, churls and snapping daughters sometimes receive blogging award nominations. More on this on Wednesday…

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