I’ve dabbled in scratch baking before. You know, the kind that requires yeast to be bloomed or proofed and then for the dough to sit around for at least an hour while it doubles in size. I’ve been able to successfully pull off cinnamon buns, a few babkas and dinner rolls. But this past weekend when snow began to fall, I decided to make one of my favorites: challah!
My family is not Jewish, but my grandmother bought these from a local bakery when my mother was young. They have since found their way into our house. In fact, we most recently had some during Thanksgiving. It was one of the sweet flavors that balanced out the savory in my mother’s stuffing, and it was heavenly.
As you can probably tell from my photos, I started my challah in the late afternoon, finally pulled it out of the oven in the late evening and then sliced it up the next morning and made it into french toast for my family. We devoured it at a rate that did not allow me to grab my camera, but photos of the baking process and a recipe, from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, await you after the jump.
We start, as all yeast doughs must with … yeast, 1 and 1/3 teaspoon of active dry yeast in 1/4 C. hot water and with a little pinch white sugar. Right out of the sugar bowl while Mom wasn’t looking. The pinch goes in to keep the yeasties busy.
And by hot water I mean hot, but tolerable, to the touch. If you go too hot with the water, you run the risk of killing your yeast and making all the steps that follow unnecessary. Why? Because without those guys, your dough won’t rise, and baking it despite the yeast’s demise will result in something akin to barely edible a brick. Trust me, I know.
The same can also happen if you don’t allow it to rise long enough. The yeast creates air pockets that make for a good crumb. By “crumb,” I mean the hollow crevices and holes that cradle butter, jam, honey and anything else you see fit to drizzle, spread or smear onto your bread before you bite into it.
Breads made in machines usually have reasonably small and uniform crumb. Breads made by hands – your hands, if you so choose – have an inconsistent crumb. So, within reason, the bigger and less uniform they are, the better.
The pink stars indicate where I experienced crumb successes. I think the dough braiding process ruined my chances of having good crumb in the very center of my loaf, but the rest of it looks delightfully crumby.
Now then, back to beginning.
While I was on my crumb rant, the yeast had time to bloom.
I was a little skeptical about this yeast because the expiration date indicated that the best time to have used it would have been July 2008. However, my mother dutifully keeps her yeast in the refrigerator so I gave it a whirl. Luckily, these chilly guys got their act together.
Meanwhile, the dry ingredients went into the stand mixer bowl: four C. of unbleached flour, four Tbsp. of sugar and one tsp. of salt. I found this tucked behind a few things in our pantry and decided to give it a go. It fit the bill and seemed a better choice than what was in our flour bin, which I couldn’t positively identify as unbleached.
The recipe instructs that you mix the wet into the dry, which may seem counter intuitive to anyone who’s dabbled in cookies or cakes. But, press on and have faith.
Into that, you’ll need to add: 2 Tbsp. of vegetable oil, 2 large eggs, 2 eggs yolks and 2/3 c. water at room temperature. Reserve the two egg whites for later, you’ll be using a pastry brush to coat your babka with them (twice!) before it goes into the oven. I stashed them in the fridge in a covered container, like so.
I had a near disaster during the separating process, so trace amounts of yolk snuck into the egg whites. I did what little magic I could with a small spoon and was mostly successful. Anyway, your eggs whites will probably look a bit paler than mine.
Dump all of the wet ingredients in and be gentle with the settings on your mixer, if you’re using one that is. I kept the paddle attachment on for a minute or so, and then switched to the dough hook.
If you’re using a your mixer and a dough hook to knead the dough, you’ll want to keep the mixer on a speed of no more than two and leave it in there for about six minutes, stopping it occasionally to check the texture. If you’re kneading your dough by hand you’ll want to do this vigorously for about ten minutes. Either way, your end result should be a dough that feels smooth and elastic.
Baking is exact, but don’t be afraid to add a little bit of flour if the dough seems too sticky or a little bit of water if it seems too dry. Just add in small increments to make sure you’re only correcting a problem, and not creating a new one.
Mine needed a wee bit more flour, so in it went.
Once the dough was done, I kneaded it a bit myself and formed it into a boule. I started with a plastic bowl, sprayed down with cooking spray, and covered with plastic wrap. Waited an hour. Then two. And still… this is what I was met with:
Roughly the same size. Once, I even thought it had shrunk. After a little bit of frenzied Googling (yes, I suppose that’s a word now, huh?) I decided to pop it in a glass bowl, cover it with a towel and place it in the oven after I had warmed it up.
It worked! If you need to do this, and you might want to just start with this from the start if it’s not very warm in your house. Yeast doesn’t like temperature fluctuations and I probably just barely saved it. The key here is to turn it on for no more than a few minutes and let it cool back down a bit if you suspect it’s become too hot.
From there, it was smooth sailing from oven, to being punched down, back into the oven for a second rise to double the size again, divided into three balls, left to rest, rolled out, gently braided and then brushed with whisked egg whites. Let it rest for about 30 minutes, brush it with more egg whites and then pop it into a preheated 350 degree oven.
Now, about 40 minutes at this temperature was enough for my bread but I suspect that the oven I used runs hot. The original recipe says to bake it for 30 minutes, rotate it, then bake it for another 30 minutes. After the rotation, the crust looked about as brown as I’d like it to get.
And then, then next morning, it sliced up beautifully.
Here’s a condensed version of the ingredients, for your convenience. Enjoy!