Sunday, March 18, 2007

Baking beast

When I awoke this morning, I was ready to do some cooking. I made a quiche for brunch and then (oh God, how gay did that just sound?!) and then turned my attention to one of my favorite breads...challah.

I'm not Jewish, but my partner is. And if you've read my blog for long, you know that I have a big appreciation for kosher foods: pastrami, corned beef, stuffed derma, stuffed cabbage, brisket, matzo ball soup, and above all, challah.

Shiny, braided, golden, with a texture that's nicely dense and slightly sweet, challah is terrific plain or studded with golden raisins. Served warm and slathered with butter, or used as the base for french toast, it's heaven.

It's a pain to make, but the payoff is that it's really delicious. And it looks great:

Click to enlarge and check out the sparkle of the Blue Pearl granite countertop! (photo by Jess - thanks, hon!)

By the way, if you're wondering how to pronounce it, you don't say the "ch" like the ch in "chat". Instead, it's a hard and guttural c, which is almost silent when pronounced in combination with the h.

Source: The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan; Schocken Books
Yield: 2 loaves

* 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (maybe more)
* 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
* 1/2 cup golden raisins (optional)
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1 heaping Tbsp. (2 packages) yeast
* 3 Tbsps pareve margarine, melted
* additional margarine for greasing utensils
* 1 1/4 cups warm (not hot) water
* 5 eggs at room temperature
* Sesame or poppy seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to warm (140 degrees F).

Mix flour, salt, (raisins), in a large mixing bowl, making a well in the center. Add 1/4 cup sugar to well cover with yeast and top with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Using a dough hook, mix the yeast and sugar in the well until just mixed.

In a separate container, add the margarine to the warm water, mixing well, until liquefied. Add margarine mixture to the yeast mixture in the mixing bowl and mix well. Set aside 1 egg plus the yolk of another. Add remaining eggs plus the extra white individually into the dough, kneading well after each addition until all the flour is absorbed. As you knead, you may have to add more flour so have some handy, but don't overdo the flour; the dough should still be a little sticky. Rub a large ovenproof bowl with margarine and drop the dough into it. Cover the bowl with waxed paper smeared with margarine, then with a towel; put in warm oven for 1/2 hour. Clean and dry your mixing bowl.

When dough is almost doubled in size, punch it down, return it to the mixing bowl and knead for 2 minutes with mixer (or you may knead it by hand). Put bread back into ovenproof bowl for rising and cover with greased paper and towel again and let rise for 15-20 minutes more in warm oven. Remove and punch down; knead. Re-cover and let rise for 15-20 minutes more in the warm oven. Turn dough onto a pastry board and knead thoroughly. Using a knife, cut dough in half. Then divide each half into 6 pieces - three smaller pieces and three larger. Dust with just a little flour and knead each portion. Dough should be slightly tacky but should not stick to hands. Roll each portion into ropes; the shorter pieces about 6" in length, the longer about 9".

Put the 3 long ropes side by side touching at one end. Pinch that end to seal. Braid the ropes. When no more can be braided, pinch the ends to seal together. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper and place bread on sheet. Brush entire exposed braid surface with the egg+yolk, making sure you get in all the cracks. Now braid the shorter ropes in the same fashion and place the shorter braid on top of the longer braid, centering it. Coat the top braid with the egg wash.

Braid the remaining loaf in the same fashion as the first.

Sprinkle loaves with the sesame seeds or poppy seeds if desired (neither is used if raisins are used). Place in the warm oven for 20 minutes. Raise oven temp to 200 degrees F and continue baking for 15 minutes. Raise oven temp to 275 degrees F continue baking for 15 more minutes. Finally, raise the oven temp to 375 degrees F and bake for 10-15 minutes until bread is golden brown. During the last phase of baking, you may wish to use convection to brown the bread. Do not remove the bread from the oven during the phased baking process; simply increase the heat for each phase and leave the bread in.

This bread freezes well.

Even though it's a pain to manage, the phased baking approach used in this recipe is the secret to its moist denseness. If you skip the steps and just go for a single temperature, you won't get the same results.


At 10:35 PM, March 18, 2007, Blogger Jess said...

Quiche. Challah. It all was fabulous!

At 7:10 PM, March 19, 2007, Blogger Dantallion said...

Ok, the whole act of cooking something from scratch always impresses me - partly because I don't have the patience, and partly because I have absolutely NO talent in this area. So when I see things like the C[insert phlegmy sound here]hallah pictured above, I'm completely blown away. It looks fantastic.

At 3:24 AM, March 20, 2007, Blogger Cincy Diva said...

Yeast and I do not seem to et along. Anything I have tried to make that requires yeast have failed miserably.

At 8:13 AM, March 20, 2007, Blogger Marc said...

Dan: hooray, you're back! *ticker tape parade* Yes, I know about the patience thing...and for me, that holds true for about everything but the kitchen. I could spend hours in there.

Cincy: is it because it won't rise? Yeast requires a warm liquid to make it activate, but it can't be too warm or too cool. 140 degrees is the magic temp. Too warm and you will kill it; too cool and you never bring it to life.

At 8:35 AM, March 20, 2007, Blogger pinknest said...

omg!!! exquisite. it is so glossy and lovely! i was just thinking about challah yesterday and was about to buy some. how funny. now you can make some delicious pain perdu!


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