Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Challah

My Challah

This recipe is really mine, it's evolved over many years. I started baking in Manila. I had very little baking experience, but in those days it was impossible to get decent bread or cake on a student's budget (only the "5 Star" hotels had European bakeries) and the 2 places that had challah was the Peninsula Hotel bakery and a Syrian Jewish woman from whom you could order.  So it turned out that many of the wives of the  students actually tinkered with baking, and I figured that if "they" could do it,  I could figure this out too. Not a particularly nice motivator, but it turned out that I loved working with yeast, and it wasn't rocket science, although it does require attention to measurement.

I only had 2 or 3 cookbooks when I lived in Manila and in those days heavy whole-grain bread was a sign of honor that you knew good carbs from empty. So I started baking challah, trying various recipes from various sources. In hindsight, flour was lousy there, but I had a friend, with whom I taught at the International School, whose father was involved in a family business that included commercial baking, so I was able to get large quantities of commercial grade flour. That source led to a small cottage-industry baking business several years later, when my daughter was a toddler.

I will admit that I although I really love to bake bread, I baked challah in particular because I know the impact of odor on memory and wanted this to be another lynch pin for my kids to think fondly on Friday night dinners as they grew older and went on to make your own lives.

I played with challah recipes for about 25 years before settling into the one I use these days. I've been more or less making this one since 2005.

I am still learning things about bread baking, but have more understanding about what I'm doing now.  Over the years I've gotten some wonderful and some less than wonderful advice. Baking should be fun, thank goodness if the bread doesn't work out you can throw it out and have the resources to bake again. The thing to remember is to use great quality ingredients, it will make the difference in your finished product- and - like growing heirloom tomatoes, it's not necessarily cheaper to bake your own - it's just more rewarding.

The best basic bread baking book I've come across is Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread . Hamelman is a baker at King Arthur, and it's a fantasy of mine to take a class from him one of these days.....my copy of the book is noticeable especially because pages are falling out of it and the binding is broken.

I use 3 kinds of flour in this recipe, you can make this challah entirely with all-purpose flour and it will be very good; however, the combination of white whole wheat, bread and all purpose make this a great loaf to pull apart on Friday night, but to slice when  you want slices any other time.
If you are using instant yeast (SAF red label is the yeast I like to use) - you'll save a few minutes by not having to activate the yeast. I have not found a difference in baking this bread with active or instant yeast. I do not use fresh yeast, although I know purists who will only bake with fresh yeast. 

Ingredients (directions are given for using instant yeast or active dry, see below):
4.5 tsp yeast + 1tsp sugar
1.5 c warm water
8 oz whole wheat flour (2 scant cups)
8 oz bread flour (2 scant cups)
20 oz all purpose flour (5 scant cups)
4 ex large eggs (3 whole +1 yolk in the dough and reserved white for egg wash) OR 4 large eggs plus one egg white for the egg wash
2.5 tsp kosher salt
1/2 c olive oil
1/2 c honey
additional olive oil for greasing the bowl (for rising/fermentation)

Procedure: 
1. Option A:
In the bowl of the Kitchen-aid , with the dough hook:
  • 8 oz white whole wheat (King Arthur, brown bag.  Trader Joe also has this flour, I think it works just as well)
  • 4.5 tsp instant yeast
  • 1.5 cups warm water (not too hot, the instant yeast is finicky) - pour the water around the yeast, so you know the yeast has been hydrated, the flour's starch will be around it to feed it immediately.
Slowly mix the flour, water and yeast. You'll see the yeast bubble immediately.
1. Option B:
If you are using active yeast the procedure changes a bit:
  • 4.5 tsp active yeast (Red Star or Fleishmann's)
  • 1.5 c very warm water
  • 1 tsp white sugar
Mix the ingredients and let stand about 3-5 minutes. It will be a bubbly grayish mass and smell yeasty.
Mix in 8 oz white whole wheat flour, the mixture will actively bubble.

2. Then proceed to make the dough:
With the dough hook on slow speed, add the following:
  • 3 whole extra large eggs plus 1 yolk (reserve the white from the fourth egg for a wash if you want to sprinkle seeds or give the bread a shine. An egg wash is optional. 
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (the olive oil gives the bread a subtle taste, you can use any vegetable oil or melted margarine- there will be subtle difference)
  • 1/2 c honey or liquid sweetener (I usually use mild honey- like orange blossom, but you can use darker stronger honey, grade B maple syrup, a mixture of molasses and mild honey, etc.).  I once, in a pinch, used karo syrup.  My kids didn't like it
  • 2.5 tsp (not quite a tablespoon) kosher salt
  • 8 oz bread flour
Mix for 3-4 minutes, it will be loose globby dough
In two additions, slowly add 20 oz all-purpose flour, increase speed to medium, it will pull away from the sides, it will look raggy, it may even split into 2 balls while the hook mixes it up. Keep it going for several minutes, it will form a raggy, heavyish mass that still looks wet - DO NOT ADD any more flour at this time. The flour will absorb the liquid as it rests and rises.

3. Scoop up with a plastic flexible dough scraper, turn once or twice in the bowl, add about 2 TBSP olive oil, turn the dough around, so the entire surface is greasy. 
4. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. The wrap should be touching the dough, it will cover the dough, preventing it from drying out, but will allow dough to rise.

 You have a choice at this point:
5 -Option A: If you want to continue to finish, place dough in a warmish place and let rise until about double- this takes between 60-90 minutes.
or
5- Option B: Place the bowl in the fridge and let rise between 8- 15 hours. You'll have to let it warm up a bit when you resume shaping (deflate it and let warm up a bit- about 20-40 minutes).
6. Take the dough that has risen (either at room temp, or the dough taken from the fridge) and deflate (don't "punch" down, just press down, let the gas escape).

7. Turn out on a flat surface (a board, a silicone mat, counter top, or floured cotton table cloth) and divide into either half or thirds or 24 pieces (approximately 2- 2.5 oz each).  This recipe will make 2 large loaves or 3 medium or 24 2 oz. rolls if you'd rather have rolls. 

If you are using a pan, grease (spray oil or a quick wipe of olive oil)  and sprinkle with cornmeal.  If you are using a cookie sheet, line with parchment paper, sprinkle with cornmeal and skip the greasing. Heavy pans work best, I like the "gold" finish pans from William Sonoma- they bake evenly and clean up easily. A commercial gauge cookie sheet will ensure evenly baked braided challah with no burned spots on the bottom. I am not an excellent "braider," My daughter knows the six-strand type, which is more complicated than I use. The photo of the braided challah is a simple three strand.






Rolls can be round, oblong, knots, cloverleaf.....I have a photo of a knot baked in a paper cup.  You can make round rolls and place in a round pan and have a "pull apart" or monkey bread (no photo on this posting of that shape). 

8.  There are bakers who will tell you to allow a 2nd proofing prior to applying the egg wash. In the case of challah, I have found no difference between applying before the 2nd rising or waiting until after. It works better for me to apply the egg wash right after shaping.

Wash the shaped dough with egg white. You can leave it alone, let it dry and wash again, it will bake with a beautiful brown shine, or you can sprinkle seeds, chopped dry onion flakes, zatar, cinnamon sugar - or use your imagination and do something to your liking.




9. Allow to rise again , until almost double in size - this may take between 45 minutes and an hour. If you let it rise too much it will not bake nicely and might deflate. Over-risen dough bakes into bread with a dry, crumbly texture and affects the final product in both looks and taste.





10. Bake in the top third of  a pre-heated oven - in a NON convection oven- 370 degrees (I once was given advice about putting bread into a cold oven and letting the oven warm and bread rise quickly in the increasing heat- I didn't like the finished bread) .370 degrees is a bit warmer than most recipes for challah call for. Bake until golden.  In a small loaf pan this will be 25-30 minutes, in a large pan, perhaps another 10 minutes. For challah braided and cooked on a cookie sheet it will be around 35-40 minutes. You can actually check the temperature of the bread until you feel secure about this- Challah is "cooked" at 190, however, it will continue to bake for a few minutes after you remove it from the oven, so you can pull it out at 185 degrees. A bit under-baked allows you to freeze and re-warm without it becoming dry.

Recently I became the very proud and exited owner of a convection oven. If you are baking with convection - either allow your oven to "reprogram itself" with the instructions above or lower the heat to 350 degrees and check the bread after 30 minutes. After you bake the bread a few times you'll be able to estimate the baking time by yourself.



11. Let the bread sit for 10- 20 minutes to begin to cool - remove and allow to cool completely before wrapping. I usually leave it under a cloth dish towel to cool for several hours. Double wrap it if you are freezing, it will stay for 3-4 weeks in the freezer.

Enjoy your home-made challah!