Holla! (aka Challah)
Nothing gets me in the mood for baking better than a drizzly, grey day, and Saturday turned out to be one of those lovely gloomy days. Living in Los Angeles, where the sun shines 90% of the year, I embrace rainy days, especially on a weekend. It's no fun spending all day in the kitchen next to a hot oven when it's 85 degrees out, so I was happy to wake up to a cold, drab day. Yay!
Our good friend L recently had a birthday, and we had plans to go to dinner with him and his lovely wife, R, that night. I was plotting the night before about what sweet goodies I could bake L for his birthday present.....cookies, cheesecake, brownies.....perhaps a pear tart? I was digging through my baking books with glee when I decided to ask J what he thought was best. That's when my sugarplum fairy world came crashing down......J said that dreaded sentence: L doesn't like sweets. Oh great. There goes my plan to serve him up some of the best cookies this side of.....the L.A. River. I didn't really want to do the cheddar crackers again since I had just made them, so I wracked my brain trying to think of something savory. Flour tortillas? Naw......since L is Mexican, he probably had many relatives whose homemade tortillas would blow my gringo ones out of the water. A vat of my famous Bolognese? That seemed like the ticket until I realized that his wife doesn't eat meat....so poor L would be eatin' Bolognese every night for a week, alone. I never realized how much harder it is to think of a savory food gift since it's so easy to bake a batch of cupcakes or pack up a bunch of scones in a nice package.
I finally decided to make bread....although I must admit I was a bit nervous. Sure, I had made bread before but I've certainly had my failures....like the time I used old yeast and my dough didn't rise a single centimeter. It was a risky move to put all of the afternoon into making my Bread Present, considering we were going to see the birthday boy that same night. I flipped through my well-worn copy of Baking With Julia and chose challah. Had I ever made this staple of Jewish bakeries before? Nope. Did it matter? I didn't even really stop to think since I saw that I only had about 6 hours before L and R were set to arrive. And in bread baking time, my dear readers, that's nothin! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
Thankfully, I had picked up a few packets of yeast on a recent shopping excursion so I knew that part was taken care of. I was sad to see that I didn't have any bread flour, but since the recipe said I could use unbleached all purpose, I figured I'd be ok. I started by pouring warm water over the yeast until it foamed madly....I LOVE the smell of foamy yeast! After starting the mixture of that and flour in my mixer, I took the ball of dough out and kneaded it by hand for a good ten minutes. Talk about a workout! It is actually quite relaxing to knead bread by hand, and I think I was a bit inspired by Cynthia's recent post on the joys of kneading bread. There's been so much talk about a no-knead bread on many food blogs, and hey- I ain't knockin' it- but there is a therapeutic quality to grabbing and pushing around all that dough. You can actually feel it evolving from a sticky mass into something smooth and elastic. It's not a bad way to tone your arms and middle either!
Punched down dough........
After the first rise, I "punched the dough down" which is a part I've always enjoyed. You can hear the "pfffffffff" of the air coming out of the dough- you're actually redistributing the air all over the blob. When the second rise was completed, I took half of the dough and divided it up into three ropes. Now comes the fun part! Although I hadn't braided hair in YEARS, it's sort of like riding a bike....a very squishy bike. I started in the middle as the book instructed and pretty soon, I had a fat, doughy braid. After taking the second half of the dough and creating another loaf, I covered both with towels and let them rise for another 30 minutes.
While I waited for those babies to rise, I made the egg wash with 1 egg, 1 egg yolk and a tablespoon of cold cream. I strained the mixture through a tea strainer to get the globs out, then brushed the now-puffy loaves with the yellow glaze. I decided to put sesame seeds on one and leave the other plain. They both went into a hot oven for 20 minutes, at which point I pulled them out and re-glazed the parts of the loaves that had swelled and exposed more of the internal dough. This was a step I had never read about before but made total sense. After another 20 minutes or so back in the oven, the challah was done! Holla!
Shiny loaves of challah in a row......
Sliced and ready for my tummy.....
Both loaves turned out super shiny and smelling wonderful. I decided to give the sesame one to L since the plain one had cooked a bit too much and was a bit too brown on the bottom. L appreciated the bread, and I was happy to have found a savory food gift that I'll definitely be making again. The best part? J and I enjoyed a breakfast of challah toast and scrambled eggs the next morning. The slightly dense and eggy bread was fantastic with just a smear of butter.
I'm looking forward to more rainy day bread baking if the weather cooperates!
Bread baking, Challah