Sunday, November 07, 2010

Perfecting the Pippi Longstocking of Breads

During my entire elementary school career, I never tugged on a classmate’s pigtails, but I must confess I have a bit of an obsession for braided bread. Challah is a traditional Jewish bread, enriched with eggs and served on the Sabbath. An egg glaze gives the bread a glossy, bronze finish, and the braided dough is a stunner. The plaited strands are a symbol of love.

Four years ago, I took a month-long course in Classic European Breads at the French Culinary Institute in New York. We worked like dogs, making dozens of baguettes each day for restaurant service, as well as learning to make a range of classic styles of bread. We made some impressive Challah. When I tried to make it at home, the obstacles were numerous. The home kitchen is nothing like the professional bread kitchen. I used a stand mixer to mix the dough, and probably overworked it. I couldn’t’ find a spot in the house with the ideal temperature to encourage bread to rise. I did a nice job with the braiding, but on the final rise, the loaf barely budged. The loaf I brought to a Thanksgiving dinner looked good, but was dense and chewy. Everyone was polite (how could anyone be critical on Thanksgiving?), but I knew I knew my Challah was an unqualified flop.

Recently, I installed a warming drawer with a setting for proofing bread. That hefty investment made, my bread now rises spectacularly well. And, I have to laugh when I think about the fact that my Great Grandmother used to leave her bread to rise by the furnace. That never worked for me, but a pricy warming drawer delivers the desired result. She probably finds this quite amusing.
I’ve also eliminated the stand mixer from the process. I’m a physically fit guy. I can manage a few minutes of kneading. In fact, the tactile approach is what baking bread is all about.
So, I can honestly say this latest attempt was an improvement over the last. When placed in the warming drawer, the braided loaf did actually double in size, and the crumb in the finished loaf had a nice, feathery texture.
I had a little trouble keeping the braid together, and one side got a little tattered. This is probably because I didn’t coat the dough with oil during the second proofing in the refrigerator, and it developed a bit of a skin. This made it harder to roll the dough into ropes, and some of the ropes tended to tear a bit. I can probably fix this next time.

But, heck, right now I’m eating Challah that I kneaded, braided and baked myself. It’s edible, it’s even tasty, and it didn’t come out of a plastic bag. What could be better than that?

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Now you must do the right thing -- make French toast with your beautiful challah! My father used to do that every Saturday morning with the leftover we had from Friday night dinner, and to this day, challah French toast is my very favorite breakfast (and sometimes dinner, too). Your bread looks beautiful, and definitely says "love".

My Carolina Kitchen said...

To answer your question, nothing could be better than that!

I love how you made the bread from scratch and did all of the kneading - very impressive.

We have a warming drawer, but it doesn't have a setting for bread. That drawer sounds worth the investment to get great looking bread. You may have started a food trend T.W. Now everyone is going to be asking for a warming drawer in their next oven.

lostpastremembered said...

I tried to make it once and it was awful. You have inspired me to try again. Funny about the air seepage and bread. It does do odd things to shape as it will not puff well like everything else on the surface does. This happens all the time.

A warming drawer sounds divine...and your bread proves it was worth the investment..good for you to splurge!

Julia said...

Mmmmm, I love challah!! I can never manage French Toast as Lydia suggests because I always eat it all before there's a chance.

Mad Me-Shell said...

This looks delicious! All these pictures are missing are a glass of red wine. I wish I had the patience to try this!

Velva said...

Nothing is better than that-Totally impressive. I have not really tried my hand at making bread. As much as I love it, I am intimidated by the process.
Your post proves that bread making is an art but, it is also is a personal experience that is enhanced by the the contact and the rhythm of hands to dough.

btw, it's pretty impressive about the warming drawer. :-)

UrMomCooks said...

Inspiring! (Makes me think of French toast...) Kudos to you for making a second usually takes me a LONG time to go a second round! Sweet success!

A Feast for the Eyes said...

This is a bread I'm anxious to try making myself. I love Challah bread, and especially how delicous a French toast that it makes. Great job~

tasteofbeirut said...

I used to work in a restaurant kitchen where a Jewish gentleman used to come once a week to make and braid the challah; I loved watching it, since he would use whole cartons of egg yolks and pounds and pounds of flour and his dexterity in braiding was impressive; maybe that is why I never tried it myself: why bother when someone else does the work? but I can see that having a homemade one is tops. Impressed here with your persistence and that drawer.. sounds like a Godsend.

Barbara said...

I use challah in a lot of recipes...I am impressed you were determined to find a way to make it work. A warming drawer would be worth it if you're going to be making lots of breads.
I don't have too much trouble as I have the perfect spot for rising. Never have attempted challah though.
Your loaf is looking delicious

Mary said...

I really love the color of your bread and I can imagine the aroma that filled your kitchen as it baked. I love the version of Challah that appears in the old New York Times Bread and Soup book. It's as close to never-fail as a recipe can get and it have a wonderful crumb. I hope all is well and that you are having a great day. Blessings...Mary

Sophie said...

Indeed, what could be better then that!! You must be proud of yourself!! It isn't all about the loks but it is all about the tastes!

The proof of the pudding is in the EATING!!

Lori Lynn said...

We love challah! I keep telling myself that I will learn to bake bread! Kudos to you. I bet they will just keep getting lovelier and lovelier.