Nov 302009

A couple of years ago, several great friends from college came to visit me in Alaska. Back in those days I was always cooking for myself, so whenever I had guests I tended to go a little overboard because I was so excited to a) feed mouths other than my own and b) eat with friends. One of the meals I remember best from their visit was the morning we decided to make French toast. At the time I lived across the street from L’Aroma bakery so Jeremy and I wandered across the street while the other three folks were still asleep. The bakery had challah (pronounced ‘hallah’) that day and as we ordered the loaf one of the other employees ran across the store, raised the roof, and yelled “CHALLAH!”
Ahh, L’Aroma. You just don’t find quality people like that everywhere.

A beautiful golden brown double-decker braid!
Nikon D50

So when all my Thanksgiving baking was done (and really, it was pretty epic), it came time for our sixth bread in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge and I was pretty excited. Not only could I make this awesome bread myself, but I could also recreate that scene in my own kitchen without humiliating myself in front of several dozen strangers at the local bakery in Tucson. I was also excited to find out that this bread is nowhere near as bad for you as I thought. I had imagined challah to be a very close cousin of brioche, but in reality this bread uses only about an eighth of the fat (and that fat is vegetable oil instead of butter) and fewer eggs. So what’s not to love?

Not a whole lot, apparently, because in addition to the fantastic yumminess and the far more heart-friendly ingredients, the process is pretty attractive too. This was a straight dough (a first thus far in the BBAC) so there was no starter to fuss over – just mix the ingredients and go. After the mixing I let it sit for a 20 minute autolyze before kneading and let me tell you, I’ve never seen a kneading go so fast. I let the mixer go at it for a couple of minutes but when it quickly became apparent that the dough was creeping up the hook again (stay tuned for more on that), I cleaned off the counter, dumped out the dough, and within three minutes had an utterly supple and smooth ball of dough that passed the windowpane test. I was a little concerned because the dough seemed dry – it wasn’t sticky, but it wasn’t even tacky like most fully-kneaded standard doughs are – but I decided to proceed anyway.

Kneaded challah dough, perhaps a bit too dry
Nikon D50

The dough rose a little ahead of schedule but it wasn’t a problem because I had been checking it early and often. I noticed as I was kneading the dough to degas it that it had a lot of air bubbles in it, but they seemed to get worked out as I worked on the dough. I set it up for a second rise, and again it finished just a bit ahead of schedule.

Next came the shaping. Because I can tend to be on the overambitious side, I decided to ignore the fact that I hadn’t ever done a braided loaf before and opted for the double-decker celebration loaf. Yes, that’s right, two braids, one stacked on top of the other. I also decided to ignore the fact that this loaf would be, ah, difficult to store. So having thrown all caution to the wind, I divided the dough into three bigger balls and three smaller balls and set them to rest before attempting to do any shaping.

Three big balls, three little balls, about to be a double braid
Nikon D50

Here’s where I started to have problems. Not only was my dough infested with air bubbles, but the gluten was super uptight and refused to relax. After trying a couple of times to roll a ball into a strand only to have it spring right back, I covered it with a towel and walked away for another ten minutes. After the second rest I was able to work with it a little better and figured out that if I worked a little on one strand, then a little on the second, and next a little on the third and so on, that the other strands could be resting while I was shaping. I had work on each strand at least twice (a few of them needed a third time around) but finally they were ready for braiding (though I hadn’t been able to exterminate all the bubbles). After getting it braided I was really wishing that Peter Reinhart had included instructions for how long each strand was supposed to be because the loaf was so long that it didn’t even fit along the diagonal of my sheet pans! I crammed it into the corners, took a few seconds to admire my handiwork, and covered it for the proof.

Double-decker braid, about to proof
Nikon D50

Here’s where I made my second mistake: I forgot to preheat the oven. The dough was almost fully proofed and the oven was still off, the cast iron skillet and lava rocks still cold! So I covered the dough back up and hoped that it wouldn’t over-proof in the time that it took for the oven and my steaming implements to heat. They heated a little more quickly than usual and my dough was just getting to the point that it was too delicate to take an egg wash – it deflated a bit as it got brushed all over. Ah well.

Proofed and about to go in the oven!
Nikon D50

Despite the short preheat, I got some good steam when I poured the kettle into the skillet and it definitely helped: when I looked at the loaf ten minutes later it was as though BREADZILLA had moved in and was threatening to bust open the corners of the sheet pan, so clearly the bread didn’t over-proof badly, otherwise there wouldn’t have been much growth in the oven. I was watching the baking dough carefully because Heather said hers was done really fast, but I was holding out for a really dark crust. I forgot the first egg wash that was supposed to happen before proofing, so maybe that’s why the crust was nicely dark – but not quite was I was expecting – before the bread got to the right temperature.

Finished challah
Nikon D50

I had some difficulty transferring it to a cooling rack because the hot loaf was so large, long, and unwieldy, but with the help of Sous Chef Hubs I got the bread moved without incident, though it was trying to separate along some of the braiding seams. After the loaf was completely cool, I couldn’t resist it any longer and I tore off a chunk, totally amazed at how you could see the plait of the strands in the interior of the finished bread (which is something you don’t really get to see if you take a bread knife to the loaf).

Look closely and you can still see the separate strands in the braid!
Nikon D50

Even though it is beautiful, the bread is tasty but it’s not really what I hoped. I think a big reason is that the dough was a too dry – I only added the minimum of water – and so the bread is a little chewy and not as tender as it should have been. It’s definitely not a deal-breaker though: it’ll be great as traditional toast or even made into French toast! Like I said though, the loaf is huge – but storing it won’t be a problem if we eat it fast enough! I’m sure I’ll make this again – challah is such a good alternative to brioche French toast and making it is so much fun.

Now lemme hear you: CHALLAH!

Destined for French toast
Nikon D50

See Heather’s challah here.
Next up: the wet, sticky beast ciabatta.

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