This post was written a couple years ago. Now that the Blog exists, I thought I’d toss it into the mix.
So how have I come to consider myself a fairly successful home baker? Since Blackbird was born (note: now over three years ago), it has become one of my more obsessive hobbies, as my waistline will attest. I have become better and better at making cakes, cookies, and generally non-yeast bread items. That’s where the skills drop off the cliff:
I have a bread curse.
Specifically, a challah curse. Challah (for those not in the know) is a braided or coiled egg bread, eaten by Ashkenazi Jews on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. I’ve grown up eating it and it is super delicious. Aside from being yummy eaten in a hunk ripped straight from the loaf, challah makes great sandwiches, french toast, strata, etc.
Growing up, my family wasn’t the type to do much baking outside of the odd birthday cake or the occasional Buisquick drop biscuits. But, I remember when I decided to try my hand at challah baking during my senior year in college for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I thought if I followed the directions, how hard could it be? My naiveté is somewhat baffling to me now, in hindsight. And yet, something magical happened during that first session. My three loaves turned out tasty, light, eggy and delicious.
I have since tried to replicate the experience every year or two, and met with utter failure. My subsequent attempts have been as heavy as a nice dose of Jewish guilt.
Over the course of the last 10 years, I have tried numerous recipes and various kneading techniques, changing brands of yeast, number of eggs, honey vs. sugar, Manishewitz plumped raisins vs. plain. I used to bring my failures into work, clearly trying to torture my co-workers while spreading rampant fallacies about Jewish culture with my leaden offerings. On Rosh Hashanah, my family would get “back up” challah loaves “just in case.” And I was never offended, because I knew my challah was always terrible.
Skip to the present: Since Blackbird is in daycare at my synagogue, she gets a healthy dose of Shabbat celebration, including challah-eating every week. She is quite the challah fiend. I have been avoiding yeast bread in favor of less fraught types of baking in an attempt to ignore this lack of skill. But no longer: I have to support my baby’s challah habit. Two weeks ago I decided to audition the no-knead challah recipe.
I made a half batch, and quickly fell into my old yeasty bread habits. The first small loaf had great challah flavor; eggy, with a slightly sweet taste, but still heavy as a brick. For realz?!? This was supposed to be the answer to all my prayers! How could I mess this up?
I vowed to adopt some extra patience in my bread baking. Some troubleshooting: our kitchen is icy cold in the winter, so I upped the warmth by lightly heating the oven and setting a pan of warm water next to the bowl of rising dough. I also added 30-60 minutes onto the various rising times. It made a huge difference with my proofing. The second mini loaf turned out somewhat better, but as I’ve mentioned, my audience of two are not very picky when it comes to challah resting in their midst. Both loaves were gone by the end of breakfast the morning after.I was feeling more confident about the second batch. I was all sorts of Zen about the whole process. I mixed everything without futzing too much and I kept things nice and warm around the dough.
It looked like I wasn’t imagining things. They both rose beautifully and still tasted delish.
I had one more section of dough left and was getting a bit tired of all the challah in my life. I started thinking about all the amazing recipes that could easily use a substitution of challah dough: Chocolate Babka (thanks Seinfeld) or Smitten Kitchen’s amazing recipe for Monkey Bread.
Curse conquered. Thank you test eaters, for your encouragement and support.