As many of you may know, I am a keen maker of foodstuffs. I’ve never been much of a baker, though – apart, that is, from my love of baking bread.
There is nothing in life so satisfying as baking bread.
I really love bread.
Mostly I bake Irish soda bread the way my mother taught me (which I’ll share with you the next time I do so). During my MA Dissertation, when I was wrestling an epic down to just over 20,000 words and frequently wanted to punch things, I kept a sourdough culture in my fridge and made bread regularly. (More on that story later.)
For those of you who don’tknow bread – on the commitment scale, things things couldn’t be further apart. Soda bread is a delightful flirtation with flour, an hour or so from conception to lovely hot loaf. Very little kneading, no need to proove. Keeping a sourdough culture is like having a pet. You make sure it’s not too hot and not too cold, that it has enough food, that it’s developing okay, that it’s clean. And then you make the dough, ignore it for a while, punch it down, let it rise again, sometimes punch it down again, and then you bake it. Phew!
Now, one of my besties is a beautiful Jew, and we delight in sharing each others’ culinary history. On a midnight trip to a supermarket one night recently, after I had travelled many hours to be at her side, I had a craving for soda bread. She’d never had it. We had a bread trade, namely: I left her most of my loaf of soda bread, and she bought me a kind of bread I’d never had before: challah (it’s pronounced with a hard H, HHHHHallah – Meli, I can hear you laughing from here).
Challah is everything I’ve ever wanted from bread. Soft, slightly sweet, lovely shiny crust… my boyfriend and I polished off a loaf in about two hours (because it’s a little sweet, it goes excellently with tomato sauces). It was amazing. And this Friday, I decided that, since we were out of bread, I was going to to bake my own.
What makes challah special is that the recipe includes eggs in the dough mix, which gives it a lovely softness and richness. You also then paint egg white onto the surface of the loaf before you bake it, so that the crust goes a lovely crisp, glistening dark brown. Mmmmm. No wonder it’s one of the most popular breads in Europe.
I followed this recipe from TheKitchn, which also includes useful instructions on how to braid loaves more complicated than my humble three-strand plait!
What I learned during my challah-baking adventure was that I should trust my instincts more. I found myself second-guessing a few things, which is silly, because baking bread isn’t rocket surgery.
I also used wholemeal flour, which is what I had left over from my last batch of soda bread, which gave the challah an interesting texture. White-flour challah is very soft, and the wholemeal bread was a little less forgiving. I won’t lie, though, it’s still extremely delicious and I’m still a genius for providing myself with fresh bread for a Saturday morning breakfast.
Though I didn’t wait that long in the end.
The recipe at TheKitchn makes an extremely generous-sized loaf, so it’s kept us going for a couple of days. So far I’ve eaten challah with butter and honey (sublime), to mop up bolognese (surprisingly excellent), and dunking it in olive oil and salt (the sweetness of the bread goes really well with the salt).
It’s also the perfect accompaniment to eggs in purgatory, which is my favourite quick dish (fry garlic in olive oil, add cayenne pepper, pile in a tinful of chopped tomatoes, poach eggs in the tomatoey spicy goodness). You eat the delicious hot mess by dunking bread in. You don’t even have to get cutlery if you don’t want to! Culinary bliss.
The sweetness and lightness of challah, along with the useful scoop-worthy rigidity of the crust, makes it the perfect bread to accompany eggs in purgatory. In fact, I might make some for breakfast tomorrow morning, to use up the last of my loaf… (yes, it’s Sunday and I’ve nearly finished it. It’s just that damn tasty.)
I’m vaguely sticking to my commitment to blog at least semi-regularly and I still have so much more to share with you all! I just need to get my words out more. And to get back to writing my book, too. So many things, so little time…
But I foresee plenty of challah in my future, because it’s unbelievably delicious and really very therapeutic to make. Meli, thank you so much for introducing me to the bread of your people! I very much look forward to being able to bake it for you in person.