Adventures in Baking: Challah

challah baking bread

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.

challah

Braided, unbaked challah, brushed with egg white.

 

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

Look at that beauty glow!

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.

challah

It was delicious.

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.

Travelling Tales: Art and Salami (Ann Arbor, Day 3)

For most of today I’ve been extremely tired – I think the travelling and the time lag finally caught up with me last night! Even though I slept for a long time this morning, I was tired again by the early evening, so I’ll probably keep this short in order to get some rest before tomorrow.

This morning I was very sad to be parted from my dear Anne – Science took her off to her lab, and I walked back to the Iannones’ place. She was a sweetheart, though, and let me sleep in for a bit at her place even after she had to leave for work, so I was at least alert for most of the afternoon!

During the afternoon, Tony and I went to the U of M art museum, which was great fun! They have lots of collections that seem unrelated, but were great fun to wander around. One of the most interesting rooms was a big collection of etchings and lithographs by an artist called Whistler – there were some wonderfully detailed pieces of text about his developments and style and his broader work as an artist, so that was very interesting. What I liked the best, though, were the Tiffany windows – they were just beautiful:

A close-up of a few of the bunches of grapes is currently serving as the background on my phone!

After the art museum, we went to a delicatessen called Zingerman’s, which is apparently an Ann Arbor institution. It was absolutely amazing! There were hundreds of different cheeses and cured meats, and I would say at least a dozen types of bread! Tony picked up some amazing sesame bread and we both sampled a few cheeses and salamis before deciding on which ones to get. My particular favourites were a ham that had been cured with rosemary (which was just incredible) and the two cheeses I’d sampled – a manouri, which is soft and creamy sheeps’-milk cheese, and ‘Pleasure Ridge Reserve’, which was made from the milk of one herd of American cows and recently won an award for being amazing. It’s rich and sort of nutty and a little fruity (not with fruit in it, I mean, but with this amazingly complex flavour that has sweet notes in with the savoury). I’m seriously considering checking the US export laws and seeing if it would be legal for me to take a chunk home. Anyway, here’s a shot of some of the cheeses that were on sale:

The evening largely involved hanging out with Sophie and Mary, until Tony and Amy came back from their ‘meet the teachers’ evening at Sophie’s new school. Sophie and I spent a long time looking for part of her newest thing – it’s 216 very small and very powerful magnets, basically a bucky balls toy, which she builds the most amazing shapes with. She dropped a few, though, so we had a long quest to find them all. We got all of them except the last one, which Tony found when he got home.

Anyway, I think it’s about time that I got into bed! Tomorrow I think Tony and I are going to Detroit (despite Sophie’s protests that “Detroit makes you feel you’re dirty whenever you go there!”) to the Henry Ford museum, which sounds like a lot of fun, and then I believe we’re having a family gathering in the evening*, so I should probably get plenty of sleep ahead of that.

(*Note for non-Flanagans: the Iannones, that is, Tony and his brothers and sisters, are my mum’s first cousins: her dad’s sister’s children. There are still quite a few of them around this area, and I think the plan is that I should catch up with most of them over the weekend.)