Not Remotely Kosher Challah

Well, my “brief haitus” clearly turned into something more like a sabbatical. If this blog were a bit of dough, I would say it has been subjected to a lengthy fermentation, and, although now severely overproofed, is being resurrected.

Since I had to roll with my bready momentum lest I risk losing it altogether, I decided to make a straight dough–no messing about with paté fermentée, sourdough, or any other process requiring more than a day’s wait for a preferment. Since a restricted time frame always results in a dough with significantly less flavor development, I decided to go the route of extreme flavor enrichment, and threw just about everything into the bowl, including sweet potatoes and cranberries. Clearly, the Israelites were not noshing on sweet potato cranberry challah during the Exodus, but challah is really only intended to symbolize the gift of food sent down from the heavens during this period of time, and the bounty that rained down on my kitchen on this particular day was of the sweet potato and cranberry variety. And so I threw tradition out the window but maintained the general sentiment of gratefulness for the plentiful foods in my life as I made my not-remotely-kosher challah.

I based my dough upon Hamelman’s challah recipe in Bread–adjusting quantities as necessary to accommodate the liquid content of my ridiculous added ingredients–and just generally mucked about with the recipe to make it a bit more rich. Challah often receives some extra special ingredients during the Jewish New Year (hello, raisins!), and seeing as I was celebrating my new year, it felt appropriate to jazz things up a bit.

I began by melting 2 3/4 TB butter in a small pot, to which I added all of the cranberries that had overstayed their welcome in my fridge (about 6 oz. in total) along with 2 TB honey. I cooked this pretty red mixture for a few minutes on medium heat until all the little cranberries burst in the middle, looking like so many people around the Thanksgiving dinner table, loosening their belts to accommodate full bellies.

Into my on-loan KitchenAid I deposited the following ingredients, and began to mix:

2 egg yolks

1 whole egg

8 oz. cooked, mashed sweet potato (thanks, mum!)

the entire cranberry/butter/honey mixture

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 tsp. yeast

2 oz. water

roughly 22 oz. flour

About halfway through my preparations, I discovered that my yeast was entirely dead from a series of days spent in a broken refrigerator wasteland. It being New Year’s Eve, I spent a cumulative 30 minutes driving from grocery store parking lot to grocery store parking lot, finding each to be a maddening gridlock of angry, hungry procrastinating party-throwers, crazily dashing in front of moving cars and honking at innocent people like myself who just wanted a teaspoon of yeast, in order to find a coveted and aggressively secured parking space. Uttering a string of unsavory, aggravated noises like a lunatic at every junction of every parking lot, I finally realized that I could just drive to my work and ask nicely for a scant teaspoon of the magical stuff so necessary to the success of my bread, but so detrimental to my original sense of calm.

This was the first time I’ve ever kneaded bread dough in a mixer, and when I finally got around to mixing, I found it difficult to judge when I had added enough flour, and when I had mixed the dough sufficiently, without having my hands on the dough the entire time to judge by feel. The dough appeared very sticky initially, and I found myself adding way more flour than I had originally intended, although perhaps I simply misjudged the significant liquid content of both the cranberries and the sweet potato. The dough was ultimately subjected to about 8 minutes under the tyranny of the dough hook before I pulled the distinctly pinkish mass out of the mixing bowl and set it into another bowl to rise. After an hour rising at room temperature, I punched the dough down, covered it, and set it in the now-functioning refrigerator to develop overnight.

The following evening, I pulled the dough out of the fridge, divided it into four pieces, shaped these pieces into two individual two-stranded loaves, and brushed each loaf with an egg wash before leaving them to proof.

I got a little carried away with hours upon hours of proofing, but the loaves performed just fine in the oven, and baked happily away at 380˚ F for perhaps 45 minutes or so, all the while filling the apartment with the distinct and festive smell of baking cranberries. Using my beautiful new homemade peel (thanks pops!) I pulled the loaves off of the piping hot stone and set them to cool before indulging in a midnight bread snack.

The loaves turned out to be quite large, and could perhaps have benefited from the Jewish tradition of sectioning off a piece of dough to burn in the oven as a gift back to the heavens. (Fun fact: the word “challah” comes from the Hebrew word for “portion,” i. e. portioning off a piece of dough. More neat challah history here.) Instead, I ended up sectioning off a piece of dough to munch on in order to make sure that no great disasters had occurred somewhere in between going crazy with my ingredients and overproofing my loaves. The first slice shocked my palate a bit, as the tartness of the cranberries tricked me into thinking I’d made a sourdough somehow. The sweet potato, although absent in any significant flavor addition, created a lovely moist crumb, and the long proofing period lent the dough a very light and airy quality which was quite pleasant. Next time I would add just a touch more honey, and the balance between sweet and tart would be just right. As it is, I am especially enjoying the tartness when paired with cheese, slathered with butter, or perhaps later made into french toast.

All around, a very enjoyable re-entry into the home bread-making realm, and a nice decadent start to the new year, even if I disregarded a few traditions along the way in favor of using up tasty leftovers.

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I’m spent–from beer comes bread

Beer brewing and bread making are curiously similar. I like to think of brewers as extra patient bread makers who prefer to drink their loaves out of big cups. We both start with water, starch and yeast, and both have one primary flavor addition (hops and salt, respectively). We both extract sugars from our starches, apply heat, encourage fermentation, experiment with new ingredient additions and techniques, and practice a great deal of patience as our products mature. Brewers end up with liquid bread after waiting serenely for what feels like a terribly long time before being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and bakers end up with really thick beer after enduring mere days or even hours of patient waiting. Although I do enjoy a good brew, I much prefer my starch-water-and-yeast medley on a plate with a nice little pat of butter or cheese, and I’m happy to leave the careful calculating and weeks of patient waiting to those who really know what they’re doing. That being said, I’m also really curious about the ways in which the bread and beer making processes can inform and contribute to one another. Having already tried putting beer in bread, much to the delight of my taste buds, I figured that it couldn’t hurt to put some of the by-products of beer into my bread and hope for the same tasty results.

I called up my friendly family brewer extraordinaire and hinted that a bounty of spent grains would be much appreciated. Armed with a fragrant container full of spent malted barley and some helpful advice from a fellow blogger (beerevolution), I set to work drying and grinding (read: pulverizing) my grains to make them a bit less bulky and chewy.

My only method of grinding was via my coffee grinder, and, incorrectly assuming this piece of equipment to be cute and demure, pushed the grind button with great enthusiasm. Not only did I turn my grains into something closely resembling peat moss, but crunchy chunks of grain flew literally everywhere.

Not to be deterred by the crunch underneath my feet or the fluff in my bowl, I forged ahead and mixed some ingredients together that I thought would nicely complement the residual malted barley flavor and texture. First I combined 12 oz. lukewarm water with 2 TB molasses and 2 1/4 tsp. yeast. I tossed in all of my ground barley (which had reduced in weight and bulk quite significantly after the oven roasting and coffee grinding debacle, ending up at a whopping 4.25 oz.) I added 3 TB melted butter, 1 TB vital wheat gluten for extra kicks, 2 tsp. salt, and roughly 18 oz. white wheat flour. The dough turned a beautiful deep brown from the molasses and the grains, and was very dense even after a good long kneading session. Luckily some larger flecks of ground malted barley remained and speckled my dough quite prettily.

After about two hours, my dense little dough ball had doubled into a nice big blob.

This I shaped into a boule and let proof for about another hour. Because this dough was so dense due to the added grain, I should probably have shaped it into two smaller loaves–I later found that it took quite a while for this big guy to cook through. Not knowing that a terribly agonizing wait of nearly an hour of baking time awaited me (how do you have such patience, brewers?), I stuck my loaf into a 425 degree oven and waited impatiently to see how it would turn out. I pulled the lovely boule out of the oven a little prematurely in my impatient state, and ended up putting it back in to finish up once I realized my blunder, but not before I managed to slice off a steaming and deliciously moist piece upon which I happily munched while awaiting the final bake.

I loved the color of the loaf and the heartiness of the texture and flavor. I felt like I should have popped open a can of beans and sung some ol’ camp cookie songs.

The malted barley, although already having been processed for beer, still retained some body and a nice little hint of flavor–not only the classic malted taste, but I thought I also detected a very mild and pleasant bitterness. The texture of the grain was really quite satisfying, with crunchy moments puncturing the soft, chewy, moist crumb. The butter and molasses chimed in with a delicate harmony and the whole thing was very nice with a slather of additional butter. I think, considering the density of this loaf, that it was wise to avoid using the spent grains when they were still fully hydrated–I can only image how much more dense it would have been. This is definitely an eat-me-immediately bread that hardens up after a day or two, but fresh out of the oven I rather enjoyed it. I’m definitely intrigued enough to continue experimenting with spent grains, and perhaps one day I’ll throw some hops in there and really make a beer loaf.

“Fast” food–making hamburger buns on the run

Generic hamburger buns are the pits. Not only are they miraculously without flavor, weight, or texture, but they are just so sad to look at. I believe the word flaccid comes to mind. That defeated looking little crumpled exterior, ever so pale, desperately trying to keep its meager innards from floating away like a balloon on a breeze–all the while knowing that life as a bun could be over without so much as the gentle crushing power of a baby’s fist. I don’t understand why we often tolerate such mediocrity in the presence of juicy hamburgers. It’s like hiring an Elvis impersonator to open for Elvis–sure the burger is the main act, but why dilute the experience with an impostor bun? A lack of time always seems to be the driving force behind the hand that grabs that giant bag of fraudulent “hamburger buns.” It is with this in mind that I would like to present you with the story of the accidental time-crunch burger bun. I am a firm believer in the fact that a great bread requires an abundance of time, but there are always occasions when time is scarce–whether accidentally, or by nature of a busy life–and yet you can still achieve a tastier bread than that sad, listless grocery variety.

Knowing that I soon had bun making duties to attend to, I had planned on mixing the full dough one night ahead of time, thereby giving it a whole 24 hours to develop flavor in the fridge. However, I discovered a distinct lack of un-spoiled milk in my fridge on the evening of dough making, and was forced to re-think my plan. Rather than make a milk-less hamburger bun, I decided to mix up a small starter that I could then add to my dough the next day when grocery stores were open and milk was available. This way I could still at least get a flavor boost from a day-old pre-ferment, even if I couldn’t let the whole dough enjoy a nice long fermentation.

I combined 6 oz. flour, 6 oz. water, and 1/4 tsp. yeast, and set the pre-ferment in the fridge to bubble away.

The next day my plans were once again thwarted when I stayed at work a bit longer than expected, and didn’t even begin to mix my final dough until 3:30, knowing that the buns were supposed to be out of the oven and onto a table in a house 40 minutes away by 5:30. I figured if I timed things just right and manipulated my bread’s environment a bit, I could just make it, and with a decent bread to boot. I turned to my chosen recipe, which came from the hilariously named Bread Winners Too: The Second Rising by Mel London, and got to work. I split the recipe in half, as I didn’t really want 32 large buns, and I measured in ounces rather than cups. I also accommodated for the additional liquid content of the pre-ferment by adding a bit more flour.

I began by heating together 10 oz. milk, 2 TB vegetable oil (I would have preferred butter, but I actually only had olive oil, so into the pan it went), 2 TB honey, and 1 tsp. salt. I dissolved 1 TB yeast in 4 oz. warm water. I combined both of these mixtures with my deliciously fragrant pre-ferment.

To this I added one whole beaten egg, and a whole lot of flour. By the time I had finished adding in all the flour that the dough needed to reach the right consistency, I had used 22 oz. white wheat flour, and 8 oz. whole wheat flour. The original recipe, from the kitchen of farmer Connie Hartland, called for all whole wheat flour, but I personally prefer a bit of a blend. After a 10 minute knead, the dough was elastic and glistening prettily from the olive oil.

While at this stage, I would have loved to have stuck the whole thing in the fridge to ferment overnight, I instead covered it up and strapped it into the back seat of my car where it was treated to a nice little joy ride to the kitchen of its ultimate demise.  Thankfully, my car had been sitting in the sun and was quite toasty–really quite an ideal place for bread to rise rapidly if you’re in a hurry. Also thankfully, the recipe I was working with called for an abundance of yeast, which meant that the dough was designed to be a rapid riser and not a slow fermenter.

After 40 minutes in the hot car and another 20 minutes in the new locale, I knew I had to start shaping the bread if it was to be baked in time for dinner. The dough hadn’t totally doubled, but I threw all caution to the wind for the sake of a timely meal and started speed-shaping. Soliciting help, we tore off 4 oz. chunks and rolled them into itsy bitsy baguettes before tying them into knots that could easily have been rivaled by the work of a kindergartener tying his shoes. These were brushed with olive oil and recklessly topped with sesame seeds that went everywhere but the tops of the buns. I employed another time-crunch short-cut and stuck the buns into the oven just before I turned it on, allowing them to have an accelerated proofing period as the oven warmed up from room temperature to 350 degrees.

As the oven warmed and I incessantly peeked in on the little knotted guys, I began to fear that they had been subjected to time-saving methods a bit too harshly, and that they might be a flop. Just as I believed my fears to be affirmed, the buns began to expand like little doughy puffer fish–all that extra yeast pulling its weight in the final moments. A nice golden crust emerged, and I sighed with relief.

A final brushing of olive oil, post-baking, added a lovely luster to the already golden tops. Unfortunately I once again neglected my photographic duties as soon as I was presented with the opportunity to eat, and therefore cannot show you what these little guys looked like on the inside. The interior was beautifully dense, much like a bagel, with a tight network of tiny air bubbles making up a very soft and moist crumb. The flavor was actually quite developed–thanks to the pre-ferment and to the hearty combination of whole wheat flour and honey. Although I am sure the buns would have been loftier and more deeply flavored given a proper rising time, they were quite pleasingly delicious and toothsome as they were. Instead of being a squishy and flavorless means of holding and devouring a hamburger, these little buns provided some serious sandwiching action and harmonious flavoring for beautiful, heaping piles of pulled pork (and for me a beautiful heaping pile of veggie burgers.)

“I brought you flours”–an experimental semolina soy bread

After last week’s buttery indulgence, the Lady Justice of all things culinary was standing sternly before me balancing her scales, one side weighed down heavily with a plethora of croissants, the other side floating aimlessly above. I felt compelled to bring balance to my kitchen, and set to work creating a very ordinary and healthful loaf in which not a single pat of butter appeared. Still having vast stores of random flours from my latest Reny’s binge, I selected soy flour and semolina flour as my subjects for experimentation, encouraged by their nutritious benefits. Soy flour in particular packs a punch with protein, fiber, iron, and even some vitamin C. Lady Justice smiled upon me. Since soy flour lacks gluten, I thought semolina flour would be an appropriate addition, being rich in gluten itself, and hoped that their flavors would combine well. My only slight indulgence was a minuscule dollop of molasses, a flavorful sweetener that I thought might positively complement the nuttiness of the flours.

I ended up with the following amounts of hodgepodge ingredients:

8 oz. lukewarm water

1 tsp. yeast (I would use just a touch more next time)

1 TB molasses (also could use just a bit more)

3 oz. semolina flour

2 oz. soy flour

9 oz. white wheat flour

1 1/2 tsp. salt (next time just a dash more)

I mixed and kneaded, and applied my Reinhartian principles (by which I mean I stuck it in the fridge for an overnight delayed fermentation).

In the morning, I took the dough out of the fridge, went back to bed, and when I next arose after a leisurely morning snooze, the dough had magically finished doubling in size. I then decided to play a little trick on Lady Justice, and set to work making my loaf look decadent, even though it wasn’t going to taste decadent. Really, it was just an excuse to try out my braiding technique.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the chance to make a braided loaf for ages, but haven’t yet had an appropriate opportunity. I should have waited until I tried making challah, but I couldn’t resist the urge, and started braiding my very plain dough.

My elementary school french braiding technique came flying back to my fingers, and a doughy plait emerged. I let it sit and proof for about an hour before making another deceptively decadent-looking addition by slathering the top with an egg wash. I popped the whole thing into my 400 degree oven–using a slightly lower temperature than usual because soy flour is said to brown rather easily. After about 20 or 30 minutes, I pulled the braid out of the oven, and my eyes were duly deceived by the beautiful finish that disguised my ordinary loaf.

At this point, I wished that I’d been as honest as Sarah, Plain and Tall, and made this bread look like Semolina Soy Loaf, Plain and Lumpy. Instead it looked like Challah, Sweet and Eggy. Before I took my first bite I had to barrage my brain and taste buds with little reminders as to what to expect. Once I was able to shut out the visual, I was relatively pleased with the simple and light flavor that met my palate, although as I mentioned previously, it could have used just a touch more molasses and perhaps another little dash of salt. It was very pleasantly moist and ever-so-slightly chewy, with a denser crumb and nice crunchy crust. The flavors of the soy and semolina flours had a nice subtle presence, adding a nutty and rich depth of flavor without putting down a flag and claiming my palate for its own. A little extra yeast in the dough would have more fully expanded all of the glutenous strands made by my high gluten flour additions, but as it was, the denser crumb was actually quite pleasant.

All in all, a very ordinary and simple, yet tasty and nutritious bread to level the balances. If only I hadn’t confused my hungry eyes–it’s no wonder that Lady Justice is blindfolded.

Let the wild (sourdough) rumpus begin!

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but you can easily substitute the word  “leftovers” or “skepticism” for the word “necessity” and get the same result. I had an abundance of leftovers and skepticism so I was well poised for some inventing. I had to nourish my neglected sourdough starter last night, which left me, as usual, with about 8 oz. of uncertainty. I also had quite a bit of rapidly browning rosemary, half of a forgotten onion in the nether regions of my fridge, and some nice plump tomatoes. So, after a pleasant romp through some new and exciting bread books, I was back to haphazard experimentation with discarded sourdough bits.

A few weeks ago I began my sourdough starter according to the instructions in Bread Alone, but somewhere along the way I’m pretty sure that I flubbed up my proportions and no longer feel comfortable following the book’s sourdough formulas, as the hydration of my starter is likely a far cry from its intended state. This has left me with sourdough avoidance and guilt. When I removed 8 oz. of the starter last night, I replenished the remaining goo with more flour and water and put it back in the fridge with much lingering doubt. I threw 4 oz. flour and 1 oz. water into the starter that I had removed until it resembled something a bit stiffer but not too stiff (as Bread Alone instructs), and I left this on the counter to bubble, hoping that some disaster might befall it so that I could avoid using it altogether.

By the time I got around to thinking about using this intimidating mass of dough, I quite simply didn’t want to, and I put it in time-out in the fridge overnight. Then, the next day, with renewed Yankee thriftiness bolstered by guilt-inspired confidence, I decided I should man up and make an experimental loaf of sourdough something.

Here was my mind set behind the decision to make a sourdough focaccia: focaccia is flat and is supposed to look all knobby. It is also supposed to have tasty things scattered on top of it. If the dough is a failure and it comes out all flat and knobby, that is just superb. Even better, it has toppings behind which it can hide.

So, armed with a plethora of leftovers and a generous portion of skepticism, I began mixing up a dough. Since focaccia is typically a stickier dough with a higher water to flour ratio than, say, French bread, I was careful not to overdo the flour. I took my starter and mushed it up in 8 oz. water. I added 1 tsp. yeast because I wasn’t sure how potent my starter would be after all that neglect. Then I added 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar, and 2 TB olive oil–the key to a nice soft focaccia. I ended up adding in just a little over 12 oz. flour, putting the dough at around 65% hydration–just where a focaccia should be, according to Mr. Reinhart.

Since the dough was pretty sticky, I kneaded for a brief time, and then tried ye olde stretch and fold technique again. I stretched and folded, waited ten minutes, and repeated the procedure a few times until the dough had firmed up a little.

It was still sticky, but now manageable. I coated the dough in olive oil, and let it rise until it had doubled, which took almost two hours. Then I chopped the dough ball in half and began stretching each piece into an amoeba-esque form. The dough very gladly stretched in every direction the second I picked it up, and probably would have stretched to the floor if I hadn’t stopped it. I didn’t want to over handle the dough, though, because some nice big bubbles had formed that would puff up beautifully in the oven. I then busted out my leftovers and covered each piece of dough with a security mask, in case of impending disaster. Each one received a coating of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and one got rosemary while the other got tomatoes and onions.

After a brief proofing of maybe half an hour, I awkwardly transferred the elastic dough onto the 400 degree oven stone, making mutant amoeba shapes even more absurd than before. The loaves cooked quickly because of their thin nature, and after very little time, my ugly duckling dough had turned into beautiful swan focaccia. The air bubbles that I had carefully avoided deflating made a nice little landscape on the surface of the golden bread, and the bottom had crisped up to just the right degree–not nearly enough to break your teeth, but enough to support the loaf and prevent it from buckling.

I ripped off a corner of the steaming loaf and was very pleased to see and hear a really nice crust and crumb. It tore easily and was filled with lofty air pockets. The bread was somehow simultaneously delicate and crispy–a hybrid soft-crunch that was very toothsome and satisfying.

Although I was sort of winging it on the salt, sugar and olive oil proportions, their flavors seemed well balanced, and were out-shined anyway by a slowly developing sourdough flavor that kicked you in the pants after a few moments of munching. I think because I neglected my starter for so long and made it spend the night in the fridge, the sour flavor really developed some strength. I personally enjoy a strong sour flavor on occasion if it is nestled in a nicely textured crumb, but if your taste buds are timid, you’ll definitely want to pay more attention to your starter than I did.

Regardless of your sourdough sensibilities, try experimenting! I’ve been following recipes and formulas pretty closely the last few days and it felt great to mess around and be foolish. Although I didn’t feel comfortable following any prescribed formulas because of my starter’s uncertain hydration levels, any dough that has been fermenting for a while is bound to add flavor and excitement to an otherwise straightforward bread, and should be added to the mix with zeal.