Sunday, February 10, 2008

Recipe of the week from The Cooking of the Middle-East: Challah bread

I apologise for not including recipes from all the chapters, but to tell the truth, all the really interesting ones are quite long and involved and I am simply too lazy to type them up (but not to cook them…).
Challah is a type of braided white bread, traditional to the Jewish people. There have been some long and interesting discussions on Challah-making on my favourite food discussion forum, which made me curious, so I chose Challah as recipe of the week. In the book, the recipe and detailed instructions take up a whole page, obviously so that an inexperienced baker can make the recipe. I am going to assume some expertise on behalf of my readers, and have therefore abbreviated the instructions somewhat, and mixed them with instructions gleaned from other challah recipes and my own experience in bread-making.

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A baked loaf of challah. The egg wash gives it a dark, shiny crust

3/8 pint (12 tbs) lukewarm water
2 oz. (ca. 55 g) fresh yeast or 1 oz. (2 tbs + 2 tsp) dried
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lb. (565 g to 680 g) plain flour
1 tbs sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
2 oz. (3 tbs) + 1 scant tsp vegetable cooking fat
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 1/2 tbs water

Put half the lukewarm water into a small bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand for a coupe of minutes, then stir to dissolve the yeast completely. Set aside in a warm place for about 5 minutes, until the mixture has almost doubled in volume.

Put 1 lb. (450 g) of the flour in a large bowl with the sugar and salt and mix well. Make a well in the centre, add the yeast, the remaining water, eggs, and 2 tbs of fat.

Stir well together until all the flour is absorbed, then add up to 1/2 lb (225 g) flour, a little at a time, to form a dough that holds its shape as a soft ball.

Turn out unto a floured surface and knead for about 15 minutes, or as long as it takes to form a smooth, elastic dough.

Shape into a ball and put into a large, lightly greased bowl. Cover with a towel and set in a warm place to rise, until doubled in size (about 45 minutes).

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The dough, risen and unrisen

Punch down the dough and knead for a few minutes, then set aside for 10 minutes.

Grease a large baking sheet with the remaining tsp of fat. Divide the dough into as many equally sized pieces as you want in the braid (recipe calls for 4, but I used 3). Roll out into long sausage shapes, a bit longer than you intend the baked bread to be, narrowing at the ends.

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The strands of dough

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The braided loaf

Press one end of each of the strands together and braid tightly (don’t pull on the strands!), pressing together the other ends and tucking the ends under the loaf. Carefully place the loaf on the greased baking sheet and cover it with a cloth. Let it rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes.

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The risen loaf with egg wash applied.
At this stage the loaf had risen to "oh, my goodness! This is going to take over the oven!" proportions.

Heat the oven to 400°F (about 200°C, 190°C if you have a convection oven). Mix together the egg yolk and water and brush the top of the loaf with it. Bake in the centre of the oven for about 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375°F (190°C, 180°C for convection ovens) and bake for about 45 minutes longer, until the challah is golden brown and crusty. Cook on a wire rack.

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Note the difference between the areas where the wash was applied and the ones where it was not

Notes and review:
I made the bread exactly as instructed, except I used oil instead of fat. The outcome was a gorgeous-looking loaf, which was fluffy and rather dry. I don’t know if challah is supposed to be this way, or if I perhaps over- or under-kneaded it or baked it for too long, but the texture is consistent with other leavened breads I have eaten that include eggs in the recipe (such as panettone). It was not very flavourful but tasted good with butter, cheese and/or jam on top. I took some to friends of mine who liked it and their kids loved it.

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Cookbook review:
I got this book at the local flea market last Sunday and since I wanted to read it right away I decided to make it cookbook of the week. It is not just a cookbook, but an attempt to describe the cuisines and culinary traditions of the region, with a short chapter on food history added for good measure. It’s part of a series from Time-Life, published in the 1960s and 70s. All the books originally consisted of a large-format book about the food of the chosen country or region and a small spiral-bound recipe booklet, kept together in a slipcase. I have the set of slipcase and two books for Scandinavia, but in this case I only got the large-format book, which only has a few recipes.

The style of the writing reminds me strongly of certain old National Geographic articles, as the author chattily describes his and his wife’s journey through the region in search of dining experiences and recipes.

Verdict: A very satisfying read. I think I will be on the lookout, not only for more books in the series, but also for a copy of the missing booklet.

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Rebecca said...

My favourite challah recipe is in a book called The Bread Bible... it is kind of a dry bread but this one recipe is really nice.

Anonymous said...

boa receita, eu fiz e aprovei.

Para enriquecer coloco um pouco de calda de figos em conserva(4 cl.sopa) mais 2 cl sopa e açucar, raspas de laranja e limão e 01 colher de chá rasa de canela, além de frutas cristalizadas.Fica maravilhoso!