Monday, August 11, 2014

UnRecipe: Challa-back Girl

Hello, my name is Wasabi and I'm a Stress Baker. It's certainly not an unfamiliar means to combat anxiety, and to be honest, it's a great motivator to try new, overly complex things. In this case, I learned to make the traditional Jewish bread, challah. To which we all love to shout, "Challllllahhhhh!" like we're in a Missy Elliot video. That being said, I've most certainly become a Challah-back Girl, baking up a storm when times get wiggy.

Challah, you knotty little mix of a bread, you - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Challah is a gorgeous bread, hands down. Reminiscent of a French brioche, it's got eggs, plenty of yeast to make it rise like crazy, and it gets shellacked like a mofo with egg to give it that incredible shiny browned surface. It's great for making French toast, delicious as buns for burger and sandwiches, and just tasty to eat on its own. And it's a beautiful bread to look at -- the tradition of braiding the bread into loaves, complex boules and even wreaths comes down to the Jewish Shabbat, which represents unity. The days of the week represent diversity, and many times challah bread is made up of 6 strands of dough, braided together to make a single loaf. The food is a representation of interwoven blessings, which is both a lovely idea to consider as well as to look at.

The thing that surprised me the most about making challah from scratch was how easy it was. For a basic challah dough, I like Food 52's recipe, shown here. You can mix it by hand, but having a mixer with a dough hook definitely makes it easier. The dough is sticky and needs time to rest and rise. I devised a lazy way of proofing, using the refrigerator for a very long proof, like one or two days chillin' like a villain in a large bowl, covered with plastic wrap. You give up a bit of space in the fridge, but it's worth it if you don't have time to do everything in a single day. Once the dough has had a couple of days to proof in the fridge, I let it come to room temperature, either covered and sitting on the counter if it's a warm day, or I often keep it covered and sitting in the oven with just the oven light on for a couple of hours. In that time, it will come to room temperature and also do another rise, doubling in size. At that point, you can start rolling it out and shaping your dough. A benefit to letting the dough proof in the fridge for a long time is even after it's come to temperature and had a second proof, it doesn't need a lot of flour to make it manageable during shaping; I'm assuming the extra-long resting time has allowed the gluten to relax, and it just makes the dough very easy to handle.

Challah's flavor can also be modified; my first attempt at making it was based off this non-traditional recipe, inspired by Chinese scallion cakes, from My Jewish Learning - a recipe for Asian Challah. I modified this modification, adding shreds of cheddar instead of Chinese spices, but the idea of stuffing the braids with a filling can be customized any way you wish. You can make savory or sweet-stuffed challah. Fill it with nuts and dried fruit. Brown sugar and cinnamon. Heck you could make it completely un-Kosher and fill it with bacon. The dough is very forgiving and easy to work with, the flavor profile is neutral enough, so this can be whatever bread you want it to be.

A cheese and scallion-stuffed version of challah - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Shaping the dough can be as simple or complex as you like. The Interwebs is an invaluable tool -- photos and drawn instructions will appear like magic when you type in "challah braid instructions" in a search engine. I kept things simple, doing a basic 3-strand braid for my first challah loaf, but I was inspired by some of the more complex styles, and have made mini sandwich bun-sized loaves, which are twisted and knotted. I used a method similar to this instructional page on The Secret of Challah, which has great visual instructions on both full sized braided loaves and smaller bun knots.

Big or small, challah is beautiful to work with! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's all about the egg wash. The Food 52 recipe instructs for a single wash, I'm a fan of two washes, which is how I got that super-caramelized brown color. I read a few different recipes and methods for challah, and I saw several recipes that recommend two egg washes with just egg yolk. I just used a single egg, lightly beaten, but the 2-wash method is tried and true. You're already having to crack an egg, why not use as much of it as possible? After shaping your challah loaf or buns to their desired form, set it on your parchment-lined baking sheet and liberally paint on a layer of egg. Let it sit in the oven with the light on for about an hour -- it will continue to rise, so give everything on the tray plenty of room. Take the baking sheet out, start preheating the oven, and when that's happening, paint on a second heavy coating of egg. You can leave it at that, or sprinkle extras like sea salt on top. I've tried other toppings like flavored/herbed salt, but it has the potential to  burn, so sticking with plain flake salt is best.

The secret to beautiful challah - 2 egg washes, cheesy filling and a happy dog - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Whether your challah is filled with cheese and scallions or totally plain, it's a treat to make and eat. You'll be surprised how easy it is, and the effort is well worth it. Giving it extra time to rest in the refrigerator makes it a less hurried process, and the making of it can be stretched across multiple days if you're pressed for time. Lately I've been a fan of making smaller knotted buns for sandwiches and burgers -- they're beautiful to look at and so delicious to eat! While Indy was the source of so much of this stress baking, she most certainly enjoyed the results!

The rewards of baking your own bread! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

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