Saturday, September 27, 2008

Making Peace with Yeast

I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with yeast. I’ve made bread as flat as a pancake. And I’ve made bread that was reminiscent of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. But today I determined to try again.

I’ve always believed that a really good Jewish wife/mother could make challah blindfolded. But that has never been the case with me. I took a class in challah-making several years ago at Temple Micah. The instructors were those who make gigantic challahs that feed the entire congregation on a Shabbat morning, wafting out the aroma of baking bread toward the end of the service. The resulting loaf, made with 5 pounds of flour, is warm and delicious and always looks to me to be perfect.

I was entertaining the people who were most involved in painting the Darfur tent for Shabbat dinner last night. I had determined to make a challah early enough in the day that I still had time to go out and buy one if it was a total disaster.

The night before I read over the instructions from my class. When I came to the line “mix in enough flour to form a dough that comes away from the side of the bowl”, I knew I was in trouble. I called the challah experts and learned that meant about 6 cups.

At the crack of dawn, I was proofing yeast and getting ready for a morning of kneading, rising, and braiding. I do love the feel of warm bread dough. I love the rhythm you establish as you turn and push until it becomes rather elastic.

It never fails to amaze me that you start with a little puddle of dough at the bottom of a big bowl that wants only to grow (unless you kill the yeast). I took care not to overheat my little puddle of dough.

After two risings, I divided and braided the dough, making a little braid to sit on top of the big one. I put on an egg wash and sprinkled it liberally with poppy seeds.

After a third rising, I put it in the oven to bake. That’s when the bread aroma creeps into every corner of the house, overpowering the smell of last night’s onions or wet dog. It is a very comforting smell.

My monster loaf of bread emerged from the oven 45 minutes later. It was far from perfect, having turned some braid lines into small dimples. But it was certainly presentable.

My guests seemed to like it and were quite willing to take home doggy bags of challah.

The challah was the traditional part of the dinner. We also had beet-tomato salad, roasted potatoes with onions and garlic, Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts, barbecued chicken, and my favorite new dessert recipe from my friend LR: peach-blackberry crisp, served with homemade yogurt.

It was a good group. After talking for several hours, they went home with full bellies and leftover challah.

I looked at the two remaining packages of yeast and wondered if I would use them before they expired.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Gal!

I used to make challah too even though I was a shiksa married to a Jewish guy. I loved baking it and although it was the braid was not always perfect, the aroma and the taste was always grand. Now that I live in 100F heat most of the year, my bread baking has dwindled to nil but I may make some when my kids come (finally) to see my home at Thanksgiving.

1:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness....... I should proofread at this time of night.... the double "was" around the "braid" and the was/not were about aroma and taste make me ashamed to admit I am Kate......... :)

Again unable to post as my blog name.

1:01 AM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Wish I'd been there - that loaf made my mouth water. I've never made challah but I, too, love making my own bread. Would you send me the recipe for that one (I'll trade you for my never-fail squash bread)?

7:30 AM  
Blogger lettuce said...

that looks wonderful!

i think the perfect thing about home-made bread is precisely that its NOT shop-perfect.

I have a bread-machine, which i love and use all the time, but i sometimes miss the kneading and - well, and the whole experience...

8:45 AM  
Blogger e said...

Your Challah looks absolutely divine! I hope you and your family and friends will enjoy the upcoming days.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I LOVE how adventurous you are and willing to try new things or things you've previously "failed". That challah looks fantastic.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

Beautiful challah, Barbara! I could smell it baking from here!

I think that baking is one of those things that takes the emotions from the maker and puts it in physical form. For this reason, I don't make a pie or a loaf of bread when I am angry or upset. I don't want to poison the world!

Shabbat Shalom!

12:23 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kate -- I don't know what keeps happening to force you to post anon! Just continue to "sign" and I will know it's you.

Let your grandchildren help you knead the bread or better yet, let each of them make a mini-loaf. I'm envious!

Pauline -- I just sent you the recipe, hoping your e-mail address has not recently changed. You owe me one now! Any recipes for mustard greens? They come in today's CSA crate.

Lettuce -- I have a bread machine which I never use because I actually like the process of kneading bread!

E -- Thanks for your good wishes and the same to you. Are you getting e-mail from me because one message bounced back accusing me of being a scam!

Kristin -- Plan B was going to be challah from Best Buns, which is never fail! Fortunately this one was acceptable.

Kelly -- Interesting baking philosophy. I would have thought kneading would be a good way to work out the anger.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Ruth D~ said...

Mmmmm . . . I can smell the yeasty goodness. There is something about baking bread that is so primitive. I say definitely use that yeast now while your success is still fresh from the oven.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

RuthD -- You've inspired me!

2:24 PM  
Blogger e said...


I haven't gotten any e-mail from you in a couple of days or so. I just thought you were busy due to the High Holy Days. I don't know what could have caused the problem.

Shabbat Shalom!

5:00 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

E -- I'm sending the returned message to you via our mutual friend. Maybe you can sort out the problem with your internet provider! Good luck and shana tovah!

5:09 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- I tried to send the recipe via e-mail. But I'm having the same trouble I had sending E. a message: HOTMAIL doesn't like my IP address and is blocking anything I send. So here's the recipe:


Combine and heat to 80-100 degrees:
1 cup milk (any kind)
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. salt

Sprinkle over liquid:
1 package of yeast

Wait a minute let it soften, then add:
2 lightly beaten eggs

Add 6 cups of flour, a cup at a time, mixing well.

Turn dough out onto a well floured surface and knead until dough becomes springy under the hand, adding flour sparingly as needed to keep dough from sticking. Knead at least 5 minutes. Take care not to add too much flour. It's almost impossible to over-knead bread dough by hand.

Place dough in large oiled bowl, turning to coat all sides, to rise. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth. Let rise in a warm space at about 75 degrees until doubled in size, about an hour. Punch down the dough with your fist and let it rise again.

Punch down the dough and remove it to a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Roll each between hands to form strands about 21 inches long. Place the 4 strips lengthwise on a greased cookie sheet. Pinch the tops together and braid as follows: Pick up the strand on the right, bring it over the next one, under the third, and over the fourth. Repeat, always starting with the strand on the right, until braid is complete. Cut ends even reserving dough (you'll need about 1/2 cup); tuck ends under; pinch to seal. Roll reserved dough into a strip about 15 inches long; divide into 3 equal parts and make a small 3-strand braid. Lay on top center of the large braid.
Cover lightly trying to avoid the cloth touching the dough and let rise until about one third again as large. Meanwhile preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the bread with an egg wash (whole egg beaten with one tablespoon of water) and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if desired.

Bake for about 45 minutes or until done. Bread is done when the internal temperature is about 190 degrees.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

What a beautiful loaf! I always like the idea of baking bread, but I don't think I've ever actually done it -- or if I have it was so long ago that I don't really remember!

5:04 PM  

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