Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bread and Jam, Part II: Not Just for the New Year Round Challah

I've been baking challah for years and years. It may have even been the first bread I learned to bake, but I can't really remember since it's been so long. It's a great first bread to bake, in any case, because the eggs and the oil make the dough easy to work with, and the braided loaf always looks very impressive. Even though these days I'm more likely to make no-knead bread or buy a loaf from the excellent Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, I still like to make challah every once in awhile.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is often such a time. Though I am completely and utterly unobservant in terms of any kind of formal religion, I do find myself occasionally partaking in Jewish food traditions (including being incredibly picky about bagels). It also so happened that this year Rosh Hashana was early and just a few days before my birthday. So, it seemed like baking a loaf of round challah to welcome the Jewish new year and my new year both was the right thing to do.

I didn't even have to ponder recipe possibilities--I returned to my standby of many, many years, Racheli's Deluxe Challah from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu. It's not that I haven't tried other challah recipes, but I always find myself returning to Racheli's challah. This time, however, I fiddled a bit. One of the recipes I'd tried a few years ago was the challah from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, which is a fabulous book. Several of my favorite breads are in here, but I have to admit, I was underwhelmed by the challah. It was richer than Racheli's challah but not any better. Where Peter Reinhart is helpful, though, is that he writes his recipes for instant yeast, which is the kind of yeast that you can mix right in with the flour without proofing. I've been a convert to this method for some years and wanted to use it for the challah.

The other thing about the Katzen recipe is that it makes two "substantial" loaves. And when Mollie Katzen says substantial, she's not kidding. Once, in the year or two after college, I got a letter from my friend Ann, who'd been my cooking partner when we lived in a coop our senior year at Amherst. I'd taught her to bake challah, and this may have been the first time she'd made it on her own. In any case, she sent a note to say that she'd made a challah "as big as a skateboard." I laughed, but I wasn't, actually, surprised.

So, I decided to use Racheli's challah as my base recipe, but reduce the recipe to make one big loaf rather than two and adjust it for instant yeast. All easily done. What was less easily done was figuring out how to make a round and braided loaf of challah, as opposed to just a round or braided one. I'd turned a regular braid into a round one, and I'd made a round one without braids, but I'd never done round and braided at the same time. For instructions, I turned to this website, which has detailed instructions and clear photos. (Given my above-mentioned state of non-religiosity, I do appreciate the irony of using the Chabad website, which I would have absolutely no reason to look at otherwise, for instructions. Still, it does the trick, in this case, and that's what matters.) Even with the clear pictures, though, I'll admit I had to unbraid it approximately 17 times before I had the AHA moment and figured out what to do. Still, what I ended up with was gorgeous. I documented my efforts, but I'd advise looking at the other website's photos for actual instructions.

Somehow, though, the one substantial loaf I made vanished mysteriously after just a few days, and I wondered if I should have stuck to the original recipe in the first place. In any case, whatever shape you make it, this is delicious challah. Delicious dipped in honey for the new year or slathered with peanut butter and homemade peach jam (which I just happened to have a supply of) with a cup of tea in the morning or with cheese on top and dipped into tomato soup at lunchtime. It's also delicious stale, as French toast. All in all, a challah for all seasons. And a belated happy new year to all.

p.s. It disappeared so quickly that by the time I realized that I wanted to take a bread and jam photo, given the title of this post, it was all gone.

p.p.s. I realize the two middle photos look similar. But after you follow the instructions (17 times until they make sense, or just once) and finally have your round braided loaf and it looks like the loaf on the left, you have to flip it over, and then it looks more properly braided, as in the one on the right.

Racheli's Deluxe Challah
Adapted from Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu, with help from Peter Reinhart

4- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour (Challah traditionally uses all white flour, but I slipped in a cup of white whole wheat instead of 1 cup of all-purpose flour.)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs (keep one aside for the egg wash at the end)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
approx. 1 1/4 cup water
1 cup raisins (optional)
poppy and/or sesame seeds for sprinkling on top

In large bowl (or bowl of standing mixer), combine 4 cups flour, yeast, salt and sugar. In separate bowl, lightly whisk together eggs, vegetable oil and water. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients.

If you have a standing mixer, you can start with the paddle and move to the dough hook once the liquids have been incorporated. Knead with dough hook for 5-8 minutes, adding small amounts of flour if the dough is still sticky. If you're making it without a mixer, stir in the bowl until the dough is too stiff and then turn out onto a floured board and knead for 5-10 minutes until dough is smooth and not sticky.

Oil a clean bowl and the top of the dough. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with clean tea towel and place in a warm and draft free place to rise until doubled , 1.5-2 hours.

Punch down the dough, return to the floured surface and divide into four sections. Let rest for 5 minutes. Knead each quarter for several minutes and then roll into a long rope, about 1.5 inches in diameter. Make the ropes as long as you can manage, at least 12 inches each.

Follow the instructions on this page for turning those 4 ropes of dough into a gorgeous round braided loaf. I did the braiding on a piece of parchment paper, which makes the transfer to a baking sheet easy.

Place the loaf, on its piece of parchment paper (or a Silpat) on a baking sheet. Cover with the tea towel, return to a warm spot and allow it to rise for about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350. When the dough is ready to go into the oven, beat the second egg and brush it over your loaves. Sprinkle with poppy and/or sesame seeds, and bake for 35-45 minutes. The bread will give off a hollow sound when thumped the bottom, when it is done and look gorgeously brown. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Return of Corduroy Mansions!

Just a quickie here to report that the third installment of Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions series--this one titled "A Conspiracy of Friends"--started THIS WEEK! The past two years, I didn't hear about it until it was well underway. This year, though, my plan is to listen to it as a true serial novel, 1 episode a day, 5 days a week until mid-December.

Of course, four episodes have been broadcast already and I haven't listened to any of them yet, but still. At least I only have 4 episodes to catch up on rather than 40.

On the main Corduroy Mansions page on the Telegraph website you can find links to the audio downloads as well as the page links, if you want to read rather than listen. (You can also download the episodes as podcasts on iTunes.) There's also an interview with Alexander McCall Smith and other Corduroy Mansions-related links.

I have to admit, I don't like Corduroy Mansions quite as much as I like the 44 Scotland Street series, if only because there's not a character quite as endearing as Bertie, the bedraggled 6 year old prodigy, nor as odious as Irene, Bertie's overbearing mother (though Oedipus Snark, the awful MP, comes close). Still, I love the idea of a serial novel and I love the idea of little snippets of a story to take me through the fall. And so Corduroy Mansions, book three, here I come.

p.s. I wrote about Corduroy Mansions, book one, in November 2008 and Corduroy Mansions, book two, in November 2009. I have to admit that it is only because I "liked" Corduroy Mansions on Facebook that I am writing about part three in September rather than in November. Facebook does have its uses, I'll admit. (I wouldn't have gotten so many happy birthday messages without it, for one!)

p.p.s. The book version of the first Corduroy Mansions book came out in the U.S. this summer and was reviewed in, among other places, The Washington Post, and on NPR.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bread and Jam, Part I: Peach Freezer Jam

I should be a person who cans.

It makes sense. I knit, I garden, I bake. I even live in an old farmhouse with a canning cupboard in the basement, out of which I extracted many glass Ball jars (empty, thankfully) when I moved in. Canning should be the obvious next step.

It's not the labor I'm opposed to, or the special equipment. In an ideal world, I can totally envision myself putting up jars and jars of tomato sauce and peaches and jam. The problem, in this less-than-ideal world, is space. As in, I have no space to keep those jars and jars that I might wish to can. My kitchen is somewhat lacking in shelf space as it is. I've tried to make up for this with a set of Ikea shelves, although these now list rather alarmingly to one side, so full of cookbooks and pantry items they are. And that canning cupboard in the basement - - it's blocked by empty boxes and miscellaneous junk. Alas. Someday, in my ideal world--or even maybe in the real one--I will move the junk, toss the boxes and clear out the cupboard. Then, I will buy myself an enormous pot in which to sterilize jars and whatever else I need, and I will learn how to can.

For now, there's the freezer.

Not long ago, I read a blog post titled something like "Five Reasons Why I Don't Have a Second Freezer." And I thought instantly, that I could write a blog post singing the praises of my basement freezer. I'll spare you that. Suffice it to say that buying an upright freezer for my basement was something I was looking forward to well before I moved into this house. And for someone who schleps bagels home from New York and grows multitudes of tomatoes but doesn't like them raw and likes to make ice cream with a rather bulky Kitchen Aid Mixer attachment that needs to stay frozen, a second freezer is a no-brainer. It is also the answer to the canning dilemma.

Each year, in the late summer and early fall, I make vats of tomato sauce to freeze and eat throughout the winter. I freeze ratatouille and soup. A quart of last night's Caldo Verde, made with the bounty of kale from a colleague's garden, is already in the freezer for later. I take the freezer into account with most of my cooking projects. I would not want to do without it.

Still, the one thing that still tempts me about canning is jam. I love the image of those lovely colored jars on the shelves, the jammy goodness restorative in the middle of a New England winter. Somehow, jam in the freezer doesn't have the same appeal. Or, it didn't used to, at least.

I tried my first batch of freezer jam a year ago. That one called for pectin, and I may have over cooked it, as it ended up slightly firmer than I would have liked. I was thinking about giving it another go when I looked in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, in which I found a recipe for low-sugar jam, meant for either immediate eating or the freezer. Bittman's recipe didn't require pectin--just fruit, sugar and lemon juice. I was intrigued.

I started with peach seconds from the farmers' market. I figured that since I was just going to be mushing them up anyway, they didn't need to be pristine. They wouldn't win any beauty contests, but they didn't have to. Once they'd been blanched and chopped up, they just looked peachy rather than mushy.

I mashed them up with the potato masher, added the sugar and lemon juice and let it bubble and boil, while I puttered around the kitchen doing other things. (You need to be in the vicinity to give the jam a stir every few minutes so it doesn't burn.) Bittman says the jam should take 30 minutes to cook down. Mine took more like an hour, but still. It was an easy hour, and by then, the jam looked jam-like rather than sauce-like. I tried it plain and on toast, with butter and peanut butter, and except for lacking the decorative feel of canned jam, it's serving the purpose admirably.

I've since made a second batch, and while the canning cupboard remains empty, the freezer is filling up. There could be worse ways to begin the fall.

Peach Freezer Jam
Adapted from Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything

6 cups peaches, blanched and roughly chopped
1 1/2 - 2 cups sugar, more or less
2 tsp. lemon juice

  1. Place the fruit in a large saucepan and crush lightly with a fork or potato masher. Add 1 1/2 cups sugar and the lemon juice. Turn heat to medium high.
  2. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture liquefies. Taste, and add more sugar, if necessary. You may want 2 cups or more, total.
  3. Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has broken down and the mixture is thick, 15 - 30 minutes. Taste and add more sugar or lemon juice if necessary, then cool and refrigerate or freeze.
A few things: I used between 4-5 cups of peaches and scaled the sugar down accordingly. 1 cup of sugar for 4 cups of peaches was more than enough. I didn't want it any sweeter.

Bittman says that 6 cups of peaches makes 3 pints of jam. Even though I used fewer peaches, I didn't have anything close to 3 pints.

Still, even in its limited quantities, the jam is lovely and worth making. I look forward to eating it on my toast in February.