Bread Baker’s Apprentice Bread #1: Challah
I decided I would explore the art of bread baking this past summer. The first step in this process was to purchase a book on bread. After reading internet reviews, leafing through the extensive collection of bread books at Barnes and Noble, and discovering the BBA challenge forum on the blog, Pinchmysalt, I decided to purchase Peter Reinhart’s book, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
Now I have made many types of yeast breads before, but I wanted to delve in deeper and learn more about the specifics of making artisan bread. After skimming this book again once home, I decided to begin with a bread that could be made in one day. After browsing through the small quantity of one-day breads, I chose Challah.
Now Challah is one of those breads that there are so many different recipes for and multiple variations. Many Jewish families have their own secret challah recipe that has been passed down through many generations. The one I usually use is one given to me my freshman year in college by one of the directors of the Hillel chapter. She would make this challah every other Friday starting at 11am. The first time I tasted this delectable creation, I thought it was literally the best thing I had ever eaten. It was also different from any other challah recipe I’d ever tried. This challah was extremely moist and sweeter than most challah. After helping her make the challah for the Hillel’s Friday night Shabbat dinners, I asked for her recipe. Surprisingly, she gave it to me (typically, only the Hillel seniors receive this recipe in their goodie bag when they graduate). I felt quite special. Ever since then, that is my go-to challah recipe. Every time I make it at home, my brother basically devours one loaf as soon as it emerges from the oven, savoring its warm and slightly doughy interior and its crisp, hot braided crust. Luckily it makes four loaves.
Anyways, as you can see, it was quite difficult to deviate from that recipe. Well I finally did it, since my goal is to make every recipe in the BBA book (eventually).
Now on to Mr. Reinhart’s challah.
Reinhart says to use instant yeast, but I only had active dry yeast. Stupidly, I didn’t look up the difference between the two until the first proofing of the dough, figuring they were pretty much the same thing. After googling this, I learned that instant yeast can be mixed right into the other ingredients (flour, etc), but active dry should be dissolved in water and left to sit for a few minutes before being added to other ingredients. One site said the dough might not rise as well; but I did not have that problem, as my dough almost hit the roof of the oven!
Besides this, I followed his recipe basically to a tee. My dough was on the drier side so I had to add the full 1 1/8 cups of water. It was quite supple to knead; I was surprised he suggested to knead it for 10 minutes though, which seemed long. The dough definitely more than doubled in size after proofing. I chose to shape the dough into one huge loaf (not realizing how HUGE it would be). I followed the braiding instructions, which indicated to begin braiding from the center, which actually makes sense so that both sides are even. I had just always begun from one end and evened the ends up afterwards, tucking the ends underneath the loaf (which Mr. Reinhart also suggests to do). I let this loaf rise, which it did extensively and then brushed the loaf with egg white wash once again. I actually didn’t whisk the egg whites so they were frothy (as instructed to do in the recipe) because I missed this detail. I wonder if they would have made a difference though…?
I baked the challah at 350 degrees for 20 minutes (at which point it looked done, a nice golden brown laminating the top. Yet Mr. Reinhart said to turn the loaf around and bake it for another 20-45 minutes!! I thought this was way too long. I did mine for about 15 minutes more, making sure not too get the crust too brown, but I wanted to ensure all the eggs were cooked through too.
Emerging from the oven, it was enormous but the most beautiful loaf of challah I’d ever seen and baked! Cutting into it after it cooled, it had a great texture, soft and airy on the inside with a crisp crunch of crust. I was a bit disappointed with the flavor though. This may be because I am used to the challah I usually make, but looking back at the recipe, Mr. Reinhart’s uses a lot less salt and sugar than most challah recipes do. Now I am a person who usually thinks a normal amount of sugar and salt (for most people) is too much. However, the flavor was a bit too subtle for all of the work and time that it took to make. Instead, this bread would be better tasting with a little jam or as sandwich bread or even French toast. I don’t know if the lack of flavor could have been due to the active dry yeast substitution, but I doubt it. My opinion is that there was a bit too little sugar and salt. A hint more of these ingredients could have brought out the other flavors in the bread as well.
I will probably not make this recipe again but it was definitely worth the time and effort with its beautiful presentation and terrific texture.