I rarely bake bread. When we lived in Jerusalem, we were just a short walk away from the Machane Yehuda souk, where the stands bulged with freshly baked challah on Fridays, their intoxicating fragrance distracting you from the list of vegetables you were also supposed to pick up, and you would just want to take every one home- the pale, soft white ones, their tops barely tinted gold from their short stint in the oven, their flesh puffy like biting into a marshmallow, and the ones with the firm, crispy crusts, destined to litter your table with crumbs, and recently, the stand that sells French-style challot, somber and serious with their pedigree, proud of their baguette-like pockets of air. Your bag already full, you head home, but can barely resist the ones this stand is selling, dark from whole wheat, studded with raisins, gleaming with honey.
When we lived in Beersheba, my walk home from campus in the evenings took me through winding little streets, the smells of freshly baked bread from our little neighborhood bakery guiding my way home. Sometimes, on Fridays, I would be greeted by a line of customers snaking around the corner, chatting while waiting for the next batch to make it out of the oven. The owner would warn us not to tie our bags, lest the piping hot challot sweat and shrivel up. Back home, I would lay them out on a rack, allowing them to cool and harden, giving our afternoon visitors the impression that I had just pulled these out of my oven. I didn’t always correct them.
Here in Brooklyn, I buy loaves of delicious multi-grain breads from LaBrea Bakery right in my supermarket, thick-crusted, and studded with seeds and grains, and bubbles of air. They are delicious and healthy, but they also remind me of my childhood, when my mother would pick my brother and I up from school and we would pay a quick visit to my father, whose office was just across the street from the original LaBrea Bakery. I don’t know if the visit to my father was an excuse to visit LaBrea Bakery, or vice versa, but we would get these little brioche breads, their tops glistening with a hardened hat of sugar, and bite into them on our ride home, the clack of the sugar giving way to puffy, yeasty dough. I don’t know if it was visiting my father in the middle of the day, or those sugary treats, or the fact that my mother always seemed so happy to go there, it must have reminded her of Paris, in those early days when she was living half way across the world from her own family, in a Los Angeles that had yet to discover freshly baked breads. Here in Brooklyn, Yaki loves the long and flat “hero” breads from our little Indian grocery store down the street, sweet smelling and soft, and I don’t know what they remind him of, but I do know that since we arrived here he does not want pitas.
Right now my freezer hosts a collection of at least half a dozen different varieties, ready to be toasted and slathered with cream cheese and jam (my favorite) or used to make Yaki’s favorite meal: sandwiches. So yes, it’s not easy to sell me on multi-hour multi-rises, when I can put on my coat, and walk down the street, a chat with the lady behind the counter a welcome break in my day. On my way home, I open the bag and inhale, and it’s almost just as good as having that smell wafting through my house. And, if you count the fact that there are no dishes, it might just be better.
It’s a hard one to convince, this taking up your apron and stepping into the kitchen 1950s-style to bake your own bread. But if you leave logic behind, and give it a try, you’ll be blown away by the magic of it.
First of all there’s the ingredient list: flour, sugar, eggs, yeast, water, a pinch of salt. Basic and cheap and raw, and you mix it together, kneading it back and forth, before you set it aside, and it rises and rises and RISES! You punch it down, and cover it again, leaving it in a nice warm spot, and you get on with your day, but in the back of your mind- the thought: there’s bread waiting for me! It’s rising! Soon it’s smell will permeate the house, and we’ll gather around the table, and break into it, hurriedly, forgetting the knife. When you’re ready- you can take your time, the bread will only improve if forgotten a little- you go back and visit, and braid it or shape it and leave it, again. But by now there’s a routine in this, and you feel a warm sense of accomplishment. A sense of providing. And now is when you start wondering why you don’t do this more often. And as you go about the rest of your day, you’re smiling, because it’s so close now, that moment when you’ll put the bread in the oven. And you don’t lose your patience standing in line at the bank, and you sweep your living room extra thoroughly. And finally the time has arrived, and you preheat the oven, and slip in your baking sheets, and you open the oven a little too often, in your excitement. And when the bread comes out, all golden and blushing in its glaze, you promise yourself you’ll do this again, very soon, because it relaxed you more than that walk in the botanical gardens in winter, and it infused your house with magic.
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Joan Nathan
I dialed the sugar down to ¼ cup, for just the faintest wisp of sweet, but feel free to use more if you would like sweeter challah. I left two of my challot plain, but inspired by my LaBrea Bakery multi-grain loaf, I played around a little and added fennel seeds to one, and fennel seeds plus millet to another.
Any of the three risings can be done in the fridge for a few hours, whether you’re headed out, or you want an even more developed flavor. Bring it back to room temperature when you’re ready to work with it again.
Time: about 1 hour, plus 2 ½ hours for rising
Yield: 4 loaves
1 ½ packages active dry yeast (1 ½ tablespoons)
1 tablespoon white sugar
¼- ½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups whole wheat flour
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling
Raisin: add ¼ cup raisins, per challah, plumped in hot water and drained
Fennel Seeds: add 1 tbs fennel seeds per challah
Fennel Seeds and Millet: add 1 tbs fennel seeds and 2 tbs millet per challah
1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 ¾ cups lukewarm water.
2. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, followed by brown sugar and salt. Gradually stir in the flour and stir until the dough holds together.
3. Lightly dust your countertop with flour, and place your dough on it, kneading until smooth. Clean your bowl and grease it with a little bit of oil, then return the dough to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for one hour, until almost doubled in size. (You can also let it rise in an oven that has been warmed to 150 degrees and then turned off). Punch dough down, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half hour.
4. Place the dough on your lightly floured counter, and divide it into four. This is when you can take the balls, one at a time, and add whatever you would like to them, kneading it into the dough. Now, braid your challah- I do a simple three-strand braid, as easy as braiding a little girl’s hair.
5. Place loaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet, with at least two inches in between. (If you’d like, you can freeze them at this point, taking them out 5 hours before baking). Otherwise, cover and let them rise for another hour.
6. Preheat oven to 375F/ 190C. (I like to place a pan half-filled with water at the bottom of the oven to create steam. If you do this, place the pan in the oven before preheating it, and remove it once the oven is cool). Beat remaining egg with a few drops of water, and brush it on the loaves. Sprinkle with seeds. (If I added millet or fennel to some of the loaves, I like to top those with additional millet or fennel, in addition to the seeds, to mark them).
7. Bake in the middle of your oven (or on two racks, alternating them half way through) for 30-40 minutes, until golden. (If you have an instant read thermometer, the breads are done when they hit 190 degrees. You can also check doneness by gently lifting the loaves and checking that the bottoms are golden and firm, and sound hollow when tapped on.) Cool loaves on a rack.